The point of no return?

The crisis between Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the one hand and Qatar on the other appears to be approaching tipping point. The possibility of Doha's departure from the GCC and new alliances with Turkey and Iran is likely to trigger major shifts in the regionʹs balance of power. By Stasa Salacanin

By Stasa Salacanin

With no resolution to the Gulf crisis in sight, the question of Qatar's departure from the GCC is becoming ever more relevant. Despite strong criticism aimed at the Qatari leadership and sporadic calls from some of the Arab quartet states for the expulsion of Qatar from the GCC, formal ejection of Doha from the block would pose a serious challenge for the Saudis and UAE, especially following Doha-Tehran rapprochement and ever closer Qatar-Ankara relations.

Opening another front on the Saudi-UAE doorstep would require additional resources, especially if Oman and Kuwait were to follow Qatarʹs example. Instead, the Saudis have been trying to isolate Qatar as much as possible, yet with little or no success.

It is also unclear whether Kuwait and Oman will fall into step and accept Saudi-UAE dominance, especially in the light of the UAEʹs December announcement, which foresaw a new economic and security partnership with the Saudis, separate from the rest of the GCC. This reflects the deep divisions among the Gulf states and ultimately casts doubt over the future – indeed, the very existence – of the GCC.

Pragmatic rapprochement with Iran

Since the blockade began, Qatar has signed a number of new military, security, commercial and other agreements. Qatarʹs rapprochement with Iran and Turkey is especially significant: some analysts see in this the contours of a new regional bloc taking shape.

Ras Laffan Industrial City, Qatar's principal site for production of liquefied natural gas and gas-to-liquid, administrated by Qatar Petroleum, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of the capital Doha, on 6 February 2017 (photo: Getty Images/AFP/K. Jaafar)
Qatari-Iranian relations under scrutiny: Przemyslaw Osiewicz from the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C notes that any kind of rapprochement between Iran and Qatar will be seen in Washington as a direct threat to national security and American interests in the region

Iran and Qatar have always made efforts to maintain working relations, co-existing in the stormy waters of the Persian Gulf, while sharing the largest gas field on the planet: the North Field. Since last June, Iran has become a vital trade route for Qatar, especially for goods coming from Turkey and Azerbaijan. In order to intensify trade and make it less complicated, Qatar, Iran, and Turkey have even signed a three-way transportation agreement.

For Silvia Colombo, the Head of the Mediterranean & Middle East Programme at the Italian Institute for Foreign-Affairs (IAI), the "Qatari decision to fix its relations with Iran is a pragmatic move in order to bypass the isolation and blockade that Qatar has been experiencing for many months now. With this diplomatic move, Qatar has sent a message to its neighbours that it is an independent player."

Przemyslaw Osiewicz from the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C, also believes that a Qatari-Iranian alliance could prove highly pragmatic and effective. "It is not, however, not based on any ethnic connections or ideological platform, which could make it very vulnerable to any changes in the region," he adds.The big question is what to expect when and if the Gulf dispute ends? Will Doha automatically downgrade its relations with Tehran in order to fix its relations with Riyadh and Abu-Dhabi?

According to Colombo, there appears little reason to expect any major change in Qatarʹs foreign policy orientation, which will remain autonomous. Doha is not calculating the degree of its rapprochement to Tehran; indeed, whatever happens, Doha will always leave some channels of communication open with the Islamic Republic.

Osiewicz, on the other hand, believes that if Saudi Arabia and the other GCC members come up with a good enough offer and renew talks and contacts with Doha, Qatar may sever all links with Tehran. "It is not the Qatari authorities that are intent on rapprochement with Iran, but rather the GCC states that are pushing Qatar towards Iran."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and his wife Emine Erdogan (2 R) is welcomed by Minister of State for Defence of Qatar, Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah (L), and Ambassador of Turkey to Qatar Fikret Ozer (not seen) at Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar on 14 November 2017 (photo: picture-alliance/abaca/Turkish Presidency/M. Cetinmuhurdar)
Staunch support: nine months into the GCC crisis, Ankara has played a pivotal role in helping Qatar weather the blockade imposed by the Arab quartet – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain. Having arguably compromised Ankaraʹs standing in the Arabian Peninsula, Turkeyʹs involvement also raises important questions about the future of its ties with Saudi Arabia

Alliance with Turkey more realistic

The alliance between Qatar and Turkey is far more realistic: they support the same non-state actors and movements, while sharing almost identical views on numerous regional issues. In June the Turkish parliament ratified a bilateral defence bill previously signed with Qatar during a fast-track legislative session. Turkey also plans to increase the number of its troops in Qatar to 3,000 and maintain a regiment at its Doha base.

Earlier last year Turkish President Recep Erdogan explicitly stated that Turkey will defend Qatar and – in reference to last year's failed coup – added that the country would "continue to develop its ties with Qatar, as with all our friends who have supported us in the most difficult moments."

But although there are issues which are bringing these states closer to each other, especially with regard to the current potential for both conflict and commercial development in the Gulf, diplomatic relations are also characterised by some major differences. The greatest obstacle to greater rapprochement is Syria.

Qatar and Turkey sit on the opposite side of the negotiating table to Iran – it seems unlikely that the three countries will reach a consensus. Yet, as Osiewicz notes, the Astana peace process, initiated by Russia, Turkey and Iran currently seems to be far more effective and more promising than the Geneva process. If Qatar were to join this triangle, its influence in Syria would only increase.

And what about the U.S.?

Finally, letʹs not forget that Qatar remains a key U.S. ally, despite the U.S. administrationʹs uncoordinated reaction during the early days of this latest Gulf crisis. It remains to be seen to what extent closer ties with Iran and Turkey will affect Qatari-U.S. relations and what response can be expected from across the Atlantic.

According to Colombo, the U.S. response will very much depend on the extent to which it is willing to support Saudi Arabia in the latterʹs attempts to suppress Iran and its influence. Osiewicz notes that any kind of rapprochement between Iran and Qatar will be seen in Washington as a direct threat to national security and American interests in the region.

But the longer the dispute lasts and the closer the ties and new arrangements forged between Qatar, Iran and Turkey become, the harder it will be to break them.

Stasa Salacanin

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