Opinion

Opinion

Qatar crisis is a mess the Middle East could do without

Posted June 23

The Middle East is not short on crisis. Syria remains engulfed by wars and the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II.

Iraq faces conflict with ISIS over Mosul, with thousands displaced and a referendum looming over the Kurdish regions.

In Yemen, 18.8 million are in need of aid, triggered by both conflict and a naval and aerial blockade, with nearly 100,000 suffering from cholera.

Two million Palestinians in Gaza have less than four hours a day of electricity, and another war with Israel is looking an increasing possibility.

Libya has three governments, thousands of people displaced and a chronic human rights record.

In each and every one of these crises, extremists such as ISIS and al Qaeda prosper.

So the spat in the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have launched a full frontal diplomatic, economic and public relations assault on Qatar, makes resolving any of these crises infinitely harder.

A litany of allegations against Qatar have flooded the media, the vast majority of which, as yet, are not backed up by any credible evidence. These have been followed by a set of demands that are virtually impossible for Qatar to meet.

Some of the allegations demonstrate rank hypocrisy. Saudi accusations against Qatar risk shining a light on to the Saudis' own historic funding of extremist groups and intolerant ideologies.

No side in this spat has an angelic record. Plenty of valid criticism can be made of Qatar. Many regional actors aside from Qatar -- including Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well as the United States and some European states -- have backed groups in Syria that have proved not to be moderate.

One demand is that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera, the state-funded news network. Al Jazeera Arabic's coverage is not impartial, but set against some of the other news channels in the region, is it any worse?

Moreover, Al Jazeera arguably did more to shake up the media landscape of the region and open up debate on taboo issues than any other media outlet. Freedom of expression must not be a victim of the crisis.

For the outside world, many of whom have friendly relations with all parties, choosing sides is not an ideal option. De-escalation is the preferred route. The latest US State Department comments reveal a massive frustration that the Saudis and the UAE have not provided any evidence to support their claims nor engage in meaningful steps to calm the situation.

This means that the only way out of this hole is for the Saudis and UAE dramatically scaling down their unrealistic demands of Qatar.

They know full well they have delivered an instrument of surrender to Doha, which has zero chance of being agreed to -- not in 10 days or 1,000. Even to long-term observers such as me, it's not entirely clear why they would do this, considering the risk involved.

The only explanation I can think of is that by putting demands forward that are so absurdly over the top, the Saudis and the UAE must be confident they can force Qatar into a public, abject surrender, pushing it back into its box and forcing it to accept Saudi dominance in the region.

Qatar is not going to cut ties with Iran when it shares the world's single largest gas field with it.

Moreover, Qatar can argue that many regional states have relations with Iran. For many years, the UAE was Iran's largest trading partner.

The biggest risk here is that all sides dig in their heels, unwilling to shift for fear of losing face: a central feature of Gulf politics.

The longer it continues, the greater the chance the Gulf Cooperation Council is finished. Across the waters, Iran will exploit this to the full -- it is already supplying Qatar with vital food imports.

Russia also will seize on this to maximize its influence in the region at the expense of the United States.

And most infuriatingly, ISIS and al Qaeda, far from losing support, will enjoy highlighting the self-indulgent recklessness of this Gulf infighting as the region fails to put out its fires. But unless these extraordinary demands are dropped, the chances are these flames will burn for a long time yet.

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