Tiny Qatar refuses to bend on foreign policy despite a blockade by other Persian Gulf nations

The Persian Gulf this month has been gripped by an unprecedented crisis involving Qatar and several other countries that could see thousands of people forced to move and start new lives.

Ongoing tension in the region escalated to crisis level June 5 when a coalition of Arab states in the Gulf Cooperation Council announced a coordinated diplomatic break with Qatar, a small nation with big clout thanks to its wealth of oil and natural gas.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, plus non-GCC member Egypt, accused Qatar of harboring, funding and championing Islamist terrorists, in part via the Doha-based satellite news channel Al Jazeera.

The countries cut air, sea and land links with Qatar. Several ordered Qataris in their countries to return home, and their citizens to leave the country within two weeks.

Although gulf countries have staged blockades of Qatar before and scored concessions, some analysts said the situation had not been quite like this.

“This is a major crisis. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain will not back down this time. The stakes are high because it can undermine what the GCC has achieved since its inception” in 1981, said Omar Mohamed, a strategic analyst with the government of Bahrain based in Manama, the capital.

Kuwait, a GCC member, and other nations are trying to mediate the crisis.

What happens next and who will benefit the most remains unclear for the six-nation GCC, which also includes Oman. The political and economic alliance was created to generate unity among the member countries based on common objectives and identities, but the Qatar tension has created a significant roadblock.

Here are some reasons for the dispute and what they may mean to the U.S. and others.

For starters, Qatar denies the accusations regarding Islamist extremists, calling them unjustified. It also emphasizes the importance of maintaining its sovereignty.

"The state of Qatar has been subjected to a campaign of lies that have reached the point of complete fabrication," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement this month.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani decried the blockade this week, but said his country was open to a diplomatic solution.

"Qatar is willing to sit and negotiate about whatever is related to gulf security," he said during a briefing in Paris after diplomatic meetings Monday. He said Qatar supports Kuwait's efforts to mediate the crisis, but warned that Qatar’s foreign policy would not be open to negotiation.

"Whatever relates to our foreign affairs ... no one has the right to discuss," he said, adding that Qatar would also refuse to silence Al Jazeera.

The foreign and economic ministers of Qatar are members of the royal family under emir’s absolute monarchy. Qatar is the size of Connecticut, with a population of 2.6 million, only about 300,000 of them Qatari citizens.

It’s oil- and gas-rich, and its leaders have managed to defy larger Arab neighbors in recent years in part by leveraging that wealth and ties with another neighbor, Iran, and the United States — 10,000 U.S. troops are based at Al Udeid Air Base outside Doha.

Arab countries had initially dominated the Qatari monarchy after its independence in 1971. Then Qatari Crown Prince Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani seized power in a 1995 coup and began to reshape his country’s influence through strategic alliances with Iran, trade relations with Israel and construction of the U.S. air base. Qatar’s economy flourished, buoyed by liquefied natural gas markets in Asia, expanding from $8.1 billion in 1995 to $210 billion in 2014.

Qatar’s leaders sought to capitalize on the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011, partnering with Turkey to back anti-government forces in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Saudi Arabia and its allies saw the uprisings as a threat and backed the governments.

After the uprisings, Qatar’s emir abdicated, replaced by his younger, less experienced son. Arab leaders refocused on their differences with Iran, and after the 2015 U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement, allowed Qatar leeway, hoping to not strain relations with Washington.

The UAE has urged Saudi leaders to be more proactive in confronting Qatar, said Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The blockade gives the Saudis an opportunity to demonstrate their strength at a time when they are trying to position themselves as the leader of an Islamic military alliance, battling Houthi rebels in Yemen and Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, analysts said.

“The Saudis and Emiratis have to get their own house in order first before they create the larger alliance, the ‘Arab NATO,’” said Theodore Karasik, a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based think tank. “Qatar has to be brought around, put out of business or absorbed.”

“The crisis has a direct impact on the United States in that this split in the GCC needs to be healed in order to prosecute the war against extremism,” he said.

The deadline for Qatari citizens to return and foreign nationals to depart is looming days before the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the beginning of the Eid holiday.

“To do this blockade and have nationals dispelled on the eve of Eid sends a very negative message both socially and financially,” Karasik said.

Qatar's National Human Rights Committee released a report this week alleging at least 764 human rights violations since the blockade began, including restrictions of freedom of expression and movement that left families divided, students sent home from school, laborers without jobs and business interrupted.

The group's chairman, Ali Bin Smaikh Marri, urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to condemn the blockade because it infringes on the rights of more than 13,000 citizens in the four Arab countries involved.

"These procedures are worse than the Berlin Wall," Marri said in Geneva on Friday.

President Trump initially praised the Qatar blockade on Twitter as the sort of strike against terrorism supporters he had urged during his visit last month to Riyadh. But the administration has since opposed the blockade.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis warned that Russia could take advantage of the gulf split and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the Arab nations to end the blockade for humanitarian and military reasons as they continue to battle Islamic State. On Thursday, Tillerson called Oman’s foreign minister, who stressed the importance of supporting Kuwait's efforts to resolve the crisis through diplomacy, according to a ministry statement on Omani state TV.

The U.S. signed a $12-billion deal this week to supply Qatar with F-15 fighter jets. On Thursday, U.S. and Qatari naval ships were conducting joint exercises off the Qatari coast.

Qatari officials have refused to back down, defending Al Jazeera, redirecting flights and receiving food and other support from Turkey and Iran.

Qatar’s refusal to capitulate could delay Saudi Arabia’s regional plans, particularly if Qatar allies such as Turkey step in to broker an agreement.

On Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu arrived in Saudi Arabia for talks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, as part of mediation efforts to resolve the crisis. Cavusoglu was expected to travel from Jeddah to the holy city of Mecca, where the king is based for the last days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The visit came after Cavusoglu held talks with his counterparts in Kuwait Thursday.

Turkey’s president and state media have championed Qatar. Turkey’s parliament already approved deploying up to 3,000 troops to its base in Qatar, where 100 are already stationed.

“Turkey may be seeing this as an opportunity to reassert itself,” Bowen said, especially after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent reelection. “For Erdogan, this is a golden opportunity to assert himself as the region’s dominant player.”

Although Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, during the last year it has aligned its regional strategy with Russia, which hasn’t yet taken a position on the gulf crisis. That could soon change, Karasik said, given Russia’s interest in controlling Qatar’s share of the liquefied gas market in coming years, and its power to entice Qatari officials with the promise of a share in rebuilding Syria.

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned Saudi King Salman to discuss the "aggravated situation around Qatar, which unfortunately does not help consolidate joint efforts in resolving the conflict in Syria and fighting the terrorist threat," the Kremlin said in a statement.

If Turkey and Russia broker an end to the blockade, that could further undercut the Arab alliance Trump’s administration backed at last month’s summit.

“The message at the Saudi summit was supposed to be all roads go through Riyadh, not Ankara and Moscow,” Bowen said.

Mohamed, the Bahrain-based analyst, said he expects Qatar will have to eventually relent, because “an axis where it is part of a Turkey-Iran alliance and out of the GCC is just not feasible or doable in the long term, nor is this a result the U.S. would be comfortable with.”

“Qatar must realize that this is not an attempt to control its sovereignty like it claims. On the contrary, the demand by its fellow GCC members is what is expected of all normal law-abiding states,” Mohamed said. “It is in Qatar’s strategic interest to realize this sooner rather than later.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

June 16, 1:35 p.m.: This article was updated with the Turkish foreign minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia and information on a report by Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee.

This article was originally published June 15 at 3:30 p.m.

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