Diplomatic Crisis Hits Arab World: Prospects for Mediation
EDITORIAL | 06.06.2017

Diplomatic Crisis Hits Arab World: Prospects for Mediation

A diplomatic war has fractured the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Libya severed their ties with Qatar on June 5. All the nations said they planned to cut air and sea traffic and Saudi Arabia would also shut its land border with Qatar, effectively cutting off the country from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. The Yemen's internationally backed government, which has lost control of the nation’s capital and large portions of the country, also cut relations with Qatar, as did the Maldives and Mauritius. Qatar has been excluded from the Arab coalition fighting in Yemen.

Nothing like this has happened since 1979, when Egypt became a party to the Camp David accords. Back then, the largest Arab nation was isolated. Today the same thing happened with one of the richest and influential countries of the Arab world. An important actor playing a key role in all the regional conflicts all of a sudden became a rogue state attacked from all sides.

This is the worst rift in years among the most powerful Arab states. Doha is accused of supporting terrorist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood movement, destabilizing the Middle East region, meddling into internal affairs of Arab states, backing the agenda of regional arch-rival Iran, including anti-government Shia forces in Bahrain, Yemen and a lot of things more. The boycott damages the international prestige of Qatar, which hosts a large U.S. military base and is set to host the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar has rejected the allegations. For many years it has presented itself as a mediator and power broker for regional disputes. The news came about two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia to call on Muslim countries to unite against terrorism, and singling out Iran as a key source of support for extremist militant groups.

It’s hard to predict the ultimate fallout but the crisis will manifest itself in many ways. The Arab world is facing the period of uncertainty.

Qatar is home to the sprawling al-Udeid Air Base, which is home to the forward headquarters of the U.S. military's Central Command. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. It is not clear as yet how the conflict could affect American military operations but the situation is no doubt a serious headache for the Pentagon and U.S. State Department.

The US is definitely at a loss as the air base is not the only asset it has in Qatar. It’s not in the headlines but the country is a crucial element of missile defense infrastructure being created on the Arabian Peninsula. The United States and the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) underscored a commitment to build the defense system at a summit in 2015 with the «Iranian threat» used as a pretext. Ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability is being developed, including an early warning system. The development of a robust integrated BMD network across the region is a primary goal for the U.S. military. When in place, it will guarantee that the GCC security depends on America.

It was announced last December that an agreement had been reached to allow Qatar to purchase an early warning radar (EWR) from the United States. The AN/FPS-132 system is designed to provide advanced warning time to alert command and control centers and cue fire control systems. The highly reliable radar provides up to 360 degrees of coverage out to 5,000km.

It is designed to be used as an early warning system against strategic offensive assets – something Iran does not possess. The announced range of 5,000km (3,100mi) by far exceeds the requirement to counter a missile threat coming from Iran. There are radars with shorter range, like the truck-mounted AN/TPY-2 , to support the PAC-3 and THAAD systems deployed by Persian Gulf countries. The distance from Qatar to Iran is just 820 kilometers (510mi). The only explanation that comes to mind is that the AN/FPS-132 is chosen for its ability to monitor large chunks of Russian territory. The Qatar-based AN/FPS-132 EWR is an element of the emerging U.S. global ballistic missile (BMD) system created to counter Russian nuclear strategic forces. It leads to understanding why the U.S. would face a real predicament if compelled to choose sides.

There are other questions. Will Iran take sides and step into the fray? It’s worth to note that Qatar is not the only Arab country willing to normalize the relations with Tehran. It’s hard to talk about a united front of Arab states against Iran. Oman and Iran share close diplomatic, economic, and military ties. Kuwait has close relations with Iran. Should Muscat and Kuwait City be ostracized too?

Ankara has called for dialogue to resolve the dispute. It has a good reason to be concerned over what happened, as well as a powerful incentive to step in as a mediator.

Turkey has been expanding its relations with Qatar. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani address each other as "brother." In 2014, the countries set up a bilateral cooperation and consultation group called the Turkey-Qatar High Strategic Committee and forged agreements on military training, the defense industry and deploying Turkish military in Qatari territory. Over a year ago, Turkey opened a military base in Qatar, demonstrating Ankara’s move toward greater influence in the region and Qatar’s independence from its powerful neighbors.

The new Turkish base is expected to house more than 3,000 people, including ground troops, special operations teams and military trainers. The base further diversifies Doha’s web of defense partners and provides more states with higher stakes in the Qatar’s security. It has been reported that a defense agreement exists promising Turkey’s support in case Qatar is attacked. Turkey is also expected to export to Qatar $2 billion worth of armored vehicles, radars and drones, as well as assorted military equipment for communications, night/thermal optics and other uses.

It shows that Qatar is far from being isolated as it enjoys the support of Turkey – a large Sunni Muslim state with the population of 75 million. Two members of the GCC – Oman and Kuwait  have not joined the anti-Qatar campaign. The US will hardly side with the Saudi Arabia-led group of states as it has great interest in military cooperation with Doha.

The deepening crisis is to dash all hopes of creating anything like an Arab NATO. In the midst of crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia the internal conflict between Arab states is the last thing such an alliance needs. Perhaps, a deal between the Saudi-led Arab states and Iran would be the best way out of the situation. An impartial broker is needed to launch the process.

As the recent Donald Trump’s visit to the Middle East showed, the US has taken sides. It played the war card with the weapons deal. Turkey does not belong to the Arab world but it’s a Sunni Muslim state.

Russia is neutral and enjoys good working relations with all sides of the conflict. The phone conversation between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Qatari counterpart, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, took place soon after the news about the diplomatic rift was announced and was initiated by Qatar.  The Russian Minister said that difficulties should be overcome at the negotiating table through a dialogue based on mutual respect. The very fact that Qatar approached Russia on the very same day the break-up of the relations was made public is very indicative demonstrating the political clout Moscow enjoys in the Middle East. Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan also discussed the issue on June 5. The process of mediation with Moscow playing a key role has started. 

Tags: Qatar  Saudi Arabia