One Year On, Gulf Split Is Here to Stay

Neither Qatar nor the boycotting countries have suffered enough from the dispute to feel forced to compromise.

Expert comment Published 5 June 2018 Updated 7 August 2019 2 minute READ
The Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in December 2017. Photo: Getty Images.

The Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in December 2017. Photo: Getty Images.

One year ago, four countries – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain – announced that they were severing diplomatic, trade and transport ties with Qatar. Since then, no progress has been made in resolving their differences.

The four have sought to brand Qatar as a supporter of extremism, and have called on it to curb its ties with Iran and Turkey, to close Al Jazeera, and to align itself firmly with their own foreign policies. At the core of the dispute, however, is Qatar’s support for political Islamist movements of various hues, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

The UAE in particular sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a serious domestic political threat, and has accused Qatar of supporting a group that wanted to carry out a coup inside the UAE in 2013. So while the rhetoric on extremism has appealed to some Western audiences – above all, the US president – the core issue is much closer to home.

Western countries have done little to try to resolve the dispute. The US has been conflicted and inconsistent in its approach from the outset, but is the key player who could bring the parties together if it chooses. European countries have lamented yet another regional divide, but have been mainly concerned with maintaining their business and energy relationships with both sides. They see the regional leaders as disinclined to compromise, and they are still figuring out how they can influence the newly ascendant partnership between the Saudi and UAE crown princes.

Meanwhile, neither side has suffered enough from the dispute to feel forced to compromise.

Qatar felt an immediate economic shock from the loss of trade with key neighbours, and its flagship state airline has said it will make a ‘large loss’ after being forced to close its routes to the four boycotting countries. But one year on, it has established new trade routes, making use of ports in Iran, Turkey and Oman and establishing direct shipping routes to Asia.

And as the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, its key exports have been highly resilient. Even the UAE has continued to import Qatari gas, because it needs to. Qatar is likely to face some ongoing negative effects on investor confidence, but not existential ones for one of the richest populations in the world.

Overall, it appears that the divisions in the Gulf are here to stay for the long term, and are another complicating factor for the Middle East. They are accentuating divisions in the Horn of Africa in particular. The countries concerned have also been using the standoff to develop strong populist-nationalistic discourses, which are relatively new phenomena in these young states.

However, despite some with-us-or-against-us rhetoric, the Arab region has not split neatly into two camps. The clash largely reflects two very different views on Islamism versus secularism in the Middle East. But few of the region’s conflicts fall simplistically along Islamist/secularist lines; sectarian, regional and partisan identities also matter.

This is particularly the case in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, where the Gulf countries would appear to have a number of common interests. Meanwhile, in countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, and even Algeria, domestic political leaders are trying to find ways to balance and accommodate Islamist and secular political forces, rather than taking sides in a black-and-white, region-wide dispute.

Finally, for economic reasons, most countries want to do business with both sides of the Gulf dispute. Even Egypt, which is supposed to be part of the boycott of Qatar, hasn’t recalled the 300,000 Egyptian expatriates who are based there. Rather than representing a new region-wide rift, dispute has illustrated the capacity of states in the region to find ways to cope with external pressures and to hedge their bets in the face of the competing interests of richer powers.