Qatar Blockade
Photo: via Alaraby.co.uk

Qatar’s real crime

Qatar’s real crime, according to some observers who claim to know a little more about the politics of the Gulf, is that despite the fact that Qatar is 186 times smaller than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is immensely far richer, and it has chosen to carve its own destiny, independent of its neighbors, according to its own core interests. Its effort to modernize, through its support of Al Jazeera and modern institutions of learning, is a threat to the other states, which are not yet ready to accept modernization.

The point, however, is that the blockade has failed, and has left a gaping wound in the face of the region. The Quartet must now decide what to do next. Qatar has given them no reason to escalate, so escalation is out of the question. The Gulf must move on. Lifting the blockade seems the only option left.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has just met with the Queen of England and Prime Minister Theresa May in London, and with US President Donald Trump at the White House. Reports ahead of these meetings had said the Gulf crisis would be discussed. Sources friendly to Qatar expected both May and Trump to nudge the Prince to end the blockade.

As the reputed key architect of the blockade, the Prince is in a position to take the first step to end it. A relaxation of the restrictions on travel to and from Qatar could be such a step. But unless we have completely missed the updates, actual reports from the meetings failed to show a concrete initiative in this direction.

Trump triumphant

After his meeting with Prince bin Salman, President Trump was reported to have bubbled with delight over the $12.5 billion US aircraft sale to Riyadh and so many other things he saw forthcoming from that end. But there was no mention of the blockade. Some observers have suggested that instead of easing up on Qatar, Saudi Arabia may have hardened its position, particularly with respect to its demand that Doha scale down its ties with Iran, after Trump jettisoned the US nuclear deal with Tehran.

This is pure speculation and may be far out. But if it has happened, we may now be faced with an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Qatar and Iran may never have been ideological allies, but they co-own the largest independent gas field beneath the waters of the Persian Gulf. Qatar controls the northern 6,000 square kilometers of the 9,700 sq km-undersea gas field, while Iran controls the southern 3,700 sq kms. The North Field provides all of Qatar’s gas production and accounts for 60 percent of all its revenues.

Until now, the two neighbors have managed to live together in peace. It would not be in Qatar’s interest to alter the state of things. The US-Iran nuclear deal deserves a separate discussion altogether, but it is obvious the US and its allies need a much better deal with Iran than the one Trump has junked. Qatar, however, cannot possibly agree to sacrificing its own non-offensive relations with Iran just because of Trump.

Al Jazeera a solution, not a problem

With respect to Al Jazeera, which is now the No. 1 Arab news channel, reaching more than 140 countries, and with more than 70 bureaus around the world, there is no chance Qatar will consider shutting it down just to go back to the Middle Ages. It is in nobody’s interest to step out of the communications revolution and be left behind in humanity’s march to progress. Al Jazeera is a solution, not a problem.

Instead of letting Al Jazeera divide neighbors and friends, the Gulf countries should share it as a common resource to help them deepen their understanding of the world around them and themselves. The European-educated elite in the blockading countries should lead the way in teaching their leaders and their people not to fear progress. They should convince their leaders and themselves to allow education to trickle down to the masses.

The Gulf states have many enemies to fight and vanquish. One of them is fake news, which lies at the root of the present conflict, and has become a scourge of the modern world. They should be fighting it together, instead of foolishly fighting among themselves. This is where Saudi Arabia, as the preeminent Arab state and moving force behind the blockade, can demonstrate its genuine leadership. With or without any prodding from others, it should now lead the Quartet in lifting the blockade.