AP Analysis: Qatar crisis exposes a long Gulf family fight

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Gulf Arab nations often get considered one giant family, as many ruling tribes intermarried and have long ties stretching back to the days before oil turned dusty fishing villages into skyscraper-studded metropolises.

But if the last day has proven anything, it’s that every family fights.

The diplomatic standoff between Qatar and its neighbors has exposed longstanding faults running just under the surface of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional body meant to serve as a counterbalance to Iran.

None of the key countries — Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — appears to be backing down, calling into question the unity of the council just as it seeks to portray itself as standing up to Iran.

“The new hawkish policy reflects an end to decades-long tradition in the Gulf Cooperation Countries that seeks to maintain dialogue irrespective of policy differences,” wrote Ayham Kamel, Middle East director at the Eurasia Group, calling the damage to Gulf relations “irreparable.”

“Saudi Arabia’s relationship with President Trump is the linchpin of Riyadh’s new approach. The implicit message to all the Gulf leaders is that Saudi Arabia remains the center of gravity in Gulf affairs.”

The Gulf Cooperation Council, known by the acronym GCC, formed in 1981 in the wake of Iran’s Islamic Revolution overthrowing the shah and installing its clerically overseen government. By the time ink dried on the agreement, Iraq had already invaded Iran, sparking a long, bloody war between the two countries that spilled into the waters of the Persian Gulf and worrying the Sunni Arab members of the council.

Typically, heavyweight Saudi Arabia has dictated major foreign policy decisions across the council, which is headquartered in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam, views itself as the protector of the Sunni faith as well. Both it and the United Arab Emirates also view themselves as providing the military power necessary to counter Iran, especially after the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran struck with world powers.

But there always have been cracks. The sultanate of Oman long has maintained its distance, serving as a crucial go-between Iran and the West. Kuwait, home to Shiites and Sunnis living together in peace, has served as a mediator as well.

But while those countries quietly stand apart, Qatar has gone loud. While practicing Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative version of Islam standard in Saudi Arabia, Qatar allows women to drive and foreigners to drink alcohol.

Qatar openly embraces officials from the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist group that other Gulf nations view as a threat to their hereditary rule. It maintains relations with Iran as it shares a massive offshore natural gas field with the Islamic Republic. And its Doha-based Al-Jazeera news network didn’t hesitate to go hard after autocratic rulers amid the protests of the 2011 Arab Spring.

That, coupled with long-standing allegations from the West of Qatar allowing or even encouraging funding of Sunni extremists, appear to be what finally tipped Saudi Arabia and others into taking action. Even U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to line up with them in a tweet Tuesday, writing: “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end of the horror of terrorism.”

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani warned that the crisis raised “a big question mark” about the Gulf council.

“This brings about real questions about the future of the GCC nations, which are basically one people who share the same language and have extensive family ties among its people,” he told Al-Jazeera. “That said, however, we reject that some in the GCC are trying to impose their will on Qatar or intervene in its internal affairs.”

Despite Sheikh Mohammed’s strong words, Qatar is vulnerable. It imports the majority of its food, much of it over its now-shut land border with Saudi Arabia.

Emirati and Saudi government officials have offered no specifics about what they hope to achieve with isolating Qatar. However, there have been some suggestions.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, an outspoken member of the ruling family of the sheikhdom of Sharjah in the UAE, wrote Monday that “it is likely that this time the Gulf states will demand the complete shuttering of the Al-Jazeera TV network before any mediation can take place.” He also identified other Qatari media outlets that could be closed, as well as said Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas members would need to be expelled.

“It must de-escalate the media coverage and must sever ties with extremist groups including, but not only, the Muslim Brotherhood and groups in Yemen,” Al Qassemi wrote in a column for Newsweek’s website. “Judging by the Qatari reaction so far, it seems the Gulf states’ patience will be tested.”

That’s toned down compared to other columns, which include one in the Saudi government-aligned daily newspaper Arab News calling Qatari officials “pathological liars.” Others warned that Qatar stood on a diplomatic precipice.

“Qatar cannot continue to face two ways, supporting groups and regimes that are actively harming the region,” Abu Dhabi’s state-owned The National newspaper opined in an editorial Tuesday. “The GCC is a club, with common goals. If Qatar cannot agree with those goals, it should not hope to remain part of the club.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: Jon Gambrell, an Associated Press reporter since 2006, has covered the Middle East from Cairo and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, since 2013. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap. His work can be found at http://apne.ws/2galNpz.