Alwaght– The crisis among the Persian Gulf Arab states is now over a year and the distrust between the neighbors remains high and gaps seem hard to bridge. Each time that the tensions wind down, the speculations rise about possible thaw with the mediation of a third party. However, that does not happen as the situation all of a sudden bursts into a new escalation.
In 2014, a crisis hit the relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, lasting for nine months. It did not develop into a blockade, however. The two sides are engaged in a war of conflicting interests and policies. Their clashing strategies are far from allowing each side to show flexibility and compromise its own goals. In the meantime, the fresh developments put to show the depth of the antipathy of Riyadh and the other three allies to Doha. Saudi Arabia, assisted by Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain, severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and announced a full sea, air, and ground blockade on the small emirate in June last year.
Salwa Canal project, a separating line
The political chasm between the two Arab monarchies may soon develop into a geographical one. In April 2018, two Saudi state-run newspapers reported that Riyadh leaders have a plan to dig a canal between the two countries, a project that will turn Qatar from a peninsula into an island. Saudi Arabia is the only state with a ground border with Qatar.
Sources familiar with the project said that once completed the Salwa Canal will be 60 kilometers long, 200 meters wide, and between 15-20 meters deep, adding that the project will take some $750 million to complete.
The Salwa district, a Saudi coastal area close to the ground border with Qatar, is a resort with hotels, restaurants, and sports facilities. But the area will rarely remain a resort for fun and vacations under the new circumstances. The Saudi media reported that under the new development phase Salwa district will also be home to a new military base and also a nuclear waste repository. Saudi Arabia has under construction a nuclear reactor.
After the project was announced in April, June 25 was set as a deadline for the companies to offer their tenders. The media maintained that five international companies raced for the final contract. According to the local news outlets, the winner will be announced in 90 days, and the timeframe for the project to be fully done is 12 months.
The project launching intention is even worsening ties between the two neighbors. Pressing forward with the project is signaling that the disputes remain firmly standing. On June 18, Saud Al-Qahtani, the adviser to the Saudi Royal Court, as well as the supervisor general of the Center for Studies and Information Affairs in Saudi Arabia, in largely propagandistic video, titled “ Starting Salwa Canal”, congratulated launching the “wonderful” project to the Saudi people as it restricts the “small terrorist state of Qatar” into an island.
Political gain motivation is what pushing the Saudi rulers to pursue plans hostile to Qatar, including the Salwa project. Earlier this year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of the king and the defense minister, launched a purge campaign against the royals and businessmen whom he saw as rivals and perhaps setting up hurdles ahead of his future ascension of the throne. Working hard to justify what he called anti-corruption campaign, Prince Mohammed linked the sweep to the crisis with Qatar. Even before that, he purged opponents to his home policy in September 2017, ranging from the prominent clerics, writers, journalists, academics, and activists, accusing them of receiving cash from Doha and being accomplices to a foreign conspiracy against the state. In May, he also ordered detaining a number of women rights activists, labeling them with establishing suspicious contacts with and receiving aids from foreign sides to destabilize the kingdom.
Pressing Qatar neighbors
The Saudis and their allies do not seem to intend to find a solution to the crisis without antagonizing Doha. New documents belonging to the UAE embassy in Oman exhibit some secretly-made efforts by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to block growing relations of the other Persian Gulf Arab states and also North African states with Qatar. The cable, written by the Emirati ambassador to Oman to his own country, suggests how the allies could threaten Muscat to prevent it from building friendly ties with Doha. The measures, the cable reveals, could range from pressing the small Arab state to provoking it diplomatically and also destabilizing its borders. Recently, Yemen’s Al Mahra province, in the country’s extreme east and sharing a border with Oman’s Dhofar province, witnessed clashes that influenced the security in the Omani territory.
The revealed documents reflect the widening gaps between the blockading states. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now continuing the way alone. Cracks in the coalition can concrete Doha’s vigorous resistance and its insistence on saving its national sovereignty and avoiding submission to the Saudi humiliating demands. The new situation sharpens the Qataris’ spirit to go the way to beat Riyadh’s aggressive policies. The new documents are a portrait of how fake the Saudi claims of the triviality of the crisis with Doha. The issue plays into the hands of the Qatari leaders and strengthens their position against the besiegers.
Still, bin Salman and Mohammad bin Zayed of the UAE, both ambitious new power holders, show no signs of accepting the defeat of their anti-Doha policies. This means the rift is far from easing off in the near future. Escalatory steps like the Salwa Canal project are expected to keep the fire burning.