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The Financial Express

Middle East turmoil takes new turn

| Updated: October 24, 2017 19:41:18


Middle East turmoil takes new turn

The Middle East has been burning for the last six years because of civil war in Syria while Iraq is struggling to get rid of ISIS from its territory in collaboration with the US and Iran as well. Now Saudi Arabia is adding fuel to the fire further and complicating the situation in the Middle East. This has been reflected in the kingdom's leadership in cutting diplomatic relations with oil-rich Qatar which is progressing economically and diplomatically. 
Qatar is the richest in the world in terms of per capita income. Saudi Arabia in fact did not like its leadership to have hide-and-seek relations with Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran. Qatar had played an intermediary role between leaderships of Iran and immediate-past President Barack Obama to initiate an international nuclear deal. The secret meeting in the Qatari capital succeeded in helping the international community bring about a nuclear deal with Iran ultimately. King Salman of Saudi Arabia did not accept the agreement in good grace. Similarly, Israel did not accept the deal either. 
The decision of Saudi Arabia to cut diplomatic relations on the pretext of Qatar supporting terrorist groups encouraged Bahrain to join the chorus because it is facing strong opposition from its Shiite majority population. Saudi Arabia is in favour of Bahrain. The leadership in Bahrain is under the impression that its Shiite community is being influenced by the Iranian leadership. Incidentally, the majority population in Bahrain is Shiite while its minority Sunni sect of Islam is ruling the country. In March, 2011 around 2,100 Saudi troops plus 800 soldiers from the United Arab Emirates entered Bahrain to quell three-week uprising by the Shiite community against injustice perpetrated by the Bahraini leadership. 
Diplomatic boycott initiated by Saudi Arabia was followed by the UAE, Yemen, Libya and Egypt plus the Maldives and Mauritius as well. One of the conflict-torn Libya's competing governments has thrown its lot with Saudi Arabia. Egypt, being in North Africa, has joined Saudi Arabia because Egyptian ruler General Sisi came to power through a military coup by overthrowing democratically-elected President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood party. The military regime in Egypt declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group which Saudi Arabia endorsed. Since then Egypt is being financed by Saudi Arabia to meet challenges of the administration because the US under the leadership of Obama stopped financing. During the visit of Saudi King Salman to Cairo in April last year, loan agreements worth around US$25 billion were signed. Mauritius has become the second non-Arab state after the Maldives which severed relations with Qatar on the ground of extremism and terrorism. 
 The reason of the present diplomatic row is that Qatar's alleged support to various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destablishing the region by promoting Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood and groups supported by Iran. On the other hand, Qatar criticised the move as a violation of its sovereignty and pointed out that the allegations are all lies. The Qatari Foreign Ministry rejected the accusation of the Gulf country's interference in other countries. As a matter of fact, Sunni leader in the Middle East Saudi Arabia somehow or other did not accept leadership of Shiite Iran. Iran is not only directly involved in civil war in Syria, it has influence over Iraq as well. Iran is also constantly supporting Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon as well. Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran in January of 2016 in a dispute that began with the beheading of a Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia who reportedly criticised the Saudi monarch's treatment of the Shiite minority. At that time, four of Saudi Arabia's Sunni allies-Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan also cut or downgraded their diplomatic links with Iran. 
Incidentally, Kuwait did not join the chorus of Saudi Arabia this time, but its Emir is in now in Saudi Arabia to resolve the crisis through dialogue. 
Another interesting aspect is that Saudi Arabia took this diplomatic action against Qatar immediately after the visit of US President Donald Trump who vowed to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and to counter terrorism while containing Iran as well. Trump is now endorsing the Gulf blockade of Qatar accusing it of funding extremism. 
The fact of the matter is that tiny Gulf state of Qatar is engaged in conducting diplomacy to bring about peaceful ending of crisis in Afghanistan and two-state solution in the Middle East as well. Doha-based Centre for Conflict and Humanity Studies, which is the first of its kind in Gulf countries, has been engaged in research studies. The government of Qatar has made mediation as a part of peaceful settlement of disputes and a priority of its foreign policy. 
It is now part of history that the Qatari administration played a significant role in mediating with the administration of Obama to have only American soldier Bowe Bergdahl released. He was held in captivity for five years by the Taliban of Afghanistan through a secret deal in exchange of release of five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay prison. The 50-day devastating  war in August of 2014 between the Israeli military and Gaza's militia group destroyed more than 20,000 homes, apart from killing more than 2,200 civilians. Qatar, only Gulf country, came forward with massive financial assistance to rebuild Gaza Strip following donors' conference in Cairo. Qatar committed to provide $ 1 billion while the United Arab Emirate gave around $ 200 million, apart from US $212 million and EU 450 million Euro. Qatar was also blamed for providing asylum to exiled leader of Hamas Khaled Mashal who was not in good book of Saudi Arabia. The Gulf state is playing diplomacy between the Taliban and the Afghan government to resolve crisis in Afghanistan. The Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government started secret talks in Qatar in September of 2016. Doha has been a centre for Taliban diplomacy since the Taliban was granted permission to set up an office in Qatar in 2013. 
Series of calls from France, Algeria and Turkey came urging Saudi Arabia to calm down the situation while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought a resolution of the crisis. It is interesting to note that Turkey's President Erdogan did not accept the allegations against Qatar for supporting terrorist groups and offered mediation. Meanwhile, the Turkish Parliament in a resolution planned to deploy Turkish troops in its Qatari base. This decision has been taken amid diplomatic row between Qatar and other Arab countries. The Muslim Brotherhood has denied the allegation of Saudi Arabia.  President Trump changed his opinion and on June 7 urged over telephone King Salman for unity in the Gulf region because the US military boss said it has no plans 'to change its posture in Qatar, which is a home to Al-Udeid air base, the forward headquarters of the military's central command." The German Foreign Minister is critical of the present situation and blamed Donald Trump. He said, "US weapon deals with Saudi Arabia involves a risk for a new arm race which might escalate in a region already plunged by conflicts and sectarian divide." 
The possibility cannot be ruled out that Qatar, which shares massive gas fields with Iran, could move toward Iran, Russia and Turkey as well. The present crisis is possibly the worst ever since formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981.
The writer is a retired diplomat. 
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