Saudi Arabia’s ultimatum to Qatar says much about the Kingdom’s dreams of regional hegemony, its proxy war with Iran, and its glaring double-standards over ‘interventionism’. It amounts to a demand for Qatar’s total surrender. Qatar faces meaningful pain from the Saudi-led economic boycott but the chances of it acceding to the ultimatum are zero. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration struggles to develop a coherent approach.
The 13 point ultimatum issued in late June makes crystal clear the goal of bringing Qatar to heel and of brooking no domestic or regional behaviour that challenges the authority of Saudi Arabia and its anti-Qatar squad, principally the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.
The ultimatum’s requirements range from the obvious to the ludicrous. The more predictable ones include: winding back Qatar’s relations with Iran and Turkey; the cutting of ties to individuals or non-state actors opposed to Saudi Arabia and its allies—under the guise of anti-terrorism measures; the closure of al-Jazeera and its affiliates—the contest here, despite the rhetoric from both sides, not being about freedom of expression but which Arab autocracy should rule the airwaves.
The last four demands in the ultimatum have a decidedly Monty Pythonesque flavour. They require Qatar to: pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other financial losses caused by its policies in recent years; consent to monthly audits for the first year, quarterly audits in the second and annual ones over the following 10 years; align itself with other Gulf and Arab countries ‘militarily, politically, socially and economically’ and, finally, to agree to all 13 demands within 10 days, after which the list becomes ‘invalid’.
Qatar is as practiced as any of its regional neighbours in dodgy behaviour but the ultimatum gives new meaning to the term ‘ambit’. We can only puzzle, for example, how willing the Saudis would be to allow a 10+ year audit of their financial or other support for ‘terrorists’, or to recompense those who have been victims of Saudi action or inaction. And exactly which ‘other Gulf and Arab states’ offer the model for Qatar to follow: Iraq, with its Shia majority; Bahrain (part of the Saudi-led bloc), with its Sunni rulers perched atop a not always quiescent Shia majority; perhaps Yemen, where the Saudis and the UAE are struggling to contain an Iranian backed insurrection?
The 10-day deadline will pass with the two sides locked in insult.
If the ultimatum seems a bit over the place it has a soulmate in US policy. In one of his infamous tweets, Trump took credit for the Saudi-led move against Qatar. Since then the beleagured State Department and Secretary of State Tillerson have tried to inject a measure of commonsense. (Tillerson, we might note, is on record as observing: ‘I’m not involved in how the president constructs his tweets, when he tweets, why he tweets, what he tweets’.) Before the ultimatum became public, Tillerson urged that any demands be ‘reasonable and actionable’. Boris Johnson following a similar script with ‘measured and realistic’.
Trying to steer a course through this mess, Tillerson has since headed for the half-way house, describing the ultimatum’s requirements both as ‘very difficult to meet’, yet offering ‘significant areas which provide a basis for ongoing dialogue leading to a resolution’. He would much rather keep his distance and let the ‘Arab family’ sort it out. But the US has a lot at stake with these family members.
With its ostracisation, Qatar now faces the financial burden of needing to fly in a much greater proportion of its food and other daily essentials. Given its ranking in world GDP (PPP), at US$139,100 second only to Liechtenstein, (Australia sits at 29, with US$48,800), Qatar has an enviable cushion. But foreign workers, including more than 200,000 Egyptians, make up nearly 90 per cent of Qatar’s population of about 2.6 million. Many of them will be vulnerable to any significant price rise for basic commodities. If the blockade were to be prolonged it could also prompt nail-biting globally over the construction schedule for soccer’s world cup in 2022. Flying in steel and cement is a rather different proposition to flying in meat and vegetables.
An immediate loser from the blockade is Qatar Airways, shut out of busy regional markets at a time when Doha and Dubai are competing to be the Middle East hub between Asia and Europe. One bit of ‘good’ news for Qatar Airways is that its world-record longest commercial flight, from Doha to Auckland, is now a little safer. The airline took the title in early 2017 with a flight distance of 14,529 kilometres, beating the previous record of 14,200 kilometres—set by Emirates. With Qatar Airways now having to avoid Saudi airspace, New Zealand is just that bit further away.
Peter Rodgers is a former Australian Ambassador to Israel who was also an award-winning journalist. He has written two books on the Middle East (Herzl’s Nightmare: one land, two peoples; Arabian Plights – the future Middle East)