The GCC crisis: Draconian demands and juvenile politics

The list of demands that Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries say Qatar must comply with in order to end the diplomatic and trade siegethey imposed on the country two weeks ago is so draconian and broad that it mainly raises new questions about the efficacy, motivation, and desired outcome of the Saudi-Emirati-led isolation of Qatar.

The demands that were leaked on Friday are so extreme and unrealistic in their scope, severity, and credibility that, if they are indeed accurate, they may backfire and hurt the Saudi and Emirati governments that are at odds with political realities in the Middle East instead of Qatar.

In the 13-point list, the countries demand Qatar to shut down the Al Jazeera network and other media it sponsors, scale down ties with Iran, sever all alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups like Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), and take other measures related to its relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Their most bizarre demand is to audit Qatar once a month for the first year after an agreement is reached, once per quarter in the second year, and then annually for another decade. This should be seen as a telltale sign that this is more of a Hollywood mafia hit list or a deliquent court’s juvenile fancies than the terms of a serious diplomatic negotiation about credible concerns. And it will elicit chuckles rather than any serious response in the region.

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These demands came very late in the crisis – over two weeks after the start of blockade and they have a severe and unrealistic nature, which makes it impossible for Qatar to comply and also remain a sovereign state. The demands are based on widely unsubstantiated and exaggerated grievances against Qatar, which are more about differing political orientations and values than any alleged credible strategic threat.

Also, no major country in the world has so far lined up squarely behind the Saudi-Emirati siege of Qatar (those who did are countries hobbled by a severe dependency on GCC aid) while most governments have called for a negotiated and mediated resolution. Yet, the Saudi-Emirati leaders expect Qatar to submit to these “non-negotiable” demands, accept their permanent tutelage, and remain under surveillance, like a child being disciplined or a criminal being rehabilitated.

A few days ago the US State Department expressed puzzlement about the Saudi and Emirati leadership’s reluctance to spell out their complaints about Qatar. It emphasised the necessity for these demands to be put forward so that serious mediation could kick into gear.

The US insisted that Qatar’s neighbours should provide a list of “reasonable and actionable” demands – yet the list published on Friday does not seem to meet these criteria. The demands seek radical changes or total omissions of foreign and media policies that are central to Qatar’s definition of its role in the region and the world, so they cannot possibly be met or even seriously considered in their current form.

The accusations that Qatar funds and promotes terrorism through a range of Arab and Iranian parties have not found serious support around the region or the world. Many political groups and analysts agree that Qatari-funded organisations, such as Al Jazeera Arabic, supported some of the populist Arab uprisings in 2010-11, but this consensus does not extend to accusations relating to “terrorism”.

Doha’s political relations with Iran, Hamas and other Islamists reflect the emirate’s ideology of maintaining working relations with all principal political actors in the region, in order to enable conflict-resolution negotiations and other useful political contacts when possible. Consequently, Qatar’s “crime” in the eyes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would seem to be that it seeks to engage with all the political and popular forces of the Middle East in order to maintain the balance of powers in the region. 

This contrasts sharply with the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian preference for asserting an old-fashioned paternalistic, top-heavy, security-anchored model of governance and public life that a majority of Arab people has tried to reject in the recent uprisings.

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These demands and the sentiments behind them seem to be the consequence of two simultaneous attempts to assert power and self-confidence in the region. The first of these attempts was the dynamic moves by the Saudis and Emiratis in the past six years to use their military and financial muscle across the region (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain) to beat back waves of citizen activism, free media, democratic populism, and rising Islamism that threatened their model of governance by welfare-state paternalism.

The second has been the assertion of political control in Saudi Arabia by the new Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who has little to show to date for the internal reforms he initiated, his Yemen war adventure, and the move against Qatar.

How these dynamic, aggressive moves by Saudi-Emirati leaders will impact the region will be clarified in the coming weeks, when Qatar and others respond to these demands that clearly need to be revised and negotiated to come closer to political reality.

The biggest immediate threat from a continuation of the current stand-off is to the integrity of the GCC. This stand-off may jeoperdise the stability of the Gulf region and other Arab states that depend on the cooperation for their economic wellbeing. As a result of the reconfiguration of the regional strategic balance, actors such as Iran,Turkey, Russia and Israel can also make bold moves and complicate things. 

We should expect to see more of the same in the region – new tension, conflict, and disruptions in society and people’s lives, as official and non-state forces show they are willing and able to resist the military and financial pressures by governments that take harsh and unrealistic measures to enforce unreasonable demands that are based on imprecise and non-credible analysis of realities of the region.

The best that we can hope for is that this incident will push all concerned to focus more realistically on actual policy disagreements that can be resolved by reasonable compromises and concessions on both sides, rather than expressions of exaggerated fears in draconian punitive moves and threats. 

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, an internationally syndicated columnist, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.