Between insurgencies, warfare, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one might think that not much else could go wrong in the Middle East. Given the recent diplomatic brouhaha involving Qatar, that assertion would be woefully incorrect.
A slew of Arab nations to include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar over the country’s support of Islamist movements and apparent tolerance of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief rival. The Maldives, the internationally-recognized government in Yemen (who is currently fighting a civil war with Iran-backed rebels) and the eastern government of Libya (not the UN-backed government in Tripoli) have also cut ties.
The dispute between Qatar and its Arab neighbors is not only diplomatic but also economic. The anti-Qatar coalition (for lack of better terms) have vowed to halt all land, sea, and air traffic with Qatar. Saudi Arabia has banned all Qatari airlines from its airspace. Emitares, Etihad Airways, flydubai, and Gulf Air have suspended all flights to and from Qatar. Qatar Airways, naturally, has suspended flights to Saudi Arabia.
The Qatari government has long been accused of supporting and funding extremist groups. Qatar, ironically, denies this, despite having direct financial links to Hamas. In the case of the most recent diplomatic dispute, Qatar is playing the victim.
If the Qatari government is to be believed, this entire ordeal is a massive conspiracy to lessen Qatar’s standing globally and threaten its sovereignty. “The State of Qatar has been subjected to a campaign of lies that have reached the point of complete fabrication,” said a statement by the Qatari government. “It reveals a hidden plan to undermine the State of Qatar.”
It is not the first time that Qatar has come under diplomatic fire from its neighbors. In 2014, several Gulf countries withdrew their diplomats from Qatar after the country’s support of Mohamed Morsi, former president of Egypt and Muslim Brotherhood member.
As this current dispute continues, the Qatari stock market has tumbled, and the price of oil rose. The United State, meanwhile, has called for all parties involved to settle the dispute amongst themselves. The U.S. finds itself in a precarious position. Qatar is home to the Al Udeid Air Base, which currently hosts the forward headquarters of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) and 10,000 US troops.
The United States has allies on both sides of this diplomatic line as well as bases or support activities in nearly all the countries involved. Even if the United States allows its Arab partners to figure this out on their own, there are second and third order effects that need to be considered. Qatar receives much of its food sources from other countries within the Gulf. Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia rely heavily on Qatar’s liquefied natural gas. That is the problem with a knife fight: everyone gets cut.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stated that there will be no impact to counter-terrorism activities but the United States may soon have to decide exactly who its friends in the Middle East are. The strategic and economic consequences of that decision, regardless of how it is made, could be severe.