Following three GCC countries’ decision to withdraw their top diplomats from Doha today, the Qatar government has said it will not recall its ambassadors from the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in retaliation for the dramatic move.
In a joint statement, the three countries said Qatar was not keeping its promise to adhere to a Gulf-wide security pact signed last November, which pledged non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
This afternoon, Qatar’s Cabinet expressed “surprise and regret” at the public rebuke, which is the biggest diplomatic challenge Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has faced since becoming Emir last summer.
While symbolically embarrassing, analysts say the decision is of little practical significance. The key question is whether this move is simply a show of disapproval for Qatar’s foreign policy, or a signal of intensifying tensions that could lead to, for example, Saudi Arabia tightening its land border or closing its airspace.
“If this is part of an escalation, then it is very concerning. If it is just for demonstrative effect, then it doesn’t really matter,” said David Roberts, a lecturer at King’s College London and author of the soon-to-be released book, Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-state.
So far, on the ground in Doha, there hasn’t been much impact. The UAE embassy told Doha News that it’s been without an ambassador since December.
Bahrain’s top diplomat in Qatar flew home Tuesday for “personal reasons,” a spokesperson said. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador was still in the country on Wednesday.
This sort of diplomatic row isn’t without repercussions. In the mid-2000s, Qatar went several years without a permanent ambassador from KSA in Doha, Roberts said.
He added that the next move is likely to come from Kuwait, which – like Oman – did not withdraw its ambassadors. Both have a history of acting independently from Riyadh, Roberts said.
In a statement published Wednesday afternoon, Kuwait’s parliamentary speaker said he hoped Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah would “continue his efforts at ironing out the existing differences among members of the GCC.”
He also expressed optimism that the diplomatic dispute was nothing more “than a passing summer cloud.”
Meanwhile, Oman’s official news agency did not make any mention of the day’s events.
The governments of the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia did not provide specific reasons for withdrawing their ambassadors beyond saying in a joint statement this morning that the measure was necessary “to protect their security and stability.”
That reason was contested by Qatar’s Cabinet in its official response:
“This has nothing to do with the interests, security and stability of GCC peoples, but rather a difference in positions on issues out of the (GCC).”
Many interpret today’s row to be the result of the countries’ different positions on Egypt. Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted president Mohamed Mursi have put it offside with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both of which support the current regime.
A related irritant in GCC relations has been local religious scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, who has harshly criticized Egypt’s military-backed government.
Last month, the UAE summoned Qatar’s ambassador in Abu Dhabi to deliver “an official protest memorandum” over remarks Al Qaradawi made. During a broadcast January sermon, the scholar criticized the UAE’s support for the current Egyptian government.
Speaking to Al Jazeera English, Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Qatar’s former ambassador to the US and the United Nations, said:
“These three countries – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – want to keep the Arab world in their hold. They want them to stay weak (and) controlled by dictators.
These countries are supporting a coup d’etat, with thousands of Egyptians being killed in front of the whole world and they want Qatar to support such policies.”
Al Khalifa predicted that “wisdom will come” in the following days as diplomats realize Qatar can’t be “frozen” out of the GCC.
Other observers, meanwhile, highlighted a line in the joint UAE-Bahrain-Saudi Arabia statement that said GCC members must not “support … hostile media” as part of a promise not to interfere in the internal affairs in other Gulf nations.
Some have suggested that’s a reference to Al Jazeera, which is perceived by some to have a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias in its editorial coverage.
Today’s announcement came on the heels of what Gulf media described as a “stormy” meeting among GCC foreign ministers on Tuesday evening. What’s puzzling is that the issues alluded to are not new, making the timing of the move a mystery.
“It’s been coming for a while …. (but) there’s no smoking gun here. Qatar hasn’t done anything in particular,” Roberts said. “It makes no sense whatsoever.”
He added that the small number of decision-makers inside Gulf monarchies makes issues such as foreign affairs “highly unpredictable,” especially when countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are enveloped in “security-focused mindsets.”
KSA has grappled with some riots, while the UAE is actively cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, in Bahrain, three police officers were killed when protests escalated earlier this week, including one from the UAE.
Also this week, Qatari doctor Mahmood Abdulrehman Al Jaidah was sentenced to seven years in prison for “financially and morally supporting” members of the Al Islah group, a banned organization in the UAE affiliated with the Brotherhood.
Under the hashtag #سحب_سفراء_السعودية_والبحرين_والإمارات_من_قطر (recalling the ambassadors of Saudi, Bahrain and UAE from Qatar), many tweeters have expressed anger about the decision.
Dr. Hamza Al Hassan, a political activist and expert on Saudi Arabia’s political affairs, said in a series of tweets that recalling the ambassador was an insult to Qatar and an unnecessary escalation. It showed “lack of wisdom, lack of balance and repeating mistakes,” he said.
#سحب_سفراء_السعودية_والبحرين_والإمارات_من_قطر اهانة سعود الفيصل لأمير قطر وسحب السفير تصعيد يدل على عدم حكمة وعلى فقدان التوازن وتكرار الخطأ
— حمزة الحسن (@hamzaalhassan) March 5, 2014
Others defended Qatar’s right to maintain its own foreign policy:
Meanwhile, some residents urged dialogue among governments and citizens alike:
To all my Bahraini, Saudi and Emirati friends. I don't care what the governments are doing. You are always my respected brothers & sisters
— Khalifa Al Haroon – Mr. Q (@iloveqatar) March 5, 2014
The point of having embassies and ambassadors is to have a point for dialogue. Pulling out is weakness. Discussing and solving is strength.
— Khalifa Al Haroon – Mr. Q (@iloveqatar) March 5, 2014
On the financial markets, Qatar’s stock exchange decline 2.1 percent amid heavy trading, its biggest one-day loss in at least six months, according to Bloomberg.
Roberts said it is now up to Qatar to decipher whether the move was merely a symbolic display of displeasure, or a serious worsening of relations, and then craft an appropriate response.
He said it is unlikely Qatar would turn its back on Al Qaradawi for fear of appearing weak and bowing to the demands of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Far more plausible, Roberts said, are behind-the-scenes meetings in which Qatar promises to tone down its foreign policy assertiveness.
There is, however, the risk of tensions escalating and Saudi Arabia cutting off the supply of food and other supplies to Qatar by blocking roads or closing its airspace, which would jeopardize Qatar Airways’ plans to launch a domestic carrier in the neighboring country later this year.
“Those matter. Three fewer ambassadors (in Qatar) doesn’t,” Roberts said.