SHAFAQNA, Exclusive Interview- More than a month into the Qatar-Saudi rift, there still is no way out in sight. The U.S. adventures in the region under its new president and deep-rooted regional rivalries have just complicated the affairs. To discuss these issues, Shafaqna has talked to Dr. Eckart Woertz, a senior research fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and an expert on food security and energy issues. He was formerly a visiting fellow at Princeton University and his most recent book Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East (2013) was published by Oxford University Press.
Regarding the current rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Dr. Woertz believes that Saudi Arabia historically has had a hard time to accept independent policy moves from its smaller Persian Gulf neighbors. Now, the Saudi kingdom and its allies have perceived Qatar’s foreign policy as going against their interest, most notably Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Aljazeera’s reporting on political developments in the Middle East.
Dr. Woertz said he wasn’t convinced that Qatar’s relationship with Iran was the main factor behind the spat. He asserted: “Qatar shares a large gas field with Iran and needs to have a reasonable working relationship with Iran. The economic ties between the UAE and Iran and the political ties between Oman and Iran are arguably closer than those between Qatar and Iran, yet they have not been an issue.”
The senior research fellow at CIDOB points out to the fact that the U.S. military base in Qatar is its largest in the Middle East, yet Donald J. Trump has backed Saudi Arabia’s stance and has accused Qatar of supporting terrorism. “He did so,” Eckart Woertz maintains “in defiance of more moderate assessments by Rex Tillerson and his State Department.” He sees this as a “considerable divergence and confusion within the US administration.” According to Dr. Woertz, it seems that Saudi Arabia has been emboldened to embark on the recent escalation in the wake of Trump’s visit to Riyadh. During this visit Saudi Arabia spent a lot of effort to convey the image of a united Sunni axis against Shiite Iran, yet with the Qatar spat it risks to undermine this appearance of unity.
When asked how the recent conflicts may affect energy markets and food politics of the region, Dr. Woertz said he doesn’t think they play a major role in the Qatar spat. He remarks that gas deliveries from Qatar to the UAE via the Dolphin pipeline continue flowing and cooperation in tanker loading continues as well. Moreover, apart from the closed land border there is not a naval blockade like in Yemen, so Qatar’s food security is not really affected so far.
Dr. Woertz believes Qatar is still part of the GCC and has hosted the US.. military base in the hope of receiving an informal security umbrella in return. “You don’t give that up overnight.” Given the tensions between Iran and the U.S. and Iran’s siding with the Assad regime, Eckart Woertz states that the affairs between Iran and Qatar will not go beyond good neighborly relations, cooperation on natural gas, and some symbolic food deliveries. Therefore, he doesn’t see an opportunity for a real, sustainable alliance between Iran and Qatar. “Increased cooperation with Turkey is a more viable option for Qatar and a more palatable one for its opponents in the Persian Gulf and within the U.S. administration,” he stated.
Concluding his thoughts, Dr. Woertz pointed out that the current demands by Saudi Arabia and UAE are quite harsh ones and if implemented they would compromise Qatar’s sovereignty. “Were Saudi Arabia and the UAE adopting a more conciliatory tone,” he said, “I would expect Qatar to eat humble pie and accept a face saving solution. It has only limited alternatives apart from the GCC and the U.S.”