The diplomatic crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is coming down to the wire.
On June 23, Saudi Arabia and its allies issued a list of demands that Qatar must agree to in order for them to lift the diplomatic boycott and economic blockade against the tiny Gulf country. They gave Qatar 10 days to accede to their demands or continue to face isolation.
The original response for the deadline was midnight on Sunday, but Saudi and its allies agreed to a 48-hour extension at the request of Kuwait, which is acting as a mediator in the dispute. And on Monday, Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, arrived in Kuwait carrying an official response to the list of demands.
We don’t yet know what the letter says, but we do know that its contents are crucial to determining the next phase of what has become the most urgent diplomatic crisis in the Gulf region in decades.
It’s unclear what line Qatar will take, but recent comments from both sides of the rift suggest that it may end up being at least in part a combative one. The list of demands Qatar faces calls for the country to, among other things, shutter its immensely influential international media service Al Jazeera, curb ties with Turkey and Iran, and sever relations with Islamist political parties and terrorist groups in the region. They amount to an attempt to entirely quash Qatar’s decades-long history of pursuing a maverick foreign policy in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister characterized the list of demands as nonnegotiable last week. But over the weekend, Qatar’s foreign minister said they were “made to be rejected” and that Doha was interested in negotiations rather than complying with ultimatums.
Lori Plotkin Boghardt, an Arab Gulf specialist and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me in the runup to the Monday deadline that she thinks it’s likely for a stalemate to continue beyond the deadline.
“Neither side wants to blink,” she said. “We're in a cycle now: The more extreme rhetoric we hear from one side just makes the other side more entrenched in its own position too.”
“I think from the perspective of both sides, there’s just no going back to the way things were,” she added.
What does Saudi want from Qatar?
When Saudi Arabia and its allies originally launched their isolation campaign against Qatar, they framed it as punishment for Qatar’s alleged funding of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. But few analysts actually bought that explanation.
Instead, most believed Saudi Arabia’s anger at Qatar had far more to do with Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate Islamist groups, its chummy relations with Saudi’s regional rivals Turkey and Iran, and its powerful and far-reaching media network Al Jazeera, which Saudi Arabia and the others see as a propaganda outlet for Islamist political movements that threaten their governments.
The list of demands that Saudi Arabia eventually sent to Qatar weeks after the isolation campaign began confirmed that skepticism. Of the 13 demands, only two have anything to do with terrorism.
Here’s the list, in full:
- Curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close its diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade and commerce with Iran that complies with US and international sanctions will be permitted.
- Sever all ties to “terrorist organizations,” specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Formally declare those entities as terrorist groups.
- Shut down Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations.
- Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, and Middle East Eye.
- Immediately terminate the Turkish military presence in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside Qatar.
- Stop all means of funding for individuals, groups, or organizations that have been designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, the US, and other countries.
- Hand over “terrorist figures” and wanted individuals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain to their countries of origin. Freeze their assets, and provide any desired information about their residency, movements, and finances.
- End interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Stop granting citizenship to wanted nationals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain. Revoke Qatari citizenship for existing nationals where such citizenship violates those countries’ laws.
- Stop all contacts with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain. Hand over all files detailing Qatar’s prior contacts with and support for those opposition groups.
- Pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies in recent years. The sum will be determined in coordination with Qatar.
- Consent to monthly audits for the first year after agreeing to the demands, then once per quarter during the second year. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.
- Align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially, and economically, as well as on economic matters, in line with an agreement reached with Saudi Arabia in 2014.
- Agree to all the demands within 10 days of them being submitted to Qatar, or the list becomes invalid.
As you can see, there’s a whole lot of stuff in there that has nothing to do with terrorism — and everything to do with stomping out Qatar’s regional aspirations and forcing it to fall in line with Saudi Arabia’s preferred policies.
There’s a lot at stake for the region — and the world
In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain pulled a much milder version of the move that we’re seeing today, withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, among other wrongs. That time, Qatar made some concessions, including curbing some of its ties to the group and cooperating more closely with Gulf states on security, and diplomatic ties were restored.
This time, Saudi and its allies are acting far more aggressively. The list of demands Saudi wants Qatar to submit to in order to end the punishment effectively calls for it to discard everything that makes Qatar independent.
The US’s interest is in having this regional dispute sorted out as swiftly and as smoothly as possible. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called for “a lowering of rhetoric” and hinted that all parties should be willing to compromise in order to find a resolution.
President Trump, however, has complicated Tillerson’s pleas for calm by siding openly with Saudi Arabia against Qatar, labeling Qatar “a funder of terrorism at a very high level.” That in turn is likely to make Saudi Arabia less open to a compromise.
Qatar has at least come capacity to wait out the boycott
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain have suspended all air, land, and sea travel to and from the country. But as a global energy giant with a population of under 3 million, Qatar is one of the wealthiest countries in the world per capita, and the government has huge reserves of cash on hand to help the country cope with restrictions on imports and the use of airspace in the region. The government, for example, is paying for shipments from new suppliers in Iran and India, according to the New York Times.
“We can cover the financial aspect without even tapping into our investments,” Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed al-Thani, a member of the ruling clan and a senior communications official in the government, told the Times. “It’s not a problem.”
Despite an earlier panic about the flow of food intro the country after Saudi Arabia sealed its border, through which Qatar imports most of its food, Qatar appears to be stable for now. Among the fairly modest inconveniences so far: Residents of Qatar are now reduced to drinking Turkish milk rather than Saudi milk.
And many Qataris are responding with an outpouring of pride in their country’s independence from Saudi Arabia, suggesting there may be some popular support for a refusal to comply with its demands.
"Suddenly, we went from people who gave a lot of s*** about having fresh milk in our cappuccinos to us drinking Turkish milk, which does taste weird — let's be honest," Hessa, a 22-year-old Qatari woman, told Al Jazeera.
"But we still say, 'We love it! Turkish milk is great! We don't need Saudi products!'"
We’ll see in the coming days if the government feels the same way.