Lessons from the Gulf crisis
03 Aug 2017 - 17:44
The Gulf crisis, which was provoked by the United States and escalated with the blockade of Qatar by four countries led by Saudi Arabia in June, has undergone quite a bit of change since its beginning.
It remains unsolved, and an immediate solution should not be expected, either. Multiple parties with different demands are involved in the problem, which has given rise to global repercussions, and not only regional ones.
The heavy sanctions put in place even before the formation of the list of things to be demanded from Qatar, the international system’s failure to take the problem seriously at its outset and even taking almost a sympathetic approach to the demands of the four states have catered to the process by which the problem has become seemingly intractable.
The problem has been discussed at length. But what has not received as much coverage nor attention is what the parties involved have gained or failed to gain from this crisis and even what they have lost, as well as what kind of lessons can and cannot be derived from the process.
It is naturally not easy to come up with answers to an ongoing issue. But certain hints that we have allow me to make a number of evaluations.
Main actors: US and Saudi Arabia
Coming out of a very tense election process, Donald Trump made Saudi Arabia the destination of his first visit abroad, and as he came back home with a $400-billion gain, he sparked off a crisis.
In fact, although it is possible to partially identify the precipitator in every crisis by discerning the beneficiary, this time around the US has come out the loser in the long run, contrary to what many had initially thought. To date, in the eyes of the people in the region, the US’s double standards have never been so obvious. Already aware of their dwindling prestige, senior policymakers in the US took immediate action by sending messages to the Gulf above the Pentagon and the State Department in an attempt to rectify their image.
And right at that moment did they activate an old deal with Qatar regarding the sale of air defense systems: as a first step, the US endorsed the sale of $30-billion-worth of fighter jets to Qatar, which had now been declared an enemy both in words and deeds in its region.
No foreign policy concept developed by US academics to make sense of the maneuvers taking place in the new world order post-World War II has been able to explain the US’s tendency to take such hasty actions and even its attempts to change course so often.
We can, however, argue that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated in emotional oriental societies and will even create a boomerang effect in the long run.
Even though Saudi Arabia seems to have provoked the crisis in the first place, we should scrutinise the level of consciousness in the steps it has taken throughout the crisis, which is a question that has also remained relevant throughout. We wonder if Saudi Arabia has launched a ‘psycho-historical’ attack against Qatar, which is an extension of Saudi Arabia’s own region, where it has been trying to make its presence felt and act independently of Saudi Arabia and the regional balances also established by Saudi Arabia.
These questions have been partly discussed up to now, but they will surely be discussed further in the future. Nonetheless, we hardly find anybody voicing another fact; a fact that caused Saudi Arabia to take this step in the first place.
JASTA (Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act), passed in the U.S. Congress in May 2016, was actually former President Barack Obama’s way of blackmailing Saudi Arabia in his attempts to satisfy the victims of the 9/11 attacks as well as the US public and to increase his popularity before he would shortly finish his term.
JASTA envisaged the punishment of foreigners / foreign countries that supported terrorist activities against US citizens. Moreover, Article 7 directly covered the 9/11 incidents. In those days, it was leaked that the reports drawn up in international circles actually targeted Saudi Arabia. Although the real reasons behind the 9/11 attacks have remained a mystery as well as whether there were Saudi sponsors behind them, the fact that the perpetrators were Saudi nationals demonstrates that this law was passed to directly target Saudi Arabia.
Among the reasons for the tensions between Saudi Arabia and the US during the Obama period were also such discussions behind closed doors. That’s why we are not prophesying when we assume that it was Saudi Arabia that most strongly desired that Trump become the next US president, because they had begun to think that this process would become more easily manageable during a Trump presidency.
For the first time in a US presidential election, a candidate was being disparaged like never before by the sitting president and all those around him, using all their powers to this end. So Saudi Arabia figured that if he should ever be elected, he might be more resistant than others to the laws passed during the tenure of his predecessor.
And it was an accurate calculation. As a matter of fact, right after being elected, Trump developed an attitude against some of the laws made during the Obama era that were of interest to US citizens, and this attitude gave hope to Saudi Arabia.
What they failed to foresee, however, was that a law like JASTA could not be easily pushed aside. Actually, it was as if this law had been made so tough with a great haggler such as Trump in mind. This law, according to some analysts, would require the demanding of nearly $1 trillion from Saudi Arabia. It is not hard to imagine that this sum was the main US bargaining chip both during Muhammad bin Salman’s visit to the US to congratulate the new president on being elected and during the latter’s visit to the Gulf.
By promising to buy $400-billion-worth of weapons and ammunition, Saudi Arabia has — for the time being — spared itself the compensation that it would normally have to pay up as a result of all the JASTA-related blackmailing and pressure; it has at the same time warded off the danger of being isolated from the international community.
But JASTA was hanging there, above their heads, just like Damocles’ sword that could be used any time. Therefore, a regional scale-model of JASTA, that is, the Center for Combating Radical Ideas, was inaugurated with great pomp and circumstance before the eyes of the entire world and it was pretty quick to find a scapegoat: Qatar, whose problems with Saudi Arabia had been so blatantly obvious since 2012; Qatar, who they tried to ‘discipline’ with an eight-month standoff in 2014 and who was branded as a potential culprit by some of the regional countries.
Interestingly, the Twitter statement Trump made on his way back from the Gulf visit — “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!” — an attitude that violates all established norms of courtesy observed in international relations, further escalated the crisis.
Perhaps, as in 2014, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries could seek solutions by dealing with the problem in its due course and in so doing could as well ward off the pressures getting more and more intense on Saudi Arabia, but they scrapped the plan upon Trump’s statement and launched the ongoing blockade, which has so far yielded no results.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, its satellite state, the UAE, which propped up the counter moves in every field where Qatar has been actively involved since the Arab Spring, and the Egyptian government, which has survived to date thanks to the joint support of the Gulf countries, believed that they would pull off an easy win.
They were seeking not only international gains, but also ones that would send the right messages to their societies. But it turned out that these countries, each of which had a different set of demands and expectations, did not have unity among themselves.
Side actors: Turkey and Iran
The Gulf Crisis has also confirmed that a solution to any regional problem is not possible without two particular Muslim countries that are the main actors of the Arab regional order, that can even be considered as regional powers, that are non-Arab but represent two different traditions: Turkey and Iran.
Turkey has contributed greatly to letting the crisis die down with the determination it has displayed and the balanced politics it has followed since the beginning of the crisis as well as by speedily helping a number of military deals to be entered into force that would promote regional peace in particular.
This, in turn, has partially restored — particularly in the context of the Gulf — the popularity it has lost since 2012 in the eyes of the regional publics due to the various defamation campaigns against it.
Despite the heavy dose of animosity in the Gulf against Turkey still being stirred up on social media and behind closed doors through various lobbies, Turkey’s intermediary role and authoritative and prevailing attitude are accepted and recognized by the societies in question to a large extent, further consolidating the conviction that there could be no future in the region without Turkey.
We see, on the other hand, that Iran, albeit targeted by many, has not exercised the aggressive and escalatory politics that it usually implements at times of crisis, and preferred to stick to a more realistic line. This attitude, of course, does not eradicate all the problems that it triggered or is a party to in the region, yet it signals that it could become a solution partner in future crises. This attitude will not escape the attention of the next generation of Gulf leaders and will allow them to develop more collaborative politics in this region, which they will be sharing for many more years to come.
Dimensions of crisis: Contradictions between global-regional relations
The Gulf/Qatar crisis has once again proved that the actions set in motion by global powers in international politics do not always generate the expected result. Regional relations are at least as important as global ones. As in the case of Qatar, a small state is able to play an effective role in shaping the regional balance and order with the relationships it has established.
As a matter of fact, it has now been better understood with this crisis that Qatar has developed all its policies since 1995 around such an axis. The argument that it has been “biting off more than it can chew” has been proven wrong to a large extent.
It is, on the other hand, sure that Qatar has been made to suffer a lot in this process. The perception of equality it once achieved in the international order despite being a small state, and even its prestige has been seriously undermined, not to mention the economic losses and its now-disoriented future plans. But for the first time it had an opportunity to test the policy that it devised itself. Moreover, Qatar achieved a rapid consolidation inside, proving that the Emir H H Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s administration is here to stay.
Qatar has also further strengthened the position of its young Emir within the system — actually too young for the Gulf administrative traditions and always expected to obey in the GCC because of this — and rendered him an indispensable factor in all Gulf affairs. A controversy over age between the old and young kings/emirs that broke out when the Emir H H Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani took over in 2013 has thus been eliminated as well.
In fact, this situation has brought out the competition between the younger Gulf leaders of the future. As Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has become the crown prince and even a semi-king in this process, the Emir of the UAE has been largely pushed back behind the curtain, carrying his son Mohammed bin Zayed to the forefront.
In the near future, this young generation of leaders will comprise most of the Gulf leadership, with the old generation desiring to interfere in state affairs, and the one to be most affected by this tendency will be Mohammed bin Salman, who has the largest extended family. In the same manner, the influence of the Abu Dhabi emirate, which is respected and recognised by all of the emirates that form the UAE, and the Al Nahyan family, the founding element of this emirate, will finally be subject to be questioned.
Among these young leaders, the Emir of Qatar has gained a significant advantage. However, it seems difficult for him to maintain this advantage on his own. Apparently aware of this, Emir Tamim has signaled that he will be basing his relations with Europe on a more investment-oriented ground rather than the current ‘rentier state’ mentality. He is also taking his relations with Turkey to a whole new level.
All in all, the Gulf crisis has taught an important lesson to the regional countries and proved yet once again that the world is no longer governed by the US alone. Although what has so far transpired seems to have estranged the regional countries further from one another in the short run, it has allowed them to appreciate their own realities as well as those of the ‘other’, which is also a party to this problem.
Their own experience has demonstrated that the culture of crisis is not a solution to anything. A period longer than usual is needed for this crisis to end because of the psychological reasons created by the emotionalism that prevails over the politics of the regional societies; yet the lessons that should be taken are emerging one by one.
The writer is head of the History Department at the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Foundation University. He is also president of the Association of Researchers on the Middle East and Africa (ORDAF).