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The Qatari crisis may destroy what little order remains in the Middle East

The Qatar-Gulf rift isn't about fabricated statements or a hacked website, but a battle to control regional order after the Arab uprisings. But will the Gulf destroy itself in the process?

A heavy tension has prevailed over the Gulf since 23 May.

It all appeared to start with the publication of statements attributed to Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, which were quickly proven to be fabricated. The Qatari News Agency website, it turned out, had been hacked.

Although hacking any country's official news agency is clearly problematic, the bigger issue is the way in which two Arab Gulf states handled the fabricated statements.  

Within minutes of the hacking, media outlets - both official and unofficial - in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia embarked on spreading the alleged statements and using them to justify an unprecedented onslaught on Qatar and its leader.

Given the massive escalation of the crisis since then, one can conclude with a high degree of certainty that this has nothing to do with the fabricated statements or their implied meaning. Those who launched the campaign were simply waiting for the hackers to do their job. Then, they could declare war.

A new low in the Gulf

Clearly, this is a much bigger issue than a dispute over fabricated statements. Whoever ordered the media to refrain from broadcasting the Qatari denial of the statements knew very well that the matter had nothing to do with what was said or not said.

Furthermore, the nature of the campaign - its unabated continuation, uniformity, and escalation from 23 May to 5 June when Saudi Arabia and the UAE, followed by Bahrain and Egypt, severed their diplomatic ties with Qatar - proves that the matter started long before the statements. And the measures didn't stop at the severing of relations. 

Since the 1960s, Gulf countries have witnessed the eruption of war between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, a border clash between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Saudi-Kuwaiti tension over a common oil field, a Qatari-Bahraini dispute over territorial waters, accusations levelled at the UAE of plotting a coup in Oman and political disagreements of all types, both before and after the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

But this crisis is a new low in Gulf relations. This is the first time a crisis has involved severing diplomatic ties, expelling citizens, imposing ground and air sieges and charges of threatening national security and supporting terrorism.

I am not an expert in international law. However, I am not aware of a single dispute in the modern history of international relations when a group of states, which are supposed to be fraternal countries, imposed such tough political and economic conditions on another state during peace time.

In light of the severity of the crisis and how it shocked the world, it was not surprising that the German Foreign Minister expressed concern that it could lead to war or that the Turkish prime minister warned that it could become an international crisis. 

The fight for order

The Gulf is considered to be one of the most sensitive regions in the world. Its stability is of great interest to regional and international powers as will be its loss. 

So what has caused the eruption of such an acute crisis? And why, at a time when Gulf unity is most needed to meet the challenges of the war in Yemen and respond to Iranian threats, does Saudi Arabia choose to risk damaging Gulf-Gulf relations?

Since 2011, prevailing wisdom says that the popular movement, which triggered the winds of revolution and change in the Arab world, was an expression of the crisis of republics, not monarchies. The Gulf region was immune to what unfolded in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

The Gulf states, ruled by patriarchal regimes, possess huge resources which have enabled them to contain public discontent. Most have been able to build highly competent security agencies to deal with dangers that cannot be contained by conventional means.

Those who believed that the Gulf was immune from revolution saw the Arab uprisings as nothing more than a standoff between people and their rulers. They disregard the other dynamic that the region has witnessed since the Arab revolutions erupted - the battle between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces. It's not just states that no longer exist as they once did. This battle has resulted in the collapse of the entire regional order.

Since the Egyptian coup in the summer of 2013, counter-revolutionary forces embarked on a project to return states that saw their ruling regimes collapse to their status quo ante. This project has been only partially successful. The process of democratic transition has been aborted and the old classes have been reinstated in one way or another.

But the counter-revolutionary regimes have not been able to gain the legitimacy that they need and seem utterly incapable of responding to the demands of the people.

Further, the severe damage inflicted upon countries like Egypt, Syria and Iraq, and the seeming impossibility for them to return to what they once were makes the attempt to rebuild the regional order a much more complex endeavour than merely standing against movements of change and democratic transition.

So the thinking goes that while Syria and Iraq are splintered and Egypt will need many decades before it is able, if at all, to stand on its feet again, to rebuild the regional order, Saudi Arabia must lead. It must impose a new set of values, reformulate stability, determine the role of each one of the region's states and decide the nature of relations in the region, including those with Israel, Iran and Turkey.

Goodbye GCC?

Qatar’s problem is that, during the past quarter century, it has acquired a role and an influence in most of the region's developments and transformations - and not always one that has pleased the forces working hard to reinstate the old ruling classes and the old regional order.

Yet Qatar is not the only target, nor will it be the last. It is absurd to search for pretexts to justify the siege and the severance of relations. Rumours that the disagreement with Qatar has to do with Al Jazeera or with supporting the Houthis or with ties to Iran or with Islamist extremists in Syria not only smack of contradictions, but also miss the core point.

What is required is not having a discussion over disputed issues and reaching agreement in the Gulf. What is required is full submission and capitulation. Only with such action from Qatar and from others will the process of renovating regional order with its new leaders begin. Only in this way can this order impose its set of values, determine the weight and role of each state and draw the map of relations with the forces that exist in the Arab neighbourhood, whether friendly or unfriendly.

However, there is a problem: those who proposed this vision for the future of the region and its people failed to take into consideration all the necessary factors. 

To what extent can their vision be realised if one state, and not necessarily Qatar, refuses to submit and surrender? What will happen if the states that lead this project fail to convince their own people of its reasons and moral justifications? Or regional and international powers refuse to take it seriously?

In light of what has so far been revealed as the crisis has unfolded, it will most likely end up in undermining what little remains of the regional order, including the Gulf Cooperation Council itself, instead of renovating it.

- Basheer Nafi is a senior research fellow at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on 6 June 2017 shows Saudi and Kuwaiti officials meeting in the Red Sea city of Jeddah to try to resolve the Qatari crisis (AFP). 

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