Image: Doha, Qatar / Hafiz Issadeen / Flickr
You may not have heard much about it, but the Middle East is currently embroiled in its worst diplomatic crisis in decades – a crisis which could have serious repercussions for New Zealand.
In a nutshell, several nations (including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) have completely cut off ties with Qatar, and are threatening to invade the small Persian Gulf country. Citizens of the countries involved have been deported, travel bans have been enacted, flights have been suspended, and all trade ties have been severed. Militaries in the region have also been placed on high alert, with troops and equipment rushed to Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia. Further raising the stakes is the fact the United States’ main command centre in the fight against ISIS is in Qatar.
So what, exactly, is going on, and why should we care? Villainesse explains.
What is happening?
Several Middle Eastern and North African nations (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, the eastern government of Libya, the Maldives, Mauritania and Senegal) have abruptly cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, a small nation in the Persian Gulf known for its highly developed economy and ultra-modern capital (Doha). In response, Qatar has cut ties with those nations, while other countries in the region (such as Turkey) have come to Qatar’s aid and taken their side.
How did we get to where we’re at?
Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been rivals, and for decades have fought a kind of Cold War for influence through their proxies. A small, highly industrialised nation, Qatar has traditionally played both sides of this rivalry.
A crisis like this is really decades in the making, but has only come to a head recently through a series of events that aligned just so. One of the key events was an April deal Qatar attempted to broker between Sunni and Shiite militants in Iraq and Syria. While the deal’s main goal was to secure the return of 26 Qatari hostages (including members of Qatar’s ruling royal family) who had been kidnapped by militants, a second goal was to get both Sunni and Shiite militants in Syria to allow humanitarian aid to come in. However, Saudi Arabia was outraged by the deal, because it involved paying about $960 million New Zealand dollars ($700 million USD) to Iranian-backed militants.
Things only got worse in May, when unknown hackers took over the website of the Qatar News Agency and other government media platforms and posted fake statements by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, that expressed support for Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.
One of the last straws was a May 27 phone call between Qatar’s emir and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, in which Rouhani claimed Iran was keen to work with other nations in the region. Saudi Arabian officials claimed Qatar had been secretly funding terror groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and Qatar’s internationally-renowned news outlet Al Jazeera was hacked. Finally, on June 3, the Twitter account of the foreign minister of Bahrain – a close ally of Saudi Arabia – was hacked. Saudi Arabia and its allies claimed Qatar was behind the hack, and on June 5 and 6 cut ties. Qatar then responded by doing the same thing.
But aren’t most of the countries in the Middle East Muslim?
Technically, yes. But just like Christianity, there are numerous different denominations of Islam, with major differences between them.
Religion, however, is not the primary reason behind the crisis. Again, it mainly has to do with Qatar’s alleged support of Iran (which is majority-Shiite), and fears among Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies (Sunni) of Iran’s growing political and economic influence.
How are women affected?
As with just about anything that causes hardship, women are affected by the crisis far worse than men.
The biggest hardship is a ban on travel and trade between Qatar and the nations that have cut off diplomatic ties. As many men in the Middle East work abroad in neighbouring countries and send money back while women remain at home and look after children, the ban means that many women are stuck with no ways of getting money.
The ban also means women from Qatar can’t work or study in neighbouring countries, and vice-versa. And it’s even worse in ultra-conservative nations involved in the crisis like Saudi Arabia, where women usually require the permission of a man to simply leave the house.
How might New Zealand be affected?
In short, the crisis could potentially have a profound impact on New Zealand - or very little impact at all depending on how events unfold.
Experts say oil prices are not expected to increase in the short term because there is far more supply than demand, and because Qatar's main sea trading routes are off the coasts of Iran and Oman (who have mostly stayed out of the crisis thus far). However, Qatar is New Zealand's largest source of crude oil. Further, other countries involved in the crisis (Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait) are among our largest sources of crude oil imports. A long-term trade crisis involving armed conflict could potentially lead to a serious spike in oil prices (which could mean we would end up paying more for everything from petrol to food and clothing) if those supply routes were cut off because of blockades or fighting. But the chances of that happening seem remote at this stage.
Another problem could be air travel. Etihad and Emirates, which are owned by the UAE, both fly to New Zealand. However, so does Qatar Airways, which is owned by Qatar’s royal family (and thus the government). Already, the UAE and Qatar are refusing to allow each other’s airlines into their airspace – which could force Kiwis travelling abroad to alter their plans, since Qatar and the UAE are major stopover destinations for flights between Europe and New Zealand.
Then there’s the increased risk of terrorism. As previously mentioned, the United States’ main forward operating base in the fight against ISIS is in Qatar, while the Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. If the crisis in the region were to worsen into an armed conflict, then the US could be forced to abandon the bases, or to cut back on its operations against ISIS. If that happens, then ISIS might be able to again grow in strength without having to defend its territory, and thus be able to more easily plot future attacks.
Of course, generally speaking, any further instability in the Middle East will create problems for the international community, with the potential for more people to try to flee any new armed conflicts, a further need for increased humanitarian aid, and new challenges for diplomatic networks.
It should be noted that, so far, the New Zealand government has not officially taken sides in the crisis.
What comes next?
It remains to be seen how the crisis will play out. However, as each day passes, the human cost rises. Many families live on both sides of the Qatari border, and restrictions on travel mean they cannot see each other or travel to school or work. In Qatar itself, there are also fears of shortages of food, medicine and other essential goods, as Qatar produces very few products of its own because of its hot, dry climate. Restrictions on imports are already leading to inflation.
There is also a chance the 2022 FIFA World Cup – set to be held in Qatar – could be cancelled or moved elsewhere, even though construction is currently in full swing.
It also remains to be seen what the United States will do. US president Donald Trump has tweeted his support for efforts to isolate Qatar, claiming the nation supports “extremism.” Many foreign policy experts say it may be the dumbest of many dumb things the new president has said, especially considering the aforementioned military base in Qatar used to launch attacks against ISIS. Others say his statements are so mind-bogglingly stupid that they’re grounds for removal from office. We can only hope.