T he Gulf Cooperation Council countries are passing through a new sharp crisis that carries within it a great danger,” Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash warned over the weekend. What has happened?
Days earlier, Qatar’s official news agency published remarks attributed to the country’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani criticising renewed tensions over Iran, supposed strains with the US president and that Qatar’s relations with Israel were “good”.
Doha quickly issued a denial, saying that the news agency had been hacked and that a “false statement” had been published. This, however, did not stop Saudi and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed media from running the story. As tensions increased, what seemingly began as fake news turned into a real crisis. At its core lie regional politics and Gulf states’ reaction to the uprisings that swept much of the Middle East several years ago.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE accuse Qatar of backing Islamists they view as terrorist organisations, first and foremost the Muslim Brotherhood, which has challenged dynastic rule in place across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The underlying tensions of a 2014 rift, which led Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha, are still there, says Giorgio Cafiero, co-founder of Gulf State Analytics.
Despite their small populations, members of the GCC have a large impact on events across the Middle East and North Africa. By giving material and financial support, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the lead, various Gulf states are involved in all the major conflicts in the region, including Libya, Iraq and Syria. Riyadh is also heading a coalition fighting a deadly war in neighbouring Yemen.
The crisis comes on the heels of US President Donald Trump’s visit to the Saudi capital, which was designed to shore up support with old allies. Some commentators suggest there is a larger storm brewing in the Gulf. GCC member Oman has distanced itself from the Saudi bloc, while staying out of the war in Yemen and maintaining relations with Tehran, intelligence analyst Bruce Riedel wrote for Al Monitor.
“The Bahraini, Saudi, and Emirati approaches to Qatar in the months ahead will likely depend on how the Trump administration addresses the Washington-Doha partnership,” Mr. Cafiero told The World Weekly. Russia, he added, could seize the “opportunity to wedge itself between Washington and yet another one of its traditional Sunni Arab allies”.