Two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia and her allies gave Qatar a twelve-day deadline to accept a list of 13 demands to disarm the crisis sparked on June 5, when the small peninsular nation, one of the richest in the world, was accused of financing terrorist organizations. Today, the deadline was extended for two more days, up to late Tuesday, although Riyadh reiterated that if the demands are not met further sanctions will be enacted, the agency Reuters reports.
The political situation in the wider Middle East has always been complex, but the developments after the start of the Syrian Civil War have turned the region into a proverbial powder keg. It comes as no surprise that the smaller regional players are getting caught in the middle, and Qatar, located on the coast of the Persian Gulf, literally stands between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Still, Qatar is part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a union of the traditionally Sunni countries on the western side of the Persian Gulf, which exists mostly to counterbalance the presence of the predominantly Shia Iran on the eastern side. These countries are strong oil and natural gas suppliers to the rest of the world, making any crisis involving them of great importance to the international community.
Even so, three of the GCC countries, the aforementioned Saudi Arabia and also Bahrein and the United Arab Emirates, along with an external actor, Egypt, were the ones to accuse Qatar early in the last month, and severe economic ties with Doha.
Among the demands are the cessation of financing terrorist organizations, the termination of the Arab news network Al-Jazeera, abating interactions with Iran, and the deactivation of the Turkish military base in Qatar, the latter of which brings yet another layer to the whole crisis.
There are two large foreign military bases within Qatari territory. The Al Udeid Air Base is the largest the United States has in the Middle East, and the Turkish military has its own base in the peninsula, its first in Arab territory. President Erdogan’s Turkey is another major player in the ongoing power struggle within the Middle East, competing directly with Saudi Arabia and Iran. In fact, during the last month, the Turkish government kept sending supplies and more troops to Qatar through this very military base.
Riyadh is also concerned with the Iranian involvement in the region, and even Sunni movements, and that is where most of the contention regarding Qatar stems from.
Tehran is supporting the rebels in Yemen, just south of Saudi Arabia, and has troops in Syria, to the north. This is seen as an attempt to encircle the country and, thus, Saudi Arabia has made efforts to dilute Iranian influence over Arab countries. Even so, Doha has strongly denied being as close to Iran as the accusation implies, and it should be noted that the Qatari royal house is Sunni-aligned.
Moreover, the Saudi royal house follows a Sunni sect named Wahhabism, classified as ultra-conservative and which is decried by other elements of the same faith. On the other hand, the Qatari royal house is sympathetic towards the Islamic Brotherhood, a movement which is usually seen as a more ‘progressive’ form of Sunni Islam, and which was at the center of the revolution and the presidential crisis in Egypt a few years ago.
This support to the Islamic Brotherhood is surely one of the greatest concerns for Riyadh, especially given how much the movement criticizes Wahhabism, denouncing it as “non-Islamic.” In response, Saudi Arabia has accused the movement of being a terrorist organization.
This growing crisis has sparked fears that this list of demands could lead to a situation like the one involving Serbia in 1914, which caused the outbreak of World War I. The Trump administration has shown concern, and the German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has appealed for “serious dialogue”, according to the Agence France-Presse.
If Qatar does find the need to defend itself, it may resort to its modern military forces, and recently ordered advanced Rafale and F-15 jets from France and the USA respectively. Still, these forces are too small to withstand a fight against Saudi Arabia, much less her allies. Nevertheless, the Saudis do admit that the presence of NATO and Turkish troops do complicate things.
For now, what is certain is that if the demands are not met by Tuesday, Qatar will suffer additional, but still undetermined, sanctions.
[Featured Image by Maggie Hyde/AP Images]