Riyadh plays the waiting game with Doha

03 October 2017

More than three months into the blockade, there is little sign of a softening in the kingdom’s stance towards its neighbour. James Gavin reports

The failure of the latest effort to end the diplomatic stand-off between Saudi Arabia and Qatar will be viewed by senior Saudi policymakers as a vindication of the kingdom’s firm approach towards Doha.

A US-brokered phone call on 9 September between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani only yielded fresh acrimony as Riyadh suspended all contact with Doha in response to what it viewed as a misleading description of the talk having been initiated by Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi Press Agency statement, quoting a foreign ministry official, said the Qatari leadership “has not yet understood that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not ready at all to tolerate the change by the Qatari authority of agreements and facts”. It added that contact was at the request of Doha and that this proved Qatar is not serious in dialogue. Consequently, “Saudi Arabia declares that any dialogue or communication with the authority in Qatar shall be suspended until a clear statement explaining its position is made in public and that its public statements are in conformity with its obligations.”

Riyadh unyielding

The tough language underscores the sense that more than three months on since Riyadh led its GCC allies in imposing a blockade on Qatar, there is little sign of a material softening of its stance. This is despite recent conciliatory gestures such as the securing of hajj visit rights for thousands of Qataris in August, after talks between King Salman bin Abdulalziz and the Saudi-resident Qatari royal family member Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali, who has been promoted by Riyadh as an alternative representative of Doha.

Expectations that the two sides might come to an arrangement to put aside their differences have been repeatedly dashed. “It’s a difficult situation where people feel now it’s hard to back down, particularly when mindsets are hardwired with Khaleeji DNA,” says one former Saudi-based banker. “There’s still a possibility that the Qatari view could be modified, especially if the Fifa World Cup issue comes into play. But too many feel they have too much to lose by backing down now.”

Some of the more fevered speculation in the press and on social media has highlighted the kingdom’s recent backing for Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali – a half-brother of the former emir, Ahmed bin Ali – as a potential precursor for an intervention to depose Sheikh Tamim and replace him with a more Saudi-friendly figure.

Although Saudi media has praised the exiled prince as a builder of modern Qatar, and some commentators have attempted to garner support for a Qatari popular uprising, the prospect of a Saudi-backed “coup” appears distant. According to Kristian Ulrichsen, an analyst of Gulf politics at Rice University’s Baker Institute at Houston in the US, Saudi leaders do not want to risk upsetting Washington through such actions. “The Saudis have made it clear to the Americans that they are not going to escalate this crisis,” he says. “That’s why you are seeing more informal measures, such as the use of Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali. It’s all about testing the water at the moment.”

That means a continuation of the blockade and a rejection of any olive branches, but no military moves or overt destabilisation.

The increasingly toxic crossfire, fought out by well-oiled PR campaigns, makes it difficult to chart the outlines of a potential deal that would allow Saudi Arabia to relax its stance towards Qatar.

Some observers see the Saudi position as fluid. “They tend to pull back from positions when it appears they don’t have broader international support,” says Ulrichsen. “The red lines keep shifting, and it can appear they are reacting to events.” As an example, he cites the formulation of the coalition’s list of 13 conditions, presented to Qatar in June, but which only came in response to pressure from the US State Department to set out its demands.

UAE view

There are, however, fundamentals that distinguish the Saudi position from that of the UAE, the kingdom’s strongest ally in the anti-Qatar coalition. Whereas Abu Dhabi has highlighted Doha’s alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood as its major cause of concern, Saudi animus appears driven more by historical grievances linked to court politics and history, and an abiding sense that Qatar should revert to its pre-1995 position as a quiet neighbour.

“Clearly, the Saudis agree with the Emiratis in wanting to see some kind of concessions that can be presented as credible,” says the banker. “At a minimum, this would involve formally reining in the influence of former emir Sheikh Hamad and his wife.”

While the kingdom is understandably wary of undertaking moves that might lead to a wider regional destabilisation, it also perceives that it holds the strongest cards in this dispute.

The underlying conviction among senior Saudi policymakers is that Qatar has limited options at its disposal. While Doha can flirt with Turkey and Iran, the country cannot easily change its geography. Viewed from Riyadh, if Qatar is unable to maintain its links to the rest of the world, it will struggle, despite the resilience displayed so far.

This reduces the chances of a breakthrough diplomatic move that could easily bridge the divide. Public opinion in the kingdom for the moment shows little sign of weakening in support for their government’s stance; sentiment appears to be broadly supportive of the leadership’s zero-tolerance approach. Young Saudis have taken to social media in large numbers to back Riyadh’s line against Qatar.

Historical precedent suggests Saudi Arabia is prepared to play a waiting game if need be, having gone five years without an ambassador in Doha in 2002-07, when Riyadh’s anger at the actions of Qatari-based satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera boiled over.

Not everyone will be happy with this outcome. Despite President Donald Trump’s initial anti-Qatar comments, the US foreign policy machine is wary of this intra-Gulf dispute turning into a generational conflict that could potentially prove damaging to Washington’s long-term national security interests in the Middle East.

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