Nearly three months have passed since a crisis emerged among members of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). During this time, Qatar has suffered an unprecedented political and economic blockade, but has survived. In the meantime, Iran and Turkey have edged closer to Qatar, and Doha has managed to stay alive through artificial respiration thanks to popular support for the government as well as the trade ties it has established with Tehran and Ankara. Unlike what Saudi Arabia and some of its Arab allies in the region have expected, Doha has not succumbed to Riyadh’s demands. Qatar has not only refused to reduce the level of its relations with Iran, but returned its ambassador to Tehran last week.
Mehran Kamrava, the director of the Centre for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, believes Qatar’s restoration of its ambassador to Tehran does not necessarily suggest the amelioration of Tehran-Doha relations in the long run. At the same time, he believes Doha is using the trump cards it has to counter the Saudi-imposed blockade.
Excerpts of Kamrava’s interview with the Persian-language Etemad daily newspaper follow.
[Asked on the Qatari ambassador’s return to Iran, Kamrava said] A few points should be taken into consideration in this regard. First of all, in the first phase, Qatar recalled its ambassador from Tehran as the country had close relations with Saudi Arabia and wanted to sympathize with Riyadh over the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. But now, Qatar is having issues with Saudi Arabia. So, the key reason behind Doha’s recalling its ambassador from Tehran, i.e., showing support for Riyadh, no longer exists.
The second point which could have contributed to Qatar’s decision to send its ambassador back to Iran is that, in recent days, there has been talk of meetings between Iranian and Saudi diplomats. Under such circumstances, Doha believes that if Iranian and Saudi diplomats are supposed to hold talks, there is no reason for Qatar to maintain its previously low level of ties with Tehran.
The third point is that the move by Doha sends a signal to Riyadh that it should take Qatar more seriously. In this scenario, the Qataris are sending the message to Saudi Arabia that they can improve their relations with Iran. At the moment, Tehran and Doha only have trade relations. However, with the normalization of ties and the Qatari ambassador to Tehran beginning work, Doha shows to Saudi Arabia that it can establish diplomatic and political relations with Iran in addition to trade ties.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) first believed that the measure they had adopted against Qatar would bear fruit in one or two weeks and Doha would give in to their demands. However, the scenario which began more than two months ago continues to unfold, and Qatar is not showing the reaction desired by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar is even adopting measures which are against Saudi Arabia and its allies. Doha has even taken steps such as working towards further promotion of Tehran-Ankara ties. Therefore, with every step it takes, Qatar seeks to find more and more ways to tackle the crisis it is currently grappling with. The UAE’s negative reaction is natural. At the moment, the United Arab Emirates is trying hard to depict Qatar as a colony of Iran, and as a result, Abu Dhabi is using Doha’s decision to return its ambassador to Tehran as a pretext to suggest Doha is leaning toward Tehran.
[Asked why Iran has become so important for Qatar at this juncture, and whether or not Tehran-Doha relations will further expand in the long run, Kamrava said] This is a very important question for which there is no definitive answer at this point in time. The current developments cannot show whether or not Tehran-Doha ties will improve in the long run. Qatari politicians have seen for themselves that they cannot trust their Arab neighbours. Rather, they have realized it is Iran and Turkey that they can trust. Qatar saw in practice that it was Tehran and Ankara that rushed to Doha’s aid in times of danger and need. It is not unlikely that the situation will continue to remain the same in the long term. Still, no definite answer can be given to that question.
Iran and Qatar have always had cordial, but not deep relations. Iran has tried over the past years to further deepen its ties with Qatar. However, Qatar has been extremely skeptical about Iran over the past one or two decades. For instance, Qatar did not renew residence permits for the Iranians expats who were living in Qatar for several decades, or did not extend visas for many of them. Many Iranian restaurants in Doha face numerous problems in bringing more waiters from Iran. Iranian businessmen in Qatar have problems, too. Of course, a few of the obstacles have been removed over the past couple of months. Still, Doha, for example, allowed the nationals of eighty countries to stay in Qatar without visas, but Iran was not among those countries. Although Iran and Qatar have good relations at this juncture and both countries are exchanging ambassadors, sending ambassadors per se does not necessarily indicate that the two countries are deepening their relations in the long run. It is military, commercial and cultural cooperation that brings two countries closer together in the long term, and this does not happen simply by opening embassies and exchanging ambassadors.
[Asked what impact the amelioration of Iran-Qatar relations will have on regional equations and the current trends in the region, he said] There are two possibilities ahead of us. One possibility is that the GCC will return to is previous state, i.e. will turn into an anti-Iran front and a US ally again. It may not be controlled by the hegemony, but will be controlled by Saudi Arabia and others.
The second possibility is to continue the same path whereby Qatar’s confidence in Saudi Arabia and others will shatter, and no new trust will take shape in the foreseeable future. Under such circumstances, a kind of bipolarity will emerge in the Middle East. On the one side stand supporters of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. On the other side stand a group of countries comprising Turkey, Iran, Qatar and maybe Syria. I don’t think this duality will take shape in practice, but what is noteworthy is that relations have been overhauled. Iran and Turkey have got much closer together, which is due to domestic developments in Syria. Iran, Turkey and Qatar have also got closer because of the latest developments. Based on the recent events, we will witness happenings in the future, but it is not clear what they will be. There is also a possibility that Iran, Turkey and Qatar will form a group based on economic-trade cooperation, or as I said earlier, the GCC may return to its previous anti-Iran state.
A question mark exists is the United States. At the moment, the US is a missing piece of a puzzle. Over the past month, US President Donald Trump has remained silent vis-à-vis the crisis between Qatar and some Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the US State Department has shown no capability to mediate. We should wait and see what position Washington will adopt in this regard. It may continue the current trend without taking any new stance.
As you know, the White House has its own political problems inside the United States. For example, if the US opts to get tough on Saudi Arabia and the UAE or somehow pressure them, certain analyses can be a driving force behind new developments, analyses such as “Iran is taking advantage of the current crisis among GCC member states, or Iran is gaining more power due to the crisis within the GCC.”
Another scenario would be for Qatar to enter into talks with Iran and Turkey. Under such talks, Doha should be able to take items such as heavy machinery and auto spare parts through Europe to Turkey and then to Iran before importing them via the Persian Gulf into Qatar. This scenario is under discussion at the moment.
A group of Qataris travelled to Iran last week and kicked off negotiations in this regard and on some other issues. Of course, the talks may take months, so that Iran and Turkey can put the process back on track. It is important for Qatar to find a way to circumvent the sanctions imposed on its neighbouring countries. At the moment, the costs of each trade transaction in Qatar have risen by 15 to 20 percent. The Qatari government is trying to roll back that increase one way or another. If it can bring down the costs in the next three or four months and ease pressure on the private sector, prices will fall.
Another point is that there are no rifts within the Qatari government that Saudi Arabia can cash in on. An interesting event that has taken place in the last two months is that we have witnessed nationalistic and patriotic sentiments among Qatari people. This has been unprecedented over the past decade that I’ve been living in Qatar. Even foreigners who live in Qatar have hung the pictures of the Qatari emir in their homes or cars without having to do so. Unlike in most Mideast countries, we wouldn’t see the pictures of the Qatari emir in public places. But over the past two months, the people have put up the photos of the emir of their own volition.
Saudi Arabia recently released the photo of a meeting between one of the members of the Qatari royal family and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in a bid to undermine Qatar and intimidate the Qatari emir, but to no avail. This shows Saudi Arabia has reached a dead end.
At the moment, Saudi Arabia and its allies have imposed an all-out air, sea and land blockade on Qatar and have no more cards to play. The only remaining option could be a military action, which is not on the agenda at all. Saudi Arabia and its allies first used their trump card, and when they saw it was useless, adopted new measures. For example, in the UAE, the Dubai police chief said on his Twitter page that Qatar has turned into a colony; or the UAE’s state TV reports that protest rallies have been held in Qatar and Turkish forces have cracked down on people; these are all ridiculous and farcical. Despite all these baseless reports, nationalistic and patriotic sentiments among Qatari people are running high.
With no cards left in its hands, Saudi Arabia now seeks to provoke Qatar in different ways. For instance, a Qatari sheikh who has a lot of land and property in Saudi Arabia was told to go and meet King Salman if he wanted to have his property. Then the Qatari sheikh was taken to Morocco to meet King Salman. Photos were taken of the meeting to somehow threaten the Qatari government. The Qatari sheikh has now fled to London and has sent a message to the Qatari emir saying he did not allow the Saudis to take advantage of him. The biggest problem that Qatar has at the moment is the transfer of machinery into the country. It has no other economic and trade problems. Of course, machinery is being imported into Qatar, but at exorbitant prices. If Qatar can import machinery via Turkey and then Iran, the problem will be solved.