The Mideastwire Blog

Excerpts from the Arab and Iranian Media & Analysis of US Policy in the Region

Robert Amsterdam: Why We Can’t Afford to Mismanage the Qatar Crisis

When Donald J. Trump campaigned for president, he promised a different kind of politics. In foreign policy, he has already delivered that, and then some.

With just one sword dance at Murabba Palace and some brotherly bonding over an orb with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, President Trump’s visit gave Saudi Arabia tacit approval to risk disturbing the tenuous balance of power in the Middle East by imposing a blockade on Qatar by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

This attack on Qatar, which could only take place once Saudi Arabia felt they had assurances, has serious implications for U.S. strategic interests in the region, and not just because the country hosts Al Udeid Air Base. And as shown by the most recent list of demands made by the GCC to Qatar – which includes among other measures shutting down Al-Jazeera – the goal is to strip Doha of its sovereignty to the detriment of the larger fragile alliance of Sunni states in the region.

In many ways, the dispute is a reflection of long-brewing changes in the Gulf. Although the Saudi-led coalition rationalized the boycott as punishment for Qatar’s alleged funding of terrorist organizations, the blockade is widely known to be motivated by a separate agenda. Instead of aligning GCC members in a pan-Sunni coalition to oppose the expansion of Iranian influence and the spread of extremist terror groups like Daesh, the Saudi coalition drove a wedge into the unity of the GCC, upsetting the balance of region’s most stable international force.

Questions are mounting over whether the Saudi-led coalition violated international law by blocking nearly all flows of trade, travel, and transactions to the peninsula that threaten the small state’s sovereignty.

The grounds for these accusations are the collection of treaties, customs, and historical norms that define international law. Under these, blockades are characterized as acts of war. One country may legally blockade another only if it is acting in individual or collective self-defense—the standard requirements for going to war—or the U.N. Security Council has proclaimed the action necessary to maintain international peace.

The Saudi coalition’s blockade of Qatar approaches infringement of this international norm, and exemplifies a recent trend toward subtle aggression that sidesteps international law. While easily identified use of aggressive force is outlawed, low-intensity conflict like sanctions and diplomatic isolation have become the weapon of choice for regimes interested in exerting their will over others.

On these grounds, Qatar has forcefully denounced the GCC blockade as illegal, and is taking action against the aggressors. Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) recently hired a Swiss law firm to investigate and seek compensation for thousands of cases of human rights violations that resulted from the Saudi-led blockade. The Swiss counsel indicates that these claims distinguish between actions taken against a government and those that target private citizens.

“The sanctions imposed on Qatar go too far and are not in accordance with international law…[because] ordinary Qatari nationals and companies are not part of the state and cannot be targeted,” says lawyer Veijo Heiskanen. “A political dispute between States does not justify sanctions against private citizens, companies and other private entities.”

Thousands of civilians have been forced to abandon jobs, homes, and universities, while families have been faced with tough decisions over whether to split up or to face prison or other forms of punishment for staying together. According to the NHRC, of the approximately 50 million residents of GCC countries, 19,000 Qatari citizens living in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE have endured forced separation from properties, jobs, and families, and 11,300 people from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and UAE who were living in Qatar are facing forced repatriation.

There are other serious international law issues prompted by the crisis. Qatar and its allies have accused Saudi Arabia of violating international law’s protection of state sovereignty with the list of 13 demands for de-escalation, which include shutting down the Al Jazeera media network and cancelling plans for a Turkish military base.

International law defines state sovereignty as the principle that each state has the right to control its territory and domestic affairs. Countries are prohibited from interfering with internal affairs or infringing upon the territorial integrity or political independence of any other state in the absence of a legal right to do so. Saudi Arabia’s demands violate the basic rights of freedom of expression and freedom of domestic policy of a sovereign, independent state.

For outside actors like the United States, these accusations could have significant consequences. The international community’s reaction to the Saudi coalition’s actions could impose new interpretations of the law’s protection of state sovereignty and low-intensity aggression, altering the ability of autocrats and authoritarians to impose their will on smaller or financially weaker states in the future. For the US, a crisis that has the potential to rewrite historical norms and change the definitions of national sovereignty and independence under international law should be a priority.

Recent postures suggest that Qatar and Saudi Arabia may be poised for stalemate: the 10-day deadline to comply with demands, plus 48-hour extension, appears almost designed to fail.

For the prospects of peace and unity in the Middle East, this turmoil is especially troubling, as the region is already experiencing increasing instability. Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria are in the midst of civil wars that have caused millions of civilian casualties and forced displacement, while conflict between Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza continues to simmer. Adding the fracturing of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the region’s most stable and peaceful political and economic alliance could be devastating.

To fully understand how a disintegration of the GCC may shape the future for the Middle East, it’s crucial to consider what the organization represents. Member states Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman are all led by monarchies whose economies are heavily rooted in the oil and natural gas industries, behind the symbolic and financial support of Western superpowers. They are home to some of the largest foreign military bases in the region, and enjoy multi-billion arms deals with US firms. The organization has incentivized countries with complex histories of tension and rivalry to align their policies toward the common end of creating regional stability. Now all of that is at risk.

The loss of the singular dominance of a united GCC creates new uncertainty in the Middle East, could open the door for extremist groups and Tehran to spread their influence, and may even signal an impending shift in the regional balance of power.

This is not the kind of crisis where Washington can afford to sit on the sidelines. A multilateral political solution must be forged that takes into account the mandatory preservation of Qatar’s sovereignty – anything less will signal a fundamental weakness on behalf of the United States and will deeply erode trust of leadership in the region. That is not an outcome that benefits our national security.

*Robert Amsterdam is an international lawyer currently representing the Republic of Turkey in its case against Fethullah Gulen.



Written by nickbiddlenoe

August 17, 2017 at 12:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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