Monday, May 14, 2018

The 12th Al Jazeera Forum: Session 1 - The Gulf Crisis

The Gulf, the Arabs, and the World 
Amid Current Developments

On April 28-29, 2018, Al Jazeera held its 12th Forum providing an opportunity for leading scholars and other experts to discuss a variety of topics affecting the Arab world.  The website for the forum, @aljazeeraform, provides additional information and links to the videos of each session.  You can follow the Twitter coverage at #AJForum.

As I noted in my first post in this series, I am working from my notes, so I apologize in advance if I incorrectly paraphrase the remarks of any speaker. I was also reliant on the quality of the translation services and their audibility. Therefore, I am happy to make any needed edits to this summary.

For summaries of the other sessions see:
Session 1: A year since the start of the Gulf crisis: outcomes and potential courses.

Session focus:
Nearly a year has passed since the start of the Gulf crisis on 5 June 2017 with a land, sea and air blockade on Qatar initiated by a media campaign executed by the besieging countries. Despite Kuwait’s concentrated diplomatic efforts and the support of regional and international positions, the crisis still faces a standstill, continues to drain inter-Gulf relations and lowers the capital of the Arab Gulf both regionally and globally. The crisis between the Arab Gulf countries has affected the whole regional situation and has resulted in the formation of alignments and alliances of differing objectives and opposite agendas. It has created new power relations that will be difficult to surpass in the near future. The objective of this session is to review the outcomes of the Gulf Crisis and forecast developments in light of efforts to resolve it and the challenges hindering these efforts.

  • Majad Al Ansari, Professor of Political Sociology at Qatar University and Researcher at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI)
  • Abdulla Al Ghalani, Professor of Social Sciences at Oman Medical College
  • Faisal Abu Sulaib, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kuwait University
  • Cinzia Bianco, Senior Analyst at Gulf State Analytics
  • Mohamed Si Bachi, Professor of Political Science at the L'Ecole Nationale Superieure de Sciences Poltiques 
Key Points:

Prof. Al Ansari:  The blockade has shifted from a surprising event to a nearly year-long stalemate.  It has shown that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) cannot resolve a dispute, whether regional or international in affect.  With the GCC facing its "biggest crisis ever," people are predicting its disintegration.  The speaker predicts its survival, recognizing that it has served as the "hope of the people of the region." 

The Gulf is increasingly affected by the greater participation of France, Russia, and Africa.  

The region should be able to survive the Gulf crisis.  It is more stable compared to the MENA region and Africa.  It has handled significant crises since the 1970s, including the Iraqi war, the Kuwait invasion, the Yemeni war, and regional regime changes.

The blockade is not an isolated crisis, but ties back to historical tensions created by state borders created in the 1970s.  It reflects a conflict over political and economic resources.

The speaker noted that when Saudi Arabia is stronger, other GCC countries become weaker.  He referred to 1996, 1999, and 2003 as periods illustrating this dynamic.  In contrast, when Saudi Arabia is weaker, GCC countries gain strength.  

He acknowledged the success of the Kuwaiti mediator in avoiding a military invasion of Qatar.

The blockade created an opportunity Iran did not anticipate, for Iran to play a bigger role in the region.  The blockade focuses enmity within the GCC, rather than against Iran.

It could end if:
  • The GCC countries agree to its end, or
  • An economic recession forces resolution.  
    • It may affect the ability to attract foreign capital to the region. 
Prof. Faisal Abu Sulaib:  Sadly, no popular pressure can be exerted on the decision-makers involved in the siege.  Ending the siege is a personal decision of the King of Saudi Arabia. 

Two international variables are in play.  First, the Trump administration aligned with Saudi Arabia early in the siege.  Second, Saudi Arabia and UAE have used an effective lobbying effort designed to influence US policy in the region.

The blockading countries have not achieved their 13 demands with the siege.  They were never real demands.  Instead, the main objective of the blockading states was to change Qatari foreign policy by fostering a palace coup.

But, Qatar did not change its foreign policy to align with Saudi Arabia and UAE, especially as to Yemen.  However, Qatar has not had the ability to focus on foreign policy when its leaders have had to cope with the country's national security.

The blockading countries did not foster a palace coup.  Instead, Qatar showed more leadership stability, financial stability, and a more cohesive populace.  Saudi Arabia quickly abandoned this effort in the face of these facts.

The blockading countries have also failed at isolating Qatar, either regionally or internationally. It has moved the country closer to Iran.

The blockade has created new balances of power and alliances.  The four blockading countries are aligned against Turkey-Iran-Qatar.  At the same time, the US, France, and Britain aligned in agreeing to the strike in Syria following the use of chemical weapons by the Asad regime.

The "deep rift" created by the siege will not be closed easily or quickly.  The GCC is showing vulnerability with the new committee formed by Saudi Arabia and UAE.

Saudi Arabia and UAE played an increasing role in the GCC after the Arab Spring at the expense of smaller Gulf states.

If Qatar successfully resolves the blockade, it will offer a model for other small countries in the region and world-wide, like Luxembourg, Singapore, and South Korea.

Potential outcomes include:
  • Escalation, either with military invasion or a media war.  
    • The threatened water canal between Saudi Arabia and Qatar could aid Qatar's defense.
  • Stagnation and stalemate with GCC becoming a symbolic entity with little influence, like the Arab Maghreb Union.
  • Resolution of the dispute.  The Trump administration seeks a resolution because of its interests in Syria. 
Prof. Abdulla Al Ghailani:  The thirteen demands were never convincing.  The crisis has deeper roots including the coup attempt in 1996 [against Father Emir Hamad] and the hegemonic ambitions of Saudi Arabia.

The blockading countries sought to undermine Qatar's sovereignty by targeting its soft power.

After 2011, Saudi Arabia's ambitions created a broader regional crisis. It seeks to maintain an authoritarian rule, which was threatened by the demands of the protesters during the Arab Spring. 

If Saudi Arabia experiences success in the Yemen war, the Qatar crisis could go unresolved.  However, if Saudi Arabia experiences setbacks there, then the Qatari blockade could end.

What are the results after nearly a year after the onset of the blockade?
  • US is extorting investments and expenditures from Gulf countries because the region is weaker and more exposed to international influence.
  • It has cast a shadow over the political reforms in the GCC.  
    • Kuwait and Oman are making progress, but retreated from their efforts after the onset of the crisis.  
    • The blockading countries have justified more authoritarian actions because "we are in crisis."  
    • They are preventing dissenting points of views. 
  • Created a psyche of fear and panic in Oman and Kuwait.  People there feared the use of a military option in the Gulf.  These small countries could be the next targets of Saudi Arabia's hegemonic ambitions.
  • Created a schism in the populace of the region.
  • Exposed the Gulf regimes as barbaric and ready to use a blockade, coup, or military intervention to achieve their goals.
  • Exposed the inability of the GCC to handle conflicts.  It was not designed for that purpose. 
    • Qatar and other GCC countries have had to go to international forums for resolution of prior issues.
Future paths:
  • Military intervention to subjugate Qatar.  Not likely give US desires and the neutrality of Kuwait and Oman.
  • Fragile political agreements with the possibility of a later explosion of the crisis.
  • Most likely:  Gradual attrition or stalemate.  This situation could affect Qatar long term and force it to respond partially to some demands.
  • Not likely to see a change by Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Bahrain.
  • Could be impacted by outcome of 2020 US elections.
  • Kuwait and Oman stated neutrality, but can exert pressure on Saudi Arabia and UAE.
  • Saudi Arabia and UAE could expand their hegemony to Kuwait and Oman. 
Also in the mix is how the Yemen, Libya, and Syrian conflicts affect the Gulf crisis?

Cinzia Bianco:  The European Union views this crisis as negative and "not helpful."

The EU:

  • Considers nuclear deal with Iran important and worries that Trump is putting it under remarkable stress, with encouragement from Saudi Arabia.
  • Is concerned about the fragmentation of the region, especially in Africa, Yemen, and Syria.
  • Views US as less trustworthy.
  • Is confused about the US commitment to the geopolitical balance in the region.
  • Is impacted more than the US by events in the Arab world.

The EU was created to enhance economic and social cooperation and ties to help prevent violent conflicts among European states.
  • The Gulf Cooperating Council (GCC) focused on enhanced economic cooperation, but did not prevent the Qatari crisis. 
    • Viewed by the EU as a blow to its own strategy.
The UK:

  • is dependent on the Gulf for 30 percent of its gas supply [check this].
  • Qatar, in turn, is a big investor in UK real estate and infrastructure.
  • Accordingly, the UK is in a difficult position.  It can not take the lead in resolution of the dispute.  It can not be seen as taking sides. 
  • In addition, the UK is focused on BREXIT.
  • Maintains a strong relationship with all GCC countries.
  • President Macron has tried to "rebalance" the relationship.
  • But, he has no real capacity to force an end to the siege.
The EU may be forced to play a more active role if Saudi Arabia and the UAE try to impose their will on Kuwait and Oman.

Prof. Mohamed Si Bachir:  Third speaker to highlight how the blockade extended beyond diplomatic relations and government actors to the people of the Gulf, especially Qataris.

Several speakers, including this speaker, mentioned the "Iranian project" and the "Turkish project,"  which seem to refer to more aggressive foreign policies that extend the geopolitical influence of these countries.

This speaker expressed concerns that Gulf states had failed to build robust states and to create a social contract bringing dignity to the peoples of the region.  Instead, they created strategic partnerships with stronger countries from outside the region. These partnerships, however, are not necessarily helpful to the Arab world. 

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pressured Oman and Kuwait for a harmonious regional policy.  Oman and Kuwait responded by declaring their neutrality in the dispute.  Both countries are closer to the policy of Qatar given their own national security reasons.  

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