Pilgrims and plots: The Continuing Qatar-GCC Dispute

Saudi Arabia has brought a measure of relief to the Arabian peninsula after announcing that it will welcome Qatari pilgrims during this year’s Hajj pilgrimage, having temporarily opened the blockaded Salwa border crossing. Despite claims by some that this signals an easing of the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC-member Bahrain’s state television has concurrently accused Qatar of playing a role in instigating anti-government protests in the island nation during the Arab Spring uprisings. At this stage it appears more likely that the issues of Hajj and the blockade are seen as entirely separate by Saudi Arabia, and that the isolation of Qatar will continue to persist.

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The desert border crossing at Salwa has been shut since Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in June, accusing the small-but-wealthy nation of supporting Islamist extremist groups. The border closure, along with air and sea blockades, revealed significant vulnerabilities in a nation of 2.6 million citizens with a sovereign wealth fund of $330bn, causing panic-runs on supermarkets and the stockpiling of food and water. Riyadh’s announcement that Hajj pilgrims would be permitted to cross the border, agreed following the visit to the city by Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim al Thani, was seen by many as a sign that the crisis is thawing, especially as King Salman himself had offered the use of a fleet of private aircraft to transport pilgrims. Around 120 Qataris passed through the Salwa border following the announcement, and the government separately allocated seven flights of the Saudi national carrier to bring pilgrims from Doha.

Despite appearing to offer temporary respite from the crisis, the dispute escalated once again following Saudi Arabia’s demand that Qataris wanting to perform hajj would only be allowed to enter the kingdom on Saudi-owned airlines. Doha then denied a claim from Saudi Arabian Airlines that Qatari authorities had refused to allow its flights to land at Hamad International Airport, sparking a row over airline access. Doha has claimed that the pilgrimage is been used as political ammunition in the wider dispute.

Meanwhile, Bahrain has highlighted the GCC bloc’s continuing displeasure with Qatar, and Bahrain’s state TV channel has accused Qatar of coordinating with the kingdom’s main opposition grouping to stoke anti-government unrest during the Arab Spring uprisings that gripped the Arabian Gulf island nation in 2011. The TV channel revealed supposed recordings of calls between former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al Thani and the Bahraini Wefaq political movment’s leader Ali Salman, in which they supposedly agree to an “escalation”. Wefaq has denied the authenticity of the recording, stating that the television report was an attempt by the Bahraini government to prolong the detention of its leader, who has been imprisoned since 2015.

The Hajj announcement is more likely an indication of Saudi Arabia’s keenness to avoid letting the diplomatic crisis impact its role as administrator of Islam’s holiest sites, which would risk damaging its regional image at a time when Riyadh seeks to cement its position as leader of the Arab world. The Hajj is an incredibly important part of the Islamic faith and involves a pilgrimage to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, the most revered site in Islam, and must be performed at least once by each Muslim. The 2017 Hajj begins in September and is expected to see at least 2 million participants travel to the Kingdom from around the world.

With Qatar’s wealthy economy so far remaining intact through the crisis, and efforts at mediation by Oman unsuccessful, the crisis is set to persist for the foreseeable future. Qatar’s stock market fell by 10% (about $15bn) in market value over the first four weeks of the crisis, however it has since recovered 6% of its pre-crisis value.

Despite the somewhat unified GCC efforts against Doha, Qatar has also managed to maintain ties with unexpected nations throughout the crisis. Somalia reportedly turned down a Saudi offer of $80 million in June to maintain ties with Doha and to allow Qatari aircraft access to Somalian airspace. Less surprisingly, given a long history of neutrality in regional disputes, Oman has also remained impartial and diplomatically open to both the GCC and Qatar. While shipping costs to Qatari importers have increased dramatically, Qatar has begun shipping cargo through Oman to get around the restrictions on access to ports in the UAE. Qatar’s famous sport of camel racing has also managed to weather the crisis, with Emirati camels continuing to arrive in Doha despite the blockade by way of Omani intermediaries. Turkey and Iran have also launched a large-scale program of food shipments to Qatar to help relieve the pressure.

Despite these at-times strange sources of respite from the crisis, Doha continues to remain cut off from ties with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, the Maldives and General Haftar’s Eastern government of Libya. Although the Qatari economy remains sturdy, Qatar is dependent on imports, and roughly 40% of its food came via the Salwa border crossing with Saudi Arabia prior to the crisis.

Qatar is faced with a 13-point list of demands by the GCC that many have claimed will be unachievable by Doha. These demands include:

  • Curbing diplomatic ties with Iran and the closure of diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from Qatar and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade and commerce with Iran that complies with U.S. and international sanctions will be permitted.

This is one of the most important demands of the list, with Saudi Arabia having long been cautious of growing Iranian influence south of the Gulf.

  • Severing all ties to “terrorist organisations,” specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State group, al Qaeda, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Formally declare those entities as terrorist groups.
  • Stop all means of funding for individuals, groups or organisations that have been designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, the United States and other countries.
  • Hand over “terrorist figures” and wanted individuals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain to their countries of origin. Freeze their assets, and provide any desired information about their residency, movements and finances.
  • End interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Stop granting citizenship to wanted nationals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Revoke Qatari citizenship for existing nationals where such citizenship violates those countries’ laws.
  • Stop all contacts with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Hand over all files detailing Qatar’s prior contacts with and support for those opposition groups.
  • Pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other, financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies in recent years. The sum will be determined in coordination with Qatar.

Qatar has long been accused of providing financial and material aid to terrorist groups, in particular in the Syria conflict, and political opposition movements around the region (often seen as one and the same by the GCC monarchies). With extremist Islam and post-Arab Spring political movements being some of the most significant and dangerous sources of opposition to the Gulf monarchies, this has made the GCC uncomfortable with Qatar’s involvement in their funding.

  • Shut down the Al Jazeera media outlet and its affiliate stations.
  • Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby Al Jadeed and Middle East Eye.

Al Jazeera and other Qatari-funded news outlets have repeatedly proven problematic for the GCC and its allies, having published significant criticisms against the general trend of more censored regional media outlets. Egypt has been particularly concerned with Al Jazeera, and has long sought the closure of the outlet.

  • Immediately terminate the Turkish military presence currently in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside of Qatar.
  • Align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially and economically, as well as on economic matters, in line with an agreement reached with Saudi Arabia in 2014.

Despite also hosting a large U.S. military contingent at Al Udeid air base, close U.S-GCC ties have made these forces a predictable addition to the GCC’s security situation. The presence of Turkish forces, however, is not one that could be reliably counted on by the bloc, including in the event of armed conflict with Iran.

  • Agree to all the demands within 10 days of it being submitted to Qatar, or the list becomes invalid. The document doesn’t specify what the countries will do if Qatar refuses to comply.
  • Consent to monthly audits for the first year after agreeing to the demands, then once per quarter during the second year. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.

This date has now long since passed, however updated demands have yet to be issued as clearly. This indicates that the list remains valid from the GCC point of view.

The addition of the Bahrain recordings to this crisis is only likely to exacerbate the problem at this stage, and with the Bahraini Public Prosecutor investigating, any findings that indict Doha will have an outsize impact on Qatar’s diplomatic isolation. With little tangible movement having been made by either side beyond token gestures, it is unlikely that the crisis will conclude in the near future.

Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific in a variety of geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently focuses on MENA-region geopolitical and security analysis.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

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