Saudi Arabia's answer to Qatar crisis is only making things worse

June 26, 2017, 11:06am

Saudi Arabia and its allies have come up with a list of demands for Qatar to comply with as a way out of the Gulf region’s worst diplomatic crisis in decades. But the conditions are so broad and far-fetched that they’ve only deepened the crisis, puzzling and angering the region’s most powerful allies, including the U.S.

The extraordinary 13-point ultimatum, delivered to Qatar Friday, includes demands for Doha to close state-funded broadcaster Al Jazeera, remove Turkish troops from its soil, scale back ties with Iran, and cut them altogether with the Muslim Brotherhood and other “terrorist organizations” — all within 10 days.

Advertisement

“It’s quite a punchy list — and a very short deadline,” said Tobias Borck, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank. He said it was “highly unlikely” that the demands — which essentially call on Qatar to end its independent foreign policy posture in deference its neighboring countries — would be met in full.

“You’d expect there to be a very big red line drawn by the U.S. on that, especially given that Qatar is home to its most important military base in the Middle East.”

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt say Doha must comply with the 13-point ultimatum by July 3 in order for them to lift a two-week-old economic and diplomatic blockade on Qatar, which they accuse of supporting terrorism and fostering ties with Iran.

Doha has said it won’t comply, calling the demands unreasonable and a clear attempt at “limiting Qatar’s sovereignty.” Even the U.S., Saudi Arabia’s trusty ally, is skeptical that they can be satisfied, with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying Sunday that the list of demands would be “very difficult to meet.”

“Disrespectful”

The ultimatum has also drastically raised the stakes by drawing Turkey deeper into the fray. The demand for Turkish troops to leave their base in Qatar — their first in the Middle East — drew a fiery response from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Sunday, who called the ultimatum “a very, very ugly approach” that was “disrespectful” and “against international law.” Rather than moving to withdraw his troops, he is reportedly planning to double down by sending an additional 1,000 soldiers to Qatar, in a show of support for the isolated Gulf nation, which will surely escalate the regional row.

The ultimatum doesn’t specify what action the Saudi-led group might take against Qatar if it fails to agree to the demands by the deadline. Borck said he believed an agreement that saves face for all parties might eventually be negotiated, but not before “another couple of rounds” of risky escalation. He said that while Qatar would likely not meet every demand, it could conceivably make concessions that partially satisfied the points — for example, agreeing that Al Jazeera would adopt certain editorial lines, or expelling leaders of Islamist groups that Saudi Arabia and its allies took issue with.

The messy standoff has been a huge headache for the U.S., which is a major diplomatic partner to both sides. Borck said Washington would be applying pressure to ensure the tensions didn’t erupt into a disastrous military confrontation in an already volatile region. “You’d expect there to be a very big red line drawn by the U.S. on that, especially given that Qatar is home to its most important military base in the Middle East,” he said.