The prosperous oil-rich states ringing the Arabian Sea are part of the famously known Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—a regional intergovernmental political and economic union in the Middle East. GCC members include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Last week a diplomatic crisis erupted when all GCC members except Kuwait and Oman—plus Egypt, Yemen, the eastern government in Libya and even the Maldives—openly declared they were boycotting Qatar and severing diplomatic ties, and all transport, people movement, food and other supply lines.
The massive blockade has since placed Qatar under a state of immediate emergency. The country imports up to 40 percent of its food over its only land border with Saudi Arabia (perhaps the most powerful among the boycotting nations). It has a resident population that is 80 percent foreign-born. And, its rich economy requires freedom of movement to export its petroleum and liquefied natural gas, which account for up to 60 percent of GDP.
The public justification given for this open quarrel is Qatar’s alleged coddling and financing of Muslim extremists, a charge many Persian Gulf nations have long thrown against the Qataris.
The most immediate cause being cited, however, were remarks published by Qatar’s state-run news agency allegedly from the ruling emir, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, giving praise to Israel and Iran. The two countries are among Saudi Arabia’s most virulent adversaries in the region.
The Qatar News Agency quickly said the remarks were false and were inserted by computer hackers employing “high techniques and innovative methods”. Saudi Arabia et. al. were obviously unconvinced, although Qatar’s emir did not help stave off the anger when a few days later, he called to congratulate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for his reelection.
The geopolitical rift saw interesting alignment and realignment of allies. Iran, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan immediately supported the Shiite-controlled Qatar, as against the Sunni-dominated GCC. Some analysts even point out that US President Donald J. Trump’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia emboldened it to become more aggressive with its long-time rivals.
Modern geopolitical exigencies notwithstanding, it appears that the current crisis harks back to the historic feud between the world’s two major Muslim denominations—Sunni and Shia. This schism happened as early as 632 AD when the death of Mohammad led to violent conflicts over who should succeed the Prophet to become caliph of the Islamic community.
Through the years, differences emerged in religious practice and interpretation (or hadith), eventually becoming the foundation for political divisions that, in some way, are still in place. Today Sunnis comprise up to 90 percent of the world’s Muslims and account for the majority of Islam’s devotees in Saudi, Egypt and even Indonesia. On the other hand, Shias are a minority in global terms, but make up the largest populations in countries like Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Azerbaijan.
In itself, Qatar ascribes to a Sunni version of Islam. But its position as a “go-between” in the Middle East places it in the middle of an unstated religious conflict and, hence, on the receiving end of an unprecedented diplomatic blockade.
For one, it’s supportive of groups some may consider to be extremists, like Hamas in the Gaza strip or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But it does so while hosting the US Armed Forces Central Command, hell-bent on weeding out radical extremism in the region. Qatar’s position is only made more tenuous by its financing of the Al Jazeera network, which on occasion has been critical of the human-rights records of Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Upon the mediation of Kuwait, Qatar recently expressed its willingness to dialogue with its boycotting neighbors. We hope that, in the interest of so many Filipinos working and living in Qatar, an end is near for the widening gulf happening around the Arabian Sea.
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