In the history of rivalries and conflicts in the MENA region, Saudi Arabia’s threat to transform Qatar into an island is an unprecedented example of how far one country will go to isolate another.
The announcement by state-linked Saudi newspapers on 9 April 2018 that Saudi Arabia could turn Qatar into an island was taken by most media to be a joke or crazy plan, along the same lines as US President Donald Trump declaring that Mexico would pay for a wall between their two countries.
According to the announcement, the plan would entail digging a maritime canal along Saudi Arabia’s border with Qatar, turning it into an island and allowing shipping to bypass the emirate. To do so, Saudi Arabia would use Egyptian engineers who have experience building the Suez Canal. The costs have been put at 2.8 billion Saudi riyals ($750 million) and work could start within a year if approved. While parts of the canal could become tourist attractions with resorts and marinas for sports clubs, a Saudi military base would be established on a 1km stretch of land that separates Qatar’s border from the Salwa water channel. The rest of the area would be converted into a waste dump for a planned Saudi nuclear reactor. Designs suggest that the canal would be 60km in length, 200 metres wide and between 15 and 20 metres deep. So far, no official statement has been issued confirming the likelihood of the plan.
This is the latest in the deepening crisis between Qatar and its neighbours, who accuse the emirate of supporting extremists and funding terrorism. On 5 June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt severed diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Qatar. By February 2018, 12 countries, mainly in the Middle East and Africa, had joined the blockade.
In order to end the blockade, the Saudi-led bloc asked Qatar to agree to a list of 13 demands. These included cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, the Sunni Islamist organization Muslim Brotherhood, extremist Sunni organization al-Qaeda and Lebanese political party Hezbollah; shutting down the Qatari media company al-Jazeera; and ending military cooperation with Turkey.
As expected, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani rejected the demands on 2 July 2017. “We believe that the world is governed by international laws that don’t allow big countries to bully small countries,” he told a press conference in Italy. “No one has the right to issue to a sovereign country an ultimatum.”
Since then, Qatar has been extremely isolated. A net food importing country, it has depended on Turkey and Iran to supply the basic needs of its population of 2.7 million (including foreign workers).
More recently, the Emir of Qatar was absent from the 29th Arab Summit held in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on 15 April 2018. “The absence of the emir … is a natural and deplorable result of the policy of arrogance adopted by Doha since the start of its crisis,” UAE State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash posted on his Twitter account.
Two weeks later, on 29 April, the newly appointed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for unity in the Gulf region during his first foreign trip in his new role to Saudi Arabia. US officials told reporters that Pompeo would talk to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about solving the Gulf crisis. This came as a surprise to many as Trump had initially backed the blockade, declaring that the time had come “to call on Qatar to end its funding … and its extremist ideology”.
In June 2017, however, the State Department provided another perspective on the situation, saying that the blockading countries had failed to provide proper justification for their actions. “Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the Qataris, nor to the public, the details about the claims they are making toward Qatar,” Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman said. “At this point, we are left with one simple question: were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism? Or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries?”
So far the lines have not moved, and the next months should show whether the US pressure on the kingdom and its allies will prove successful.
Meanwhile, in the UAE, Gargash warned Qatar it should carefully reconsider its position. “Years of conspiracy, treachery and backstabbing cannot be erased with the stroke of a pen. Now that the options are clear and serious, it is time for Doha to depart from its state of confusion and look carefully at the principles for the solution and the demands made by the four countries.”
It remains to be seen whether Qatar will respond to this veiled threat and submit to its neighbours’ demands or risk becoming more isolated than ever.