The conflict between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council has stabilized and has little risk of spillover, Steven Heydemann, Professor of Middle East Studies at Smith College, told valdaiclub.com. According to Heydemann, little is expected to change, although the United States and Russia could cooperate to create a new regional security architecture in order to find a way out of the conflict.
The split at this moment reflects how intense the balance of power competition in the Gulf and in the broader Arab East has become; and the extent to which the major powers within the GCC have been willing to force the issue of alignment within the GCC; how intense the polarization in the region has become. In particular, around the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
As that struggle has deepened, in particular, in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere, the major powers within the GCC have felt less willing to extent greater autonomy to other members in the GCC, including, in particular, Qatar. This is an effort to raise the costs for Qatar of breaking with what the Saudis feel is the security norm that should define the GCC and to impose discipline on Qatar to bring it back to line, including punitive measures.
The Saudi strategy is not likely to succeed, nor will be a significant deepening of this conflict. We have achieved an uncomfortable and uneasy status quo in the state of relationships between Qatar and other members of the GCC, which signals that the GCC alignment is fundamentally broken at this point. We heard recent comments from senior Qatari officials about their interest in leaving the GCC.
It does not appear that it will be possible to knit the GCC back together in the way that it existed before. This is unlikely to spark conflict or military action on the part of any players in the GCC. There could be a continuation of the current cold war within the GCC. This will lead to a long-term shift in Qatar’s relationship with both GCC states and Iran.
There is a big issue, which is how to reduce tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The second big question is what role Turkey might play in a regional security architecture. However, everything that we are seeing is the result of an unraveling of the existing security architecture that has been eroding since 2003 in the Arab view. The best, most effective role that Russia and the US can play is to assist local actors in building a new regional security architecture that will provide the security and stability of all countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Ironically, both Iran and Saudi Arabia feel encircled and embattled, both are caught in a security dilemma in which they see every move by their counterpart as aggressive rather than defensive and each country explains everything it is doing in defensive, rather than in offensive terms. There does not appear to be a pathway out of that dilemma without positive intervention from external actors. It is clear that Russia and the US are the two actors best positioned to play that positive role.
Qatar has a classic balancing behavior. It was expected that when Qatar was threatened by stronger neighbors, it would respond by balancing with what it viewed as a counterweight. In this case, Iran. You can look at this move in two ways. One, as a bargaining chip, as an attempt by the Qatari ruling family to gain leverage that would permit it to bargain for a more reasonable outcome to this crisis. The other way is that it represents the fundamental risk within the GCC, it underscores how fragile the GCC is and it is the first step in a long-term realignment of alliance relationships in the Gulf.
Qatar raises important questions, in particular to the United States as it realigned because of the major base that the US has in Qatar, but knowing what we know now, nothing Qatar is doing is likely to jeopardize the status of the US base there. It does not appear that the status of the US base will a significant issue in America’s relations with other GCC members. But what we see with that renewal of full diplomatic relations is a deepening of this rift, and one that is likely to be very long-term.
None of the parties to this conflict have an interest in escalating, but there are also very few incentives for them to deescalate at the moment. The best guess is that this conflict will remain in its current state for some time. In addition, it is possible that some precipitating event could change the dynamics; it’s difficult to predict what that could be. Something that is taken as a provocation by one side or the other could tip the balance. In fact, both Turkish and Iranian security assurances would reduce the likelihood of this kind of provocation because Qatar has aligned itself effectively with two major regional powers in ways that reduce its vulnerability to that kind of thing.
In the short term, we are likely to see this conflict continue, Kuwait and to some extent, Oman will continue their roles as mediators to try to find pathways out of this conflict. However, even as they mediate, we see that both sides are digging in, both the Qataris and the Saudis and Emiratis. We are unlikely to see a change in this conflict in the short term.