The Gulf Crisis: A Coming Out Of Small States

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By 2017-07-17


Buried in the Gulf crisis are two major developments likely to shape future international relations as well as power dynamics in the Middle East: the coming out of small States capable of punching far above their weight with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, a driver of the crisis, battling it out; and a carefully managed rivalry between the UAE and Saudi Arabia that has weakened the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and aggravated suffering in war-wracked Yemen.

Underwriting the battle as well as the rivalry are different strategies of small States, buffeted by huge war chests garnered from energy exports, to project power and shape the world around them. Both Qatar and the UAE project themselves as regional and global hubs that are building cutting-edge, 21stcentury knowledge societies on top of tribally-based autocracies.

That, however, may be where the communality in approach ends. At the core of the different strategies as well as the six-week-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar by a Saudi-UAE-led alliance, lie opposed visions of the future of a region wracked by debilitating power struggles; a convoluted, bloody and painful quest for political change; and a determined and ruthless counterrevolutionary effort to salvage the fundaments of the status quo ante.

The varying visions and the two small States' determination to act on them as a matter of a security and defence policy designed to ensure regime survival made confrontation inevitable.

It is an epic struggle in which Qatar and the UAE, governed by rulers who have a visceral dislike of one another, could in the short and middle term both emerge as winners even if it is at the expense of those on whose backs the battle is fought and considerable damage to their carefully groomed reputations.

Complicating the region's lay of the land with its multiple rivalries is the fact that at times the interests of the main protagonists both coincide and exacerbate the crisis. For years, the Gulf's major players supported Syrian rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, yet complicated the struggle by at times aiding rival groups.

Greater economic opportunity

Ultimately however, the rival strategies that involves the UAE working the corridors of power of the Gulf's behemoth, Saudi Arabia, whose focus is its existential fight with Iran, and Qatar sponsoring opposition forces, has left the Middle East and North Africa in shambles.

Beyond Syria, Libya and Yemen are wracked by wars. Egypt is ruled by an autocrat more brutal than his autocratic predecessor who has made his country financially dependent on Saudi Arabia and the UAE and has been unable to fulfil promises of greater economic opportunity.

As a result, as small States, like Singapore, debate in the wake of the Gulf crisis their place in the international pecking order and their ability to chart an independent course of their own, Qatar's brash and provocative embrace of change as opposed to the UAE's subtler projection of power that shies away from openly challenging the powers that be, may be too risky an approach to emulate.

Nonetheless, the jury on the differing approaches is still out. Qatar has been able to defy the boycott and so far, convincingly reject demands of the Saudi-UAE-led alliance that would undermine its sovereignty and turn it into a vassal based on its financial muscle and an international refusal to endorse the approach of its detractors that many view as extreme, unrealistic and unreasonable.

Taking the long view on the assumption that change is inevitable, Qatar could emerge as having been on the right side of history even if the notion that it can promote change everywhere else except for at home is naive at best. A wave of nationalism with Qataris rallying around their emir in defiance of the Saudi-UAE-led boycott masks criticism of the ruler's policies that Qataris in recent years vented on social media.

However the Gulf crisis ends, Qatar's revolutionizing the Middle East and North Africa's media landscape with the 1996 launch of Al Jazeera speaks to the ability of small States to shape their environment.

The television network's free-wheeling reporting and debates that provided a platform for long suppressed voices, shattered taboos in a world of staid, State-run broadcasting characterized by endless coverage of the ruler's every move. Al Jazeera, despite its adherence to the Qatari maxim of change for everyone but Qatar itself by exempting the Gulf State from its hard-hitting coverage, forced irreversible change of the region's media landscape in advance of the advent of social media.

Qatar's strategy by definition made the Gulf State a target, culminating in its current showdown with its detractors. The Saudi-UAE-led boycott crowns decades of failed efforts to get Qatar to halt its support of the region's opposition forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, that advocate alternative, more open systems of government, as well as more militant groups.

Banning of the Brotherhood

If Qatar's strategy was confrontational, the UAE opted for an approach that granted it a measure of plausible deniability by influencing the policies of Big Brother Saudi Arabia, establishing close ties to key policy makers in Washington, acquisition of ports straddling the world's busiest shipping lanes, and crafting a reputation as Little Sparta, a military power that despite its size and with the help of mercenaries could stand its ground and like the big boys on the block establish foreign military bases.




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