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Can tiny Qatar keep defying its powerful neighbours?

US may be the answer, as its commitment to Qatar remains solid

Nader Habibi | The Conversation 

Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Doha
An aerial view of Doha's diplomatic area

The recent decision by half the nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and a few other countries to isolate fellow member came as a surprise to many – though perhaps it shouldn’t have.

Essentially, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt severed all ties over Qatar’s positive opinion about Iran and support for Islamist groups like Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Besides cutting those ties, one of their demands also included putting curbs on the Al-Jazeera media network, which is based in Qatar’s capital of Doha and is partially funded by its ruling family.

The diplomatic and security ramifications have so far taken centre stage, with most Western nations, including the US and
countries in the region calling for a negotiated resolution to avoid further escalation. Yet the dispute that led to the recent outburst has been lingering for years – and erupted in a similar if smaller kerfuffle in 2014 – which begs the following questions:

What exactly has allowed to defy its more powerful neighbours for so long? And what (or who) could possibly change that?

Flouting its neighbours’ demands

is the second-smallest country in the with a national population of just 243,000. That swells to almost 2.4 million when you include expatriates, yet it’s still just a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s 31 million total population or the UAE’s 8 million.

It also has the smallest military, at just 12,000 soldiers, compared with Saudi Arabia’s 227,000.

Despite this large gap in population and military power, has long ignored the complaints of its stronger neighbours over its foreign policy positions that on some issues are diametrically opposed to theirs.

Al-Jazeera, which is based in Doha and partially supported by the government, is one of the sticking points between and its neighbours. AP Photo/ Hamid Jalaudin

There’s essentially one reason can afford to do this: the American security umbrella, which includes basing some 11,000 personnel in Doha – the largest deployment in the region – as well as hosting the US Combined Air Operations Center, which oversees air power in 20 countries.

Like the other countries, has a bilateral security arrangement with the US and it hosts the United States’ largest military base in the region. The protection not only shields against military threats from outside the region but empowers it to stand up to its larger allies when it chooses to do so.

is not the only member that takes advantage of protection in this manner. has also defied other members on occasions. In 2005, this tiny island of one million and home to the US Fifth Fleet upset when it signed a bilateral free trade agreement with the US, which violated the GCC common tariff regulations. In a sign of America’s pull in such disputes, it was Saudi Arabia that ultimately backed down.

Consequently, as long as remains under protection, and the can not resort to military options and have to limit their campaign to diplomatic and economic pressure. In other words, bilateral security relations with the US serves as an equaliser in interactions among countries regardless of their size.

Defense Secretary James Mattis, second from right, greets an airman during a recent visit to the U.S. military base in Pool Photo via AP/Jonathan Ernst

How long can hold out?

A secure and protected can afford to remain defiant in the face of economic isolation from its neighbours as long as it can tolerate the economic and financial costs. While these costs are hardly trivial, Qatar, as the richest country in the world on a per capita basis, can probably afford to ride them out for some time.

In terms of imports, Qatar’s reliance on other countries and Egypt is relatively modest and easily substitutable. The main immediate impact of the severing of ties was a disruption of food imports from Saudi Arabia, but managed to quickly switch to air shipments from Iran and Turkey – notably more expensive than ground shipments via Saudi border.

Qatar’s dependence on these neighbours for exports is even less. In 2015, only 4.6 per cent of Qatar’s US$80 billion worth of exports went to the UAE, while just 1 per cent flowed to Saudi Arabia.

A key reason for so little trade between countries in the is that their primary exports (oil and gas products) and imports (food and industrial products) are very similar.

So all in all, economic disengagement from the and will disrupt about 13 per cent of Qatar’s commodity imports and 5.6 per cent of its exports (trade with and Egypt is insignificant).

Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, left, meets with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha in hopes of helping mediate an end to the crisis. KUNA via AP

also has financial and commercial investment links with Saudi Arabia, the and By one account, 300 Saudi businesses are active in with investments worth $13.3 billion, as well as 1,075 UAE companies. The same report estimated 4,200 Qatari businesses were engaged in the in 2016.

While disruption of these business activities will also be costly for Qatar, the value of these investments is only a small share of its financial and commercial capital. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, for example, is estimated at $335 billion.

Beyond US. protection, the relatively small size of trade and investment links with and the is what gives little immediate incentive to concede to their demands, even as it hopes to avoid escalation.

recently agreed to buy up to 36 F-15 fighters from the U.S. Reuters/Amir Cohen

US still holds the key

So while Qatar’s economy is under some stress, its substantial financial resources - as well as diplomatic and economic support from several countries including Turkey, Iran, Kuwait and Oman- give it quite a bit of breathing room. 

But in the end, it all comes down to its security patron, the U.S., and President Donald Trump, who in a tweet praised and even seemed to claim credit for the move by and the other countries.


During my recent trip to the Middle East, I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to - look!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017


Afterwards, officials at the State and Defense departments expressed a more neutral position toward this dispute and called for a negotiated resolution, as some diplomats acknowledged Qatar’s efforts to prevent financial support for terror groups.

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So if ends up making any major concessions, it will most likely be a response to demands from the United States, on whom depends for its security. A few years ago, Qatar’s former ruler Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani put that dependence this way: Without the Americans, “my Arab brothers would invade me.”

And in a sign that US commitment to remains solid, the just announced a $12 billion deal to sell as many as 36 to its ally.

The ConversationIn other words, apart from President Trump’s tweet burst, the US government has given diplomatic breathing room to But if the United States calls for significant concessions, it is unlikely that will risk its military protection by saying no.

Nader Habibi, Professor of the Economics of the Middle East at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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First Published: Fri, June 16 2017. 08:53 IST