Rising Powers React to the Qatar Crisis
As the Qatar crisis drags on into its third month, this Policy Alert looks back to see the reactions of rising powers and how their positions have evolved over time. On June 5th, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain imposed far reaching sanctions on Qatar, severing all land, sea and air links to the nation. Though a wealthy country, it does not produce its own food and relies heavily on imports from Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s neighbors justified their move alleging Doha’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran (Saudi Arabia’s rival). This stunning step ushered in the worst crisis for the region since the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981. Since June, the original quartet has been joined by a handful of small countries including Yemen, Maldives, Mauritania, Comoros and Senegal.
The price of lifting the boycott is that Doha meet a list of 13 demands, including permanently shutting down the politically influential Al Jazeera TV network and closing a Turkish military base. Qatar also currently hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East. The expectation that the boycott would bring Doha quickly to its knees seems misplaced as the crisis turns into a stalemate. Indeed, on August 6, Qatar and Turkey wrapped up “Iron Shield,” a joint military exercise held in Doha.
India and China are two important rising powers with high stakes in the region and have directly weighed in, with some official commentary by Russia.
There are 600,000 Indian nationals working in Qatar, out of a total population of 2.2 million.
- Within hours of the diplomatic crisis, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj stressed that the row is “an internal issue” of the GCC countries and that her main worry was about Indian nationals who may be caught in between the rival countries given the travel ban on Qatar. She also reassuringly commented that “When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, many thought that the West Asian region would not be our priority since they comprise Muslim-majority countries. But today, if there is one region where India has best relations, it is the West Asian region.”
- The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) released a statement on the Qatar crisis within a week, urging all states involved to base conflict resolution on well-established international principles of mutual respect, sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. It noted that peace and security in the Gulf are of paramount importance for prosperity of the countries in the region. But it added that extremism and intolerance, on the other hand, pose a grave threat and must be confronted by all countries in a coordinated and comprehensive manner. The MEA also highlighted India’s friendly ties with all GCC countries and its support for the over eight million expatriates living in the region.
- An editorial in late June in The Pioneer, a nationalist newspaper supportive of the ruling Bharatiaya Janata Party government, made the case for a realistic compromise and stated that unreasonable demands will not make Doha capitulate, adding that “no sovereign state could accept the demands that Saudi Arabia and its friends have made.” It called on the boycotting countries to concentrate on achievable demands that are satisfactory to them and also “provide a face-saver for Qatar to wriggle out of the crisis.” Regarding Qatar’s next move, the authors suggested they “offer hints that it is willing to discuss with an open mind some of the more reasonable conditions put forth.”
- Rudroneel Ghosh of the Times of India argued in early July that the hostility towards Qatar is rooted in power politics rather than opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood or terrorism: “Riyadh wants to teach Doha a lesson for having the temerity to support groups it does not approve of – like in Syria – trying to build up strategic depth within GCC – with moves such as allowing Turkey to set up a military base in Qatari territory – and taking a less hostile position towards Iran and groups associated with political Islam.” According to him, The Muslim Brotherhood and the news channel Al Jazeera is seen as a threat to Arab monarchs, and Qatar, in a way, “holds up an uncomfortable mirror to other GCC members.”
Rich in hydrocarbon resources, Qatar is China’s number one foreign source of natural gas. Sino-Qatari financial ties are deep, with Doha having set up a clearinghouse for the Chinese renminbi in 2015. This rift within the Sunni Arab world could impact China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative which seeks to link regional economic corridors.
- Shortly after the crisis began, Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University in China, said in an interview with the nationalist Global Times that the crisis in Qatar will pose negative effects on the Belt and Road initiative and will weigh heavily against the Free Trade Negotiations with the GCC. The isolation of Qatar makes it difficult for China to conduct negotiations with the GCC as a unit. Also interviewed was Tang Zhichao, a research fellow with the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who suggested China better not take sides on the issue and should play an active role in the mediation of the crisis. Both contributors highlighted the negative impact on China’s energy supply.
- In an article for the state news agency China News Service in mid-June, Mei Xinyu, a researcher at the International Trade and Economic Cooperation Institute of the Ministry of Commerce, argued that the Qatar conflict stems not only from Riyadh’s effort to maintain dominance in the GCC, but also from the Saudi government trying to present to the outside world a more resolute image in the wake of President Donald Trump’s changing policy toward the Middle East. However, despite the diplomatic row, he believes that the Arab countries are not likely to use force against each other, and mediation and talks will become the ultimate means to settle the dispute. According to him, one reason is that “the West has long seen Qatar as a reformist representative of Arab countries and thus does not want to see Saudi Arabia, which has a stronger religious inclination, overpower it.” Another reason is that, “Saudi Arabia will refrain from using military means, because Qatar is home to the US Central Command in the Middle East.”
- In early July, China’s U.N. ambassador Liu Jieyi emphasized that the best way to resolve the Qatar crisis is for the involved nations to work out a solution among themselves, adding that he does not see an alternative to that. He emphasized that China would welcome a peaceful resolution and “neighborly” relations in the region.
- In late July, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on Qatar and the four Arab nations to resolve their diplomatic crisis through talks within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Wang made the remarks after meeting with his Qatari counterpart in Beijing, a day after he held talks with a top official from the United Arab Emirates, one of the nations at odds with Doha.
- Just days after the row began, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in Moscow. In Lavrov’s opening remarks, he highlighted his concern with the escalation of the crisis. He voiced dismay with Russian partners fighting and stated that Russia is ready to do everything in its power to help resolve the crisis and pointed out that unity is needed to fight terrorism.