CATCH 22: THE ARABS AND AFRICA 01 Jul, 2017
Well, it seems that the genie is out of the bottle and it would take crafty political maneuvering to put it back inside. Last month, Saudi Arabia took an unprecedented step of leading a league of Gulf countries to sever ties with its neighbor and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member, Qatar, accusing the tiny state of supporting terrorism. True to form, the sudden decision took many by surprise. Qatar has long had hostile relations with its influential neighbor, but the latest move by Saudi is the grimmest to date. Given that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have clout and are gaining momentum in regional and global diplomatic arenas, analysts assert that it is instrumental that peace and stability is maintained in the Middle East – an oil-rich region that has a combined GDP of more than one trillion dollars. By the same token, it is in the best interest of Africa as a whole and the Horn of Africa in particular to cautiously scrutinize this amorphous yet fermenting regional crisis, writes Bruh Yihunbelay.
It would not be an overstatement if one argues that Qatar’s fame took off after the launch of the currently prominent television network, Al Jazeera. The TV network has been the most visible brand to come out of the tiny nation. And true to form, in a relatively short period of time, it has managed to become a strong competition to the well-established global news outlets like BBC and CNN.
Positioned between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, Qatar was nothing more than a remote desert settlement until the late 1930s. However, after it discovered huge amounts of natural gas, things started to change.
Now, Qatar is a high roller and is on top of the heap of a small group of elite countries that command the highest GDP per capita on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) basis – more than USD 100,000.
After Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani assumed power in 1995, Qatar has progressively achieved the status of being an Arab version of Switzerland or Luxemburg. However, quality of life was not the ultimate goal; the grand plan is having a resilient economy and strong regional and global political influence. And one of the many components for accomplishing that is by launching a credible, news network that was neither foreign-run nor a government mouthpiece, according to an article published in the New Republic magazine.
The TV network was formed in 1996 from the leftovers of a failed BBC-Saudi attempt to start an Arabic-language news channel. When Saudi censorship proved objectionable to the BBC, the Qataris jumped in, hiring over a hundred laid off BBC journalists and broadcasters, recruiting locals, and lending the network a whopping USD 137 million to get things going.
After it went on air with its Arabic-language channel, Al Jazeera took the Arab world by storm and gained the reputation of being an informative yet controversial news channel – the one thing that did not comfort the Saudis. By 1999, when the channel began 24-hour broadcasting, it had twelve international bureaus and employed over 500 people.
Though Al Jazeera was expected to be profitable within five years of its launch, it could not become a moneymaking entity. According to commentators at the time, the reason was that advertisers were allegedly influenced by Saudi and Kuwait not to advertise on Al Jazeera. Therefore, in 2001, Al Jazeera borrowed an additional USD 130 million from the Qatari government to keep the ball rolling. That was not the only plan. They had a big surprise in store for the global audience – an English-language news channel was in the works.
Al Jazeera English went live in 2006. The ambition was to provide a different narrative on global issues and cover parts of the world to which the global news titans like the BBC and CNN gave little to no attention – Southwest Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. This strategy paid off after five years when the Arab Spring broke out, and Al Jazeera became the go-to channel for international viewers.
Eventually, tensions between Saudi and Qatar were exacerbated by the Arab Spring in 2011, when Saudi Arabia and Qatar were seen as backing different sides.
That and a host of other factors tainted the relationship the network and Qatar had with other countries in the Middle East and six years later the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries led by Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and demanded the termination of Al Jazeera as one of the prerequisites for normalizing relations.
The GCC and Qatari quandary
To put things into perspective, the GCC is a strong political and economic alliance established in 1981 by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
In the latest debacle, the Saudi-led group decided to cut ties with Qatar, citing their concern over the security and stability of their nations. They claimed that their tiny neighbor works to support “terrorism” and meddle in the internal affairs of its brethren in the GCC.
This sparked a series of diplomatic breakdowns between the GCC countries, including severing of diplomatic ties between three Gulf States (Saudi, Bahrain and UAE) and Qatar, an embargo imposed on Qatar, with air, sea and land borders shut down, and Qatari diplomats and residents expelled from those Gulf countries. Bahrain was the first to announce the severing of ties on June 5; it was followed shortly after by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt made their announcements within 10 minutes.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Qatar responded to the announcements, saying that there is “no legitimate justification” for the actions taken by the countries that severed diplomatic relations. It added that the decision is a “violation of its sovereignty” and that it will work to ensure that it does not affect the citizens and residents of Qatar.
Eventually, in a matter of days, nine countries – Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Eastern Government of Libya, Maldives, Mauritania and Senegal – cut diplomatic relations with Qatar. In addition, Jordan and Djibouti downgraded diplomatic relations with Qatar.
Kuwait, a neutral party in this fiasco, is mediating between the GCC countries involved in the current dispute. According to Giorgio Cafiero of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington DC, both Kuwaitis and Omanis believe that an escalation of the conflict could be detrimental to the future of the GCC.
Parenthetically, there was a previous diplomatic rift in 2014 between Qatar and other Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain pulled out their diplomats claiming that Qatar supported armed groups. However, the border remained open and Qataris were not expelled.
Tensions with Qatar have generally revolved around its alleged support for political Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as complaints about Al Jazeera.
On June 7, the Saudi foreign minister said that Qatar must cease its support of groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We want to see Qatar implement the promises it made a few years back with regard to its support of extremist groups, to its hostile media and interference in affairs of other countries,” Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Paris on the aftermath of the rift.
There is also a tacit and at times clandestine actor in this debacle – Iran. Known for being Saudi’s hostile neighbor east of the Arabian Peninsula, the Iranians did not waste time in making their presence felt. Following the border shutdown, Iran offered Qatar food shipments. That, again did not make the Saudis happy.
According to Mahjoob Zweiri, a Middle East expert at Qatar University, a lengthy dispute may empower Iran in the region, especially if the tension between the Gulf countries escalates.
Catch-22: Africa and the Arabs
Though it has not been officially announced that the latest Gulf crisis would be discussed at the current African Union Summit, Mehari Taddele Maru, an international consultant on African Union affairs, is of the view that member states should discuss the issue and take a stand. That will help the continent in many ways, he said.
“Some African countries are facing pressures and inducements from both sides. One example is Somalia. The Horn of Africa country is being pressured by both sides. The decision that is going to be taken by Villa Somalia will have major effects. Opposing Qatar might create a favorable situation for the revival of Al Shabaab. In the same vein, if they [the Somalis] go against the wishes of the Saudis, instability will reign. So, it is a matter of survival for Somalia. Therefore, if Africa can be able to stand together, it will address such issues in one voice,” Mehari told The Reporter.
Ever since the gulf squabble started, African countries have been involved in one way or another. In that regard, analysts are warning that the decision to cut or downgrade diplomatic ties with Qatar by eight African countries could have a long-term impact.
“This is not good for Africa. This is rush decision-making and taking sides in a crisis that the leaders have no clear grasp of is dangerous and will scare investors away,” Adama Gaye, a Senegalese foreign policy expert, told Al Jazeera.
Two days after the Arab countries cut ties with Qatar, Senegal said it was recalling its ambassador to Qatar and expressed “active solidarity” with Riyadh.
Analysts say Dakar is likely to have automatically accepted the Saudi allegations against Qatar without questioning them.
“Security and tackling violent extremism are real issues in several African countries but there are strong economic factors at play here,” Africa analyst Antony Goldman told Al Jazeera, adding that Saudi Arabia has invested a lot of money recently in Africa and this gives it a lot of weight on the continent.
Senegal’s decision did not come as a surprise. It can be recalled that Dakar sent 2,100 soldiers in 2015 to Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels. Dakar said at the time that it sent its troops “to protect and secure the holy sites of Islam, Medina and Mecca”.
Unlike the rest of the continent, the Horn of Africa has been dragged into the squabble mainly because of its proximity. And member countries of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) are entwined to a certain degree.
An IGAD member state that is currently entangled in this fiasco is Djibouti. The small Horn of Africa country has downgraded its diplomatic ties with Qatar, saying it took the decision “in solidarity with the international coalition against terrorism and violent extremism”.
Djibouti, which is known for hosting foreign military bases, said in January it was finalizing an agreement with Saudi Arabia to allow the Gulf state to build a military base. According to analysts, this is the likely reason behind Djibouti’s decision.
Another country in the equation is Eritrea. The Ministry if Information of Eritrea – a country which unlike Senegal is geographically close to the Gulf – announced on June 12 that it saw the Saudi-led initiative against Qatar as being “in the right direction,” but the statement also implied that Qatar alone was not to blame for terrorism in the region and called for an amicable resolution of the crisis.
Kjetil Tronvoll, Professor of Peace and Conflict studies at Bjørknes University College, said that Eritrea’s government “haven’t turned against Qatar as much as they have shown an inclination to accept the Saudi argument.”
Tronvoll, speaking with The Messenger, said that Eritrea’s position is “deliberately ambiguous.” He added that Asmara has thus far positioned itself “to possibly ride both horses, at least for the time being.”
Several factors explain Eritrea’s reluctance to sever ties with Qatar. According to Harry Verhoeven, a lecturer at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Eritrea has previously found Qatar to be a reliable friend, even when Asmara’s relations were not good with either the West or other Gulf powers.
“This is bad news. The worry is that it will lead to a further destabilization in the sense that you could see a bidding war for loyalties…because the Saudis and Emiratis are almost certain to put very heavy pressure particularly on Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia to choose sides and to ditch their historical relationship with Qatar if the standoff would continue,” he said.
On his part, Mehari deems that it is difficult for IGAD member states to come to a common and unified position. “Decisions are taken mainly based on national interests,” Mehari said.
The Horn of Africa is highly affected by the ongoing Gulf crisis and the regional block, IGAD, is divided over the matter. “I don’t think there will be a uniform stand from the IGAD; however, as a secretariat it may have a stand on finding a peaceful and amicable solution to the problem,” Leulseged Girma, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs and a geopolitical analyst, told The Reporter.
On the other hand, other regional analysts say that these are small countries and do not have much political and economic clout beyond their borders.
“These countries are small-league players in Africa; forget about the rest of the world. These countries have negligible influence. But for Saudi, it seems it is quantity over quality," Abdullahi Boru, a Nairobi-based regional security specialist, told Al Jazeera.
Those small countries are also subject to pressures that go beyond economic incentives offered by the Gulf States, Gaye said.
“It is not a secret that bullying tactics have been applied. First financial incentives were offered and, if leaders turn them down, then Saudi Arabia has the Hajj leverage where it has threatened that no citizens from these countries will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage if they don't take the Saudi side,” Gaye said.
Saudi Arabia, through a statement released by its embassy in France, refuted the allegation that they pressured African countries to cut ties with Qatar.
“The Saudi government strongly denies these allegations and we stress that no pressure was put on any African nation because every country has the right over its sovereignty,” the statement said.
Countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia have remained neutral and declined to take sides. The two east African countries have even called for dialogue to end the rift.
Analysts say that the longer the crisis continues, the more likely many poor African countries will be dragged into it.
“African leaders have to show more muscle and must remain neutral. They should put aside all their personal interests,” Gaye said.
Leulseged seconds Gaye’s point. “The AU, as a continental organization, should take a neutral side on the matter,” he said.
Ed.’s Note: Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter has contributed to this story.