The boycott of Qatar by Arab countries is of no use to anyone at the moment. Will the countries reach a compromise or will war break out?
Dead in the water: The border crossing from Qatar to Saudi Arabia is not very busy at the moment Photo: reuters
Can the current conflict over the small emirate of Qatar actually lead to war? At any rate, this was the concern expressed by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung over the weekend. The way the Gulf states treat each other is "dramatic," he said.
Basically, three scenarios are possible at the moment:
1. sitting out
The most likely scenario is that Qatar simply sits out the conflict with the help of its enormous cash reserves and its big regional friends, Iran and Turkey. Both have stepped in with food supplies in recent days to close shortages. After initial panic buying, the supply situation in Qatar has since calmed down.
The sea route remains open to Qatar, as well as the much more expensive air supply, but Qatar, one of the richest countries in the world, can afford it for a while. Qatar’s Finance Minister Ali Sharif al-Emadi was emphatically confident and calm in a TV interview, saying that his country has the financial means to absorb the shockwaves of the conflict. The emirate’s reserves and investment funds are equivalent to more than 250 percent of its gross domestic product, the minister said. Selling shares in major Western companies is not on the table at the moment, he assured.
Thus, Qatar does not feel any direct pressure to act at present. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s new tough policy is not without controversy even in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Both Kuwait and Oman have not joined the Saudi agenda against the emirate. Qatar will certainly try to exploit these contradictions and will hope that international pressure against the blockade will grow.
The second possibility is that Saudi Arabia actually manages to force Qatar to make concessions, for example, in its relationship with Iran or regarding its support for Islamist organizations. Such a compromise would also allow Saudi Arabia to get out of the matter without losing face.
Kuwait could play an important role here as a mediator. A Kuwaiti statement cryptically reads, "Our brothers in Qatar understand the reality of their brothers’ concerns and will support all honorable attempts to improve security and stability." In other words, Qatar may be willing to make concessions.
However, Saudi Arabia’s demands are not even clear on this. Should Qatar cut all its ties with Iran? The mere fact that the two countries jointly exploit a huge gas field would speak against such a step. The Qatari-financed al-Jazeera television station is also a thorn in the side of the Saudis, but here, too, there are no concrete public demands on the table. It is also possible that Qatar will expel some representatives of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or the Palestinian Hamas in order to counter accusations that the emirate supports radical Islamist organizations.
It may well be that all sides will agree on some cosmetic measures with the help of Kuwaiti mediation, and in a few days we will again see pictures of the sheikhs, kings and emirs in the Gulf kissing each other’s foreheads in conciliation.
The third scenario is the one Gabriel feared, that the dispute could actually escalate into a regional war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
At least for now, that is rather unlikely. Qatar itself is anxious not to add fuel to the fire and has not, for example, initiated any countermeasures. Saudi Arabia, the United Emirates and Egypt had asked Qatari citizens to leave their countries within two weeks. Despite thousands of Egyptian guest workers in the country, Qatar has not been tempted to issue an exit notice. Even Iran reacted calmly.
In addition, the escalation is not uncontroversial even within Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Europe, too, is not interested in an intensification of the conflict. The interests of the oil markets stand in the way of such a development.
The great unknown remains the United States. Contradictory signals are coming from there. Initially, President Donald Trump had offered to invite the feuding "Gulf parties" to the White House. But on Friday, he again described Qatar in a tweet as a sponsor of terrorism and supported the blockade of the Gulf states.
There is also little coordination in the statements between U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his White House boss. While Tillerson on Friday called on Gulf states to ease their blockade on Qatar because of its humanitarian consequences and the fact that it hinders U.S. military ventures, Trump just an hour later again criticized Qatar as a "financier of terrorism at the highest level."
As for the military interests addressed by Tillerson, the U.S. maintains the largest military presence in the Middle East in Qatar, with the Al-Udeid air base. It is also the base of U.S. Central Command in the region, which is responsible for operations from Egypt to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both the U.S. and British air forces fly missions against IS from al-Udeid. Strategically, therefore, Washington should also be interested in resolving the conflict.