GCC ambassadors withdrawal highlights regional differences

This is the first time that three GCC countries have all withdrawn their ambassadors from another member state, proving the degree to which Doha has fallen out with its neighbours. Justin Vela reports

Interior Ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council during their meeting in Riyadh in May 2012. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on Wednesday recalled their ambassadors from Qatar over its alleged breach of a regional security deal in a clear sign of the rift among countries in the region. Hassan Ammar/AP Photo
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Abu Dhabi // The recalling of three Gulf ambassadors from Doha on Wednesday was unprecedented in the history of the GCC, but comes after years of turbulent relations between Qatar and its neighbours.

The blow to diplomatic ties presents Qatar with a tough choice: will it curb a set of controversial policies and toe the line adopted by other GCC states or accept a degree of regional isolation?

What happens next remains unclear, but the controversy lays bare Doha’s damaged ties with other Gulf states.

In a joint statement on Wednesday following a meeting of foreign ministers in Riyadh, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain said their ambassadors were withdrawn because Doha breached a regional security pact.

It was not the first time there has been a diplomatic protest between GCC countries. In 2002, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Doha for five years in protest against the coverage of Qatar-based television network, Al Jazeera.

But the fact that this is the first time that three Gulf countries have all withdrawn their ambassadors from another member state shows that the current controversy is more serious.

“This had been coming for at least a year, two years,” said Kamal Alam, a London-based senior fellow for Middle East Regional Defence and Security Issues at The Institute for Statecraft. “It finally exploded into this.”

The riches from Qatar’s booming natural gas industry allowed it to take on a role in the region that often clashed with the view of Saudi Arabia, which aims to be the dominant force in the GCC.

Al Jazeera gave the Arab world an unprecedented international voice, but also drew critism for reporting on sensitive subjects in other Gulf states.

When the Arab Spring began in 2011, Doha was quick to back uprisings throughout the region, allying itself with the Muslim Brotherhood, which gained prominence as decades-old regimes fell in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia consider the Islamist organisation to be a destabilising force in the region.

Qatar lent financial and political support to the Brotherhood during its one year in power in Egypt. When that came to an end with President Mohammed Morsi’s downfall last summer, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were quick to replace Doha as Cairo’s main sources of economic support.

Stoking the tensions was Doha’s hosting of members of the Brotherhood, including Egyptian cleric Yousuf Al Qaradawi.

In January, Al Qaradawi made an offensive sermon about the UAE that prompted the Qatari ambassador to to summoned to the foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi where he received a formal letter of protest.

“After they sent that warning to the Qataris, they didn’t do what was expected, or required of them by the UAE and Saudi,” said Andrew Hammond, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Attempts to make Qatar change its policies failed, resulting in Wednesday’s withdrawal of the ambassadors.

“Basically it comes down to Qatar’s foreign policy, which is antagonising Saudi and the UAE for the past two years ...” said Mr Alam.

Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies said it was “quite clear Qatar will have to make a compromise here.”

The country cannot afford to become isolated from its GCC counterparts, even if its bolsters already strong ties with Iran, the US, and the UK.

Mr Stephens gave the example of Qatar needing its land border with Saudi Arabia to stay open so concrete for FIFA World Cup 2022 construction could be imported.

To overcome the damaged ties, Mr Stephens said, Qatar needs to take steps towards building its relationship with the military-backed interim government in Egypt, which removed the Muslim Brotherhood led government in July 2013.

Reigning in its regional support of the Brotherhood was another important step. “The key is adjusting its strategy on the Muslim Brotherhood,” Mr Stephen said.

Qatar “needs to reaffirm that its key foreign policy objective is to maintain the security of the GCC and the region as a whole.”

But Mr Hammond warned that reassessing ties would be more difficult than one might think.

In 2013, after Qatari Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani took over for his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the country tried to project an image of calming its pursuit of regional power to focus on domestic issues.

Doha has taken a back seat on some issues, such as the conflict in Syria. But in other areas it has not changed quickly enough. Multiple analysts believed that Sheikh Hamad still maintained influence in some affairs, despite officially leaving power.

Kuwait’s parliament speaker on Wednesday suggested the country’s emir could play a mediating role in the dispute. But the tensions are likely to be difficult to heal.

Mr Hammond said that after years of Saudi Arabia leading the region, Qatar was unlikely to alter its approach quickly. Having a direct line to the Brotherhood gives an independence that Doha cherishes, he said.

“They want to be different,” he said.