The Shia-Sunni rivalry between two Middle Eastern powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, has extended to an inside split within the Gulf States after Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt terminated ties with Qatar. Saudi Arabia has closed the only land border of Qatar that it shares with it and 80% imports are also cut down by imposing a strict siege on the country. Qatari citizens residing in Saudi Arabia were told to leave the country within 14 days. UAE and Egypt gave 48 hours to the Qatari ambassadors and diplomats to leave the respective countries. The internationally recognised government of Yemen too has cut off its ties with Qatar. In 2014, diplomatic relations were cut between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but the extent was not similar in comparison to the one that recently broke out.
Qatar has been accused of “funding and hosting the terrorist groups like Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas” by Saudi Arabia and UAE. According to Saudi state media agency, Qatar was expelled from the Saudi-led alliance on charges of being a supporter and facilitator to Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The tensions between Qatar and Gulf states rose to climax when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Egypt blocked Qatari media outlet, Al-Jazeera. It was a reaction to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Al Hamad Al Thani’s statement on the social media in which he commented against Trump’s stance towards Iran and hailed Iran as an “Islamic power”. All such allegations have been rejected by Qatar’s foreign ministry saying that the account was hacked and have also nullified the claims of funding and hosting terrorist organisations.
The Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979 marked the revival of “Shia-ism” in the region and has initiated a power struggle in almost all the Sunni-led countries of the Middle East. That security dilemma of being overthrown by Shia population in each state widened the sectarian fault lines at a regional level where Saudi Arabia seems to counter Iranian influence and Iran facilitating the insurgent groups against the Sunni governments. It has divided the region in two extreme poles, one in the lap of Saudi Arabia and the other in the camp of Iran. All the Middle Eastern conflicts have a meaningful share of this Shia-Sunni rivalry between the two regional powers.
The recent outbreak of conflict in the Arab Gulf is also a result of this divide. The fear of having a soft corner for Iran, Qatar has faced this serious lash-out and is under a strict siege. The response by the regional and global actors towards this row is crucial in determining the implications that it might have on the individual states and the regional political scenario. Immediately after the outbreak of the tensions, Donald Trump suggested both the parties to get to the negotiation tables and to stand like one and united, but later on, he endorsed the Saudi allegations on Qatar and escalated the row between the two by accusing Qatar of sponsoring terrorism at a higher level. Qatar has been supporting the revolts in Arab Spring and has a firm position on the Palestinian conflict as it backs Hamas. This is what Trump sees as “sponsoring of terrorism” in the region.
Turkey being an important actor in the Middle Eastern politics has taken a strong position in the conflict. It has urged Saudi Arabia to act as a “Custodian of two Holy cities” and being the most powerful Arab state must work for the brotherhood and unity of Ummah and not animosity. Erdogan has rejected Saudi allegations on Qatar regarding support for terrorism, considering them completely “baseless.” According to Erdogan, he never witnessed Doha supporting “terrorism.” Also, Turkey has stepped in to assist Qatar in providing all sorts of help in this hour of need. Turkey has deployed its fighter jets, warplanes and warships at a base in Doha. Can Kasapoglu, a Turkish defence analyst, told Al Jazeera that “The ratification of the military treaties is not an anti-Saudi move at all. Turkey still sticks to ‘I don’t want problems with my two good friends’ policy.” He further said, “Yet, although this is not an anti-Saudi position, it is a pro-Qatari one for sure. Ankara prioritised its geopolitical perspective, and showed that it holds its military presence [in Qatar] above the recent diplomatic crisis.”
Qatar is strategically very important and hosts the biggest US concentration of troops in the Middle East at Al Udeid Air Base. The economic activities in the Arabian Gulf have a huge share of Qatar, and the disengagement with Qatar will impact the overall Arab economic knit. Moreover, this split will provide regional and extra-regional players adequate space and environment to exploit the issue in their favor and can descend the Middle East in more chaos and instability.