The Arab League’s deadline for Syria to stop the “bloody repression” has passed, paving the way for stronger action after the League’s surprisingly hardline stance towards the Assad regime. Jenifer Fenton looks at what is motivating the GCC states, most notably the one taking the lead in the new regional diplomacy, Qatar.
Qatar, with its progressive foreign policy, is publicly driving the Gulf’s response to Syria and carving out a role for itself as a country that can quickly adapt to the sweeping changes resulting from the Arab spring, but the regional weight it carries and its motives are more nuanced.
The six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates - and the majority of Arab League member states agreed that there was a limit to the violence unleashed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad it could tolerate. The United Nations puts the death toll since the unrest began at well over 3,500 people. Last week, the Arab League decided to suspend Syria’s participation and to impose political and economic sanctions against the Syrian government.
The decision approved by 18 members, Lebanon and Yemen objected and Iraq abstained, was “a difficult one,” the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani said .
Bilateral trade between Syria, whose GDP is $60 billion, and the Arab countries amounts to roughly $8 billion, according to Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center. But 40 percent of Syria’s non-oil trade is with Iraq so Iraq’s abstention is significant, he said.
The Arab League decision was overdue. “It was the right one,” said Khalid Al-Dakhil, professor of political sociology at King Saud University. “They needed to not allow Syria to use the Arab cover to continue with its brutal crackdown on the Syrian people and the Syrian regime has to know that this must stop.”
The Arab body had to show they are decisive, that they do not just bark but bite also, according to Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University. But there is “no doubt in my mind… what is driving all this is the GCC, especially Qatar, especially the UAE. Saudi Arabia… are giving all the green lights Qatar needs at this moment. In essence, as I see it, Qatar is just speaking for Saudi Arabia which is usually a timid player. They don’t want to be in the front so Qatar is having all the backing from Riyadh.”
It is clear that visionary Qatar and the old order of Saudi Arabia do not always see eye-to-eye (for years they had uneasy relations), but if Saudi Arabia actively challenged a Qatari foreign policy decision - which recently it does not appear to have done - it seems unlikely that Qatar would not heed Saudi Arabia’s wishes.
In late January, while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was still in power, Saudi Arabia defended the status quo and strongly condemned the protests. “No Arab and Muslim human being can bear that some infiltrators… have infiltrated Egypt, to destabilize its security and stability and they have been exploited to spew out their hatred in destruction, intimidation, burning, looting and inciting a malicious sedition,” Saudi King Abdullah said at the time, according to the Saudi Press Agency. Tunisia’s deposed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took refuge in the Kingdom as well.
Compare Saudi’s actions to Qatar, which was the first Arab country to recognize the National Transitional Council as the legitimate government of Libya and it contributed planes to assist the Nato-led operation.
While the GCC nations may not agree on aspects of foreign policy “at least there is minimum coordination,” Al-Dakhil said. “I think there is a misperception about the Saudi position regarding Egypt or any of the Arab revolutions,” he added. “Basically Saudi Arabia is not different from the rest of the Arab states. They don’t like the idea of revolution, but at the same time they are pragmatic enough… They are willing to get along with what the Egyptian people want in Egypt. I mean if they want to make a revolution… that is their country, that is their right.” That sentiment Al-Dakhil believes is also the Saudi position with respect to Tunisia and Libya.
Saudi Arabia is willing to accept the changes, but they are less willing to accept the unknown - so the Kingdom is taking a wait-and-see policy, while Qatar is getting out ahead. But by allowing Qatar to be the public face of the Gulf leadership, Saudi Arabia is also spared the negative repercussions and close scrutiny that publicity brings.
However, Qatar’s grand vision is unclear. “Qatar is dancing on all floors to be able not miss the boat and make sure that they keep their link open to everybody whether they are Islamist, or liberal or conservative,” Sager said. It is also hard to reconcile Qatar’s physical size, it is smaller than Connecticut, and small national population, some 300,000 people, with such ambitious regional and international interests. A lot of people are questioning if Qatar is acting to a degree on behalf of an international agenda: with the United States with whom it is very close, or Iran with whom it shares economic interest, or Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries, Sager said. It is certain though Qatar is “filling a gap also because other regional powers are not acting, they’re not moving for their own reasons.” Iran, Sager believes, wants to keep their link with Syria, but not necessarily al-Assad. Qatar also does not want to upset Iran because they know Iran has spheres of influence with other Arab countries, he added. So it is difficult to asses the Syria-Qatar-Iran dynamics with certainty.
In Libya, Qatar even went ahead of the UAE. The Emirates, before contributing military power to Libya, wanted first to get Western assurances that the GGC’s deployment of troops in Bahrain would not be characterized by the West as a step in the wrong direction, according to retired UAE Maj. Gen. Khaled Abdullah Al-Buainnan whom I spoke to earlier this year. Qatar did not wait for that scaling back of Western condemnation.
With respect to Bahrain, the GCC has been accused of a double standard - supporting the government against an opposition that has legitimate grievances. Consistency is not a very common aspect of foreign policy, Rami Khouri, director of Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs said. “The Saudis will act differently, the Qataris will act differently in Bahrain then they might in Libya…Foreign Policy is not an ethics based process, it is an interests based process,” he said.
Khouri agreed there is greater Gulf activism, which includes the dynamism of Qatar and the UAE, but thinks there are several different currents at work. “The Saudis are against these revolutions, they don’t like them. They don’t like populist revolutions,” Khouri said. What the Qataris are doing is hard to tell, perhaps the state is just giving into reality, he added. What is interesting is that popular opinion in the Arab world is now driving the response of the Arab governments, including the Gulf, and the Arab League realized that it was on the verge of being irrelevant, Khouri added. Some aspects of the Arab League’s work is starting to reflect a semblance of Arab opinion and the major world powers are not playing a major role, and in a weird way they are kind of following the lead of the Arab League, he added.
However, public opinion in the Gulf is a bit of a mystery. But each leader in the region that falls acts an unnerving reminder to powers in the Gulf that their rule is not unquestionable. Right now it is about Syria, but “the winds of changes are banging on everyone’s door,” Abdullah said.