A crisis without end? Gulf states settle in for long-haul

Doha (AFP) –


More than a month since the start of the diplomatic crisis gripping the Gulf, hopes of a swift resolution seem as remote as a summer downpour in the desert.

Both sides -- the group of Saudi-led allies against Qatar -- seem as entrenched in their positions as ever and as unlikely to find a face-saving solution for all as at any time since the conflict erupted on June 5.

"I think that this crisis has a way to go still," said Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf analyst with the Baker Institute at the US-based Rice University.

He is not alone.

A weary US State Department this week signalled its belief that the row -- which has seen Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt sever ties with Qatar over claims it supports Islamist extremists -- will rumble on, at best, for some time.

"We believe that this could potentially drag on for weeks. It could drag on for months," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on July 6.

The first days of July had offered a tiny, hopeful glimpse of a resolution as the region awaited Qatar's response to the list of 13 onerous demands placed on Doha by the Saudi-led bloc.

But a defiant Qatar, which denies the charges of supporting extremism, then called the demands -- such as closing broadcaster Al-Jazeera and the Turkish military base in Doha -- "unrealistic".

In return, Saudi and its allies threatened further sanctions, while Qatar hit back, labelling the four Arab states "siege countries".

"There will be no lifting of the sanctions any time soon, I can't see that happening," said Andreas Krieg of the Defence Studies Department at King's College London.

The crisis seems to be in deadlock.

- Long, drawn-out row -

"It appears that Saudi Arabia and the UAE underestimated Qatar's ability to very quickly bring on board major regional powers such as Turkey and Iran," Christopher Davidson, an expert on Middle East politics at Britain's Durham University, told AFP.

"In this context, pushing forward with any form of cross-border intervention seems unlikely, with instead a long drawn out slow-bleed of Qatar's economy probably being the preferred Saudi-UAE strategy."

So what happens next?

On the diplomatic front, the push is coming from the West with the visit of British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson to the region this weekend, followed by the scheduled arrival of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in regional mediator Kuwait on July 10.

In Nauert's statement she also warned the conflict "could possibly even intensify".

This could manifest itself in two ways.

On the sanctions front, attention appears to be turning to regional political organisations and, more tentatively, trade.

There has been much speculation that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will seek to push Qatar out of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council either through suspension or expulsion.

Reports in the Saudi media have suggested this could be the next step in Qatar's isolation though it is unclear if there would be enough votes to carry this through.

Krieg speculated that Saudi Arabia instead might manoeuvre to penalise Qatar through its membership of the Arab League.

On trade there has been suggestions that Saudi Arabia and the UAE may present international companies with a choice of doing business with them or Qatar, not both.

That though is far from a risk-free strategy, Ulrichsen said.

"Such a move may rebound on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi if it calls into question the vulnerability of commercial decisions to political interference," he said.

Krieg added that such a move could ultimately backfire on Saudi Arabia's own attempts to restructure its economy, in any post-oil world.

It is also unlikely that international companies would cave in to such orders.

Following a decision on July 4 by Qatar Petroleum to expand gas production by 30 percent, using joint ventures with international businesses, companies were reportedly already forming an orderly queue for contracts.

One Saudi-based commentator, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, though insisted recently that Qatar will "fold" but make concessions beyond the "spotlight".

It is unclear, however, what those might be.

"There are no apparent areas of concession. This looks like it will go down to the wire," said Davidson.