The crisis is only just beginning for Qatar

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When Donald Trump tweeted unmistakably strong support for the Arab coalition confronting Qatar, the final window of hope slammed shut on Doha. Qatar’s only practical way out of the crisis was hope that Washington would mediate the crisis in a spirit of strict neutrality and press all sides to return to the status quo ante. That’s clearly not happening

Secretary of state Rex Tillerson struck a more subtle tone. He demanded that Qatar “must do more and … more quickly” to end support and financing of terrorism, while calling on Arab states to “ease the blockade against Qatar”.

Note that this apparently even-handed approach actually asks Qatar to change its behaviour while urging the others to move back to towards business as usual. Therefore, whether phrased bluntly or more subtly, the American position is clearly siding firmly with the Arab bloc and against Qatar.

Even more ominously for Doha, the Trump administration has asked Saudi Arabia for a list of specific demands on Qatar to restore former relations.

Qatar is defiant and putting on a brave face. But the reality is that it is surrounded by outraged neighbours, partners and nominal allies. The travel, trade and communications embargoes that have been imposed, especially by Saudi Arabia, which effectively controls Qatar’s only land border, will be increasingly crippling. Moreover, sanctions are widening and intensifying, and more Arab countries are joining the camp that is downgrading relations with Qatar until it mends its ways.

Turkey is giving Qatar considerable diplomatic and rhetorical support, and speeding up some limited and hardly game-changing military cooperation. But the reality is that Ankara is not able to provide Qatar with the breadth and depth of support the tiny country needs, especially over the long run.

Nor can Turkey project enough power at such distances to become the new Qatari patron and guarantor of its prerogatives over the vehement objections and opposition of its immediate Arab neighbours.

Much as both Ankara and Doha might want this, the idea of Qatar becoming a client of Turkey is neither realistic nor viable.

Iran, too, is offering a wide range of support to Qatar. Tehran is clearly relishing the discord in the Arab camp and fanning the flames as energetically as possible. Unlike Turkey’s offers, though, Qatar is largely rebuffing Iran, at least in public. But more quietly Doha certainly seems to be moving ever closer to Tehran, both confirming some of the main charges against it and deepening the rift with Arab countries and Washington.

Iran’s support is theoretically more realistic than Turkey’s, given its geographical proximity to Qatar, but politically it is far more non-viable. Indeed, any overt or substantive steps by Doha to decisively align with Tehran would be a catastrophic error. It could lead to suspension or expulsion from the Gulf Cooperation Council, American moves to shift its military presence in Qatar to a neighbouring country, and might even destabilise the Qatari regime itself.

Doha knows all this full well and therefore must keep Iran at arm’s length in public even if it moves closer to it in quieter ways during the crisis. And it’s almost certain that Qatar will have to reverse any moves towards Tehran – and then shift further away from it than it has been in the past decade or more – if it wants to find a way out of the crisis it has created for itself.

Not only does Qatar lack any viable options, especially now that Washington has plainly sided against it, the crisis for Doha is just beginning. If this drags on for months, the country’s economy will be severely damaged, its regional role all but eliminated, and many of its plans – possibly including hosting the World Cup – either disrupted or rendered impossible.

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