The crisis in Qatar tearing the Gulf apart

Qatar © iStock
A gathering storm for Qatar

Several countries in the Middle East and Africa have cut all ties with the small Gulf state of Qatar. Finding a solution to the dispute will not be easy. Alex Rankine reports.

What has happened?

On 5 June, five Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Yemen – separately severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in one of the most serious diplomatic crises to engulf the region in years. Over the next few days, several smaller African countries followed their allies’ example. All have attempted to isolate Qatar from the regional economy as much as possible, with measures banning Qatar Airways from their airspace, expelling Qataris from their countries, ordering their own citizens to leave the emirate and closing their border to imports and exports.

What’s behind the crisis?

The rift comes after Qatar was criticised for reportedly paying as much as $1bn to an Al-Qaeda affiliate and Iranian security officials in April this year to secure the release of hostages, including members of its royal family, who were captured while on a hunting trip to southern Iraq in 2015.

However, while Qatar is aligned with other Sunni monarchies in the region through its membership of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), there has long been friction between it and several other GCC members. Disputes include complaints that Qatar supports Islamic political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and that it is too friendly with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival for regional influence. The Qatari state-funded broadcaster Al Jazeera has also been a persistent irritant for neighbouring states due to news coverage that is often critical of them.

What has the impact been?

Prior to the dispute most of Qatar’s food was imported from Saudi Arabia, so the border closure brought fears of widespread shortages. However, airlifts from Turkey have alleviated those worries for now. Qatar’s main stock index tumbled 7% on the day the crisis broke out, but it has recovered some of its losses since. Qatar Airways has been able to continue most of its scheduled services to European and Asian destinations by rerouting its planes through Iranian airspace.

The biggest immediate impact is likely to come from the order from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE for Qatari nationals to leave their territory and for their own citizens – of whom about 11,000 are thought to live in Qatar – to return home. Amnesty International has said the move threatens to see families being “ripped apart”. Riyadh and its allies have now offered exemptions to Qataris married to their own citizens.

Who is supporting Qatar?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has criticised the blockade as un-Islamic and inhumane and offered assistance. Turkey and Qatar share similar stances on many issues: both seek to include Iran in regional politics and neither classify the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas as terrorist organisations.

Iran, which lies just across the Persian Gulf from Qatar, has also offered to supply food, although these consignments have not been on the scale of Turkish assistance. Qatar is a US ally – it hosts Al Udeid air base, the largest US military base in the Middle East – but the US has followed an incoherent line since the dispute broke out. Donald Trump took to Twitter to support the Saudi measures and accuse Qatar of supporting extremists, only for the US to finalise a $12bn deal to supply dozens of F-15 fighter jets to Doha last week.

Will this affect energy markets?

Qatar is a major energy exporter, with proven oil reserves of 25 billion barrels and a particular importance for the gas market as the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), accounting for roughly one-third of the entire global market. LNG is especially important for east Asian economies such as South Korea and Japan, which increased imports after the Fukushima disaster, while nearly one-third of UK gas imports now come from Qatar.

Qatari ships usually refuel at ports in the UAE en route, but the blockade has forced shipping firms to seek out alternative refuelling hubs, which is likely to increase the costs of the country’s energy exports.  The UK price for gas to be delivered in July shot up 4.5% earlier this month after two Qatari tankers destined for the UK veered off course, apparently to avoid the Egyptian-controlled Suez canal.

What happens now?

Kuwait has offered to mediate in talks between the two sides, although the Qatari authorities say that they have yet to receive any demands from Riyadh. The latest rift is not the first such dispute between Qatar and its neighbours.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE recalled their ambassadors from Qatar over its support for Muslim Brotherhood-backed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi as he was ousted from power. In that instance, the split dragged on for eight months until Qatar conceded and forced Brotherhood members to leave its territory. However, this time the dispute has gone far beyond the recall of ambassadors to an economic blockade. Similar measures have triggered wars in the Middle East in the past.

The world’s richest country

Qatar has a population of just 2.6 million and only 313,000 citizens, living on a peninsula that is roughly the same size as Yorkshire. Yet its substantial gas reserves make it the richest country in the world per head, with a GDP per capita of around £105,000 at purchasing power parity.

The government has funnelled its wealth into the creation of universities, art museums and plans to stage the 2022 Fifa World Cup, as well as purchasing assets abroad: Qatar is thought to have £35bn-£40bn of investments in the UK alone, including The Shard tower in London. The state-supported Al Jazeera news network is now a major global news organisation, with 80 bureaux worldwide. It is at the centre of the latest ructions, as other Arab states accuse the network of giving favourable coverage to Islamist groups and would like to see it closed down.