Middle East needs diplomacy not infighting

Efforts by some Arab allies to isolate Qatar by imposing sanctions could backfire and have far-reaching geopolitical consequences

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 10:58pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 10:58pm

Qatar’s maverick ways were bound to get it into trouble with its neighbours. The emirate’s persistent support for Islamists has prompted Saudi Arabia and its Gulf and Arab allies to impose tough punishments. But the bid to isolate the tiny nation could backfire, with its vast wealth and global connections raising the potential for far-reaching geopolitical consequences. Given the risks, a calmer approach through dialogue and compromise makes more sense.

Diplomatic sanctions imposed temporarily on Doha in 2014 have been reprised and toughened with the shutting off of air and sea routes and Saudi Arabia’s closure of its land border, through which 40 per cent of Qatar’s trade passes. The nation’s citizens have been given 14 days to return home from the penalising states, which also include Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The action came two weeks after US President Donald Trump visited the region pledging support for Riyadh and threatening Iran for backing militants. Qatar, which hosts the largest US military air base in the Mideast but has friendly relations with Iran, is funding extremists in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen and provides a base for the Palestinian group Hamas. It has infuriated autocratic leaders through its Al Jazeera television network and support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

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Kuwait, which has not joined the blockade, has taken on a mediatory role. Trump’s administration says it is also trying to bring the sides together. But the American leader’s biased siding with Saudi Arabia and undiplomatic commenting through social media is counterproductive. Isolating Qatar could encourage Russia to strengthen ties, further complicating the region’s geopolitics. China is also watching events warily; the Mideast is a crucial part of its “Belt and Road Initiative” and divisions will affect plans for free-trade deals. Air travellers from Hong Kong and elsewhere transiting through Qatar are already being inconvenienced.

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No nation has greater per capita prosperity than Qatar; its large oil and gas reserves and one of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds has given it oversized clout. But with just 250,000 people, a small military and in a region dominated by Muslim sectarian rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, it has also sought to guarantee its security. Its strategy has been to reach out to extremists on both sides, believing that its interests are best served through backing all-comers.

This is not unusual behaviour for Mideast governments; most Gulf states support proxy militant groups, the biggest reason for the spread of extremism. Rather than the region turning on one of its own, its leaders should be trying to fight terrorism and lessen the Saudi-Iran divide. Diplomacy, above all, is what is now needed.