The Gulf’s Evolving Regional Theater

A month later and the Saudi-led decision to blockade Qatar is escalating tensions in the Gulf to the detriment of US security interests. Increasingly so, regional actors like Tehran and Ankara are becoming stakeholders in the conflict, and are actively taking steps to shape it in ways that suit their respective interests and regional visions. This will only serve to perpetuate the rift and complicate negotiations efforts, as downscaling ties with Iran and Turkey are leading demands of Saudi. The United States has a security interest in preventing the conflict from devolving into another regional theater. If the US approach remains divided, or worse, divisive, Washington could soon see its ability to leverage its influence eroding.

While calling for a diplomatic resolution, Iran has enthusiastically ameliorated the effect of the blockade on Qatar by providing aid and air passage. Qatar is not Iran’s only GCC trading partner, and the United Arab Emirates remains Iran’s second biggest export market. However, Tehran’s support for Doha during the blockade is more political than it is economic. Qatar is currently receiving hundred tons of food a day from Iran. Leaders of the two countries have additionally reciprocated calls for cooperation to “strengthen bilateral ties.” For Riyadh, these developments might have been predictable, but they remain undesirable. After all, severing ties with Iran is the first demand on the 13-points list that Saudi sent to Qatar, and which Qatar’s foreign minister said was “made to be rejected.” Saudi’s strategy is self-defeating, as the further away Qatar is pushed from the GCC, the closer it becomes to Iran. Amid highly unverified reports that the IRGC is protecting the emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Iran mobilized its navy near the Strait of Hormuz in joint naval drills with China, and war games occurred just a few miles away from Saudi waters. As the two countries remain gridlocked in Syria and Yemen, Iran sees the rift as a strategic opportunity to shore up its support in its archenemy’s backyard. Iran, however, has not been the only country to partake in the rift. Turkey has, too, albeit for different objectives.

Whereas isolated-Iran saw in the rift an opportunity, Turkey saw a threat. Current Turkey-Qatar relations are an outgrowth of the new regional order that followed the Arab Spring, in which Turkey sees itself as a key pillar, and where Qatar’s support for Islamist groups has alarmed its Gulf neighbors. Erdogan and the Islamist AKP party thus see in Qatar a rare and powerful ally that shares a regional vision. Like Iran, Turkey quickly delivered aid during the blockade, with exports totaling thirty-three million dollars in twenty days. In a symbolic gesture, however, it also fast-tracked the additional deployment of Turkish troops to Qatar, increasing their numbers from eighty-eight to up to one thousand. The number of troops is marginal by all standards, but the timing of the additional deployment, two days after the Gulf severed its ties with Qatar, is symbolic enough. Hence the demand of closing Turkey’s base in Qatar and ceasing military operations with Turkey is second on the 13-points list. On its part, Qatar said that “circumstances in the region” dictate that defense cooperation with Turkey must intensify. As Saudi escalated, so did Erdogan, who called the list “a very, very ugly approach to try to interfere with our [military] agreement.” Turkey’s response to the crisis is about alliance management, and Erdogan’s message was unambiguous: Ankara will not be bullied by Riyadh.

Saudi’s approach to the crisis is a form of costly signaling. In undertaking an aggressive public campaign from which it will be difficult to back down without political damage, it has tied its own hands. Saudi Arabia and its allies understand the logic behind this approach, but so do Iran and Turkey. It is unclear if Saudi Arabia foresaw the scale of Iran and Turkey’s commitment to supporting Qatar, or if Saudi Arabia is willing to risk its credibility by compromising its demands in order to measure this commitment. If the conflict continues its pace however, which it likely will following the July 5th meeting, the US must be wary which regional actors are becoming involved. Iran sees an advantage in splitting the Sunni bloc, especially after Trump signaled Tehran out in the Riyadh summit. Turkey, increasingly at odds with the United States in northern Syria, could capitalize on its new convergence with Iran in Qatar to achieve a favorable settlement in Syria as Syria’s political map is being redrawn. Both scenarios are at odds with US security interests.

The missing actor in this image is the United States. Despite the pressing need to maintain the unity of the Gulf, the US has shown no coherent diplomatic stance towards the dispute. Washington needs Saudi Arabia to balance Iran, and Qatar’s al-Udaid Base, the largest regional US base for its Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan operations. The decision by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker to block future arms sales to the GCC until the dispute is resolved is underwritten by this security logic, but Saudi Arabia has shown no sign that it will concede to this type of pressure. The Gulf Cooperation Council as the United States once knew it has taken an irreversible damage, but Washington still maintains leverage on its different members, a leverage that could erode with Tehran and Ankara’s involvement. If the United States does not take steps to resolve a conflict between two of its allies, it will increasingly find itself dealing with external adversaries and hostile actors.

Ali Marhoon is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Image: Photo: Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (2-L), UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan (L), Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (R), and Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa (2-R) meet to discuss the diplomatic situation with Qatar, in Cairo, Egypt, July, 5 2017. The Foreign Ministers meetingis held after Qatar sent a formal letter of response to the 13-points list of demands to the emir of Kuwait, the main mediator in the Gulf crisis, in response to diplomatic and economic sanctions from Saudi Arabia and its allies, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain on allegations that Qatar is funding extremism. REUTERS/Khaled Elfiqi/Pool