Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt had listed 13 demands on June 23, 2017, warning that there would be serious consequences if Qatar failed to yield by July 2. Qatar rejected the ultimatum and the four countries have not yet carried out their threats. Instead, they have softened their stand, vaguely signalling that it might be enough if Qatar were to accede to ‘Six Principles’. In short, there has been no escalation and we can clearly see a degree of de-escalation.
The June 23 demands were handed over in writing to Kuwait, the mediator, which then passed it on to Qatar. After the text of the demands was made public, the international community came to know about their unreasonableness. Doha has so far handled this crisis with admirable maturity and logic, scrupulously avoiding any action that can spoil its case. The world came to realise that the four countries wanted Qatar to surrender its sovereignty not just in the realm of foreign policy but also align its social, political and economic policies with that of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries.
Change in US policy
The four countries struck a fortnight after President Donald Trump’s elaborately choreographed visit to Riyadh. The effort was intended to project Saudi Arabia as the undisputed leader of the Muslim world. Initially, Trump tweeted his support for the move against Qatar and came in the way of his Secretaries of Defense and State who wanted to mediate and resolve the crisis. The two Secretaries finally prevailed and Trump stopped publicly supporting Saudi Arabia through tweets or otherwise. The State Department publicly rebuked Saudi Arabia on June 20 for resorting to an embargo against Qatar without justification. That public rebuke probably compelled the four countries to come out with their rather badly drafted set of demands three days later.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who must have met the GCC leaders in his previous avatar as CEO of ExxonMobil , visited Kuwait and Qatar on July 11-12. He signed an agreement with Qatar for preventing the flow of funds to support terrorism. Tillerson said that the two countries would work together ‘to interrupt, disable terror financing flows and intensify counterterrorism activities globally’.
Tillerson then went to Saudi Arabia where he met King Salman and the foreign ministers of the four countries ranged against Qatar. The meeting resulted in a statement welcoming the US-Qatar agreement, but made it clear that there was no question of easing the embargo till Qatar did more. In short, while there was no breakthrough, the four countries got a clear message that the US had taken a stand for an early resolution of the crisis – a position that favoured Qatar.
The European Reaction
Qatar received diplomatic support from European countries as well. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel declared that the 13 demands were ‘very provocative’ as they impinged on Qatar’s sovereignty. It may be recalled that Qatar’s Foreign Minister had visited Berlin on June 9 to seek German support. France also extended similar support. And the UK, predictably, took its cue from the US, with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visiting Kuwait and Qatar, without making much of an impact.
The climb-down by the four countries
Finding that the initial support from President Trump had disappeared, with Washington and the major European powers making it clear that Qatar was being unjustly treated, the foreign ministers of the four countries met in Cairo on July 5 and issued a declaration of ‘Six Principles’. These are: Commitment to combat extremism and terrorism in all its forms and to prevent their financing or the provision of safe havens; Prohibiting all acts of incitement and all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred and violence; Full commitment to Riyadh Agreement 2013 and the supplementary agreement and its executive mechanism for 2014 within the framework of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) for Arab States; Commitment to all the outcomes of the Arab-Islamic-US Summit held in Riyadh in May 2017; To refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of States and from supporting illegal entities; The responsibility of all states of international community to confront all forms of extremism and terrorism as a threat to international peace and security.
The declaration expressed appreciation to Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, emir of Kuwait, ‘for his efforts and endeavour to resolve the crisis with the State of Qatar and expressed sorrow over negligence, lack of seriousness and the negative response received by the State of Qatar to deal with the roots of the problem and not ready to reconsider its policies and practices, reflecting a lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation’.
Given that there was no explicit commitment to remove the blockade if Qatar abided by these terms, the only response these new ‘principles’ elicited from Qatar was that it was prepared to sit down and talk once the blockade is lifted.
Qatar’s Response to the Blockade
Qatar’s diplomatic response has been a study in resilience, imperturbability and patience. It has chosen not to retaliate in kind. The UAE continues to get natural gas from Qatar, an important source for its electricity and the power to run its aluminium plant. Doha has not expelled about 300,000 Egyptians, who continue to work in its territory. Qatar has constituted a Compensation Claims Committee to consolidate claims from Qatar Airways, banks, and others who have been affected by the blockade.
In the on-going war of attrition, the four countries have realised, presumably by now, that Qatar will not surrender. Nevertheless, Qatar would obviously like to see an early end of the blockade. The next GCC summit is due in Kuwait on December 5-6. The onus is on Kuwait and the US to find a ‘face-saving’ formula to resolve the situation. While the crisis seems to be de-escalating, there is no end in sight as yet.
(K P Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. He was ambassador of India to Qatar 1992-97. This article was published by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi on July 26.)