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The Global Dimensions of the Qatar Crisis

The policy of side-stepping the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is becoming increasingly untenable for non-Arab Muslim nations and China.



  • A rupture in Arab diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar threatens to force other nations to choose sides.
  • Saudi Arabia and its allies hope that cutting air, sea and land ties to Qatar will force it to mend its ways.
  • The Qatar crisis complicates efforts by China and non-Arab Muslim nations to tiptoe around regional conflicts.
  • The Qatar issue could complicate Chinese efforts to keep its Middle East policy in sync with the US.

A rupture in Arab diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar as well as the Gulf state’s involvement with a Saudi-led, 41-nation Sunni Muslim military alliance threatens to force non-Arab Muslim nations as well as China to choose sides.

Members of the military alliance and China that is not associated with it have sought to remain on the side lines of an escalating four decades-old proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The breaking off of diplomatic relations with Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and the Saudi-backed exile government of Yemen is part of that war.

Qatar, unlike other Gulf states, is organically bound to Iran because it shares the world’s largest gas field with the Islamic republic. Qatar, moreover views maintaining relations with Islamist groups as part of its national security.

Increasing complications

Saudi Arabia and its allies hope that economic pressure exerted by cutting air, sea and land ties to the Gulf state will force Qatar to mend its ways. The move complicates passenger travel and cargo links to Qatar and could be expanded to pressure countries to make choices in whom they partner with economically and commercially.

In doing so, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are learning from an earlier attempt in 2014 to force a change in Qatari policy when they broke off diplomatic relations for a period of ten months without applying economic pressure
As a result, the campaign aims to disrupt not only Qatar’s relations with its Arab brethren but also with the wider world.

It complicates its effort by China and non-Arab Muslim nations to tiptoe through the minefield of Middle Eastern conflicts and rivalries by maintaining good relations with all parties.

Wider implications

In China’s case, it threatens its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative amid Chinese fears that Saudi Arabia intends to expand its proxy war with Iran into Balochistan, a key Pakistani node of OBOR.

The rupture and military suspension could also complicate Chinese efforts to keep its Middle East policy in sync with that of the United States, the major power in the region, if Washington were to side with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The dilemma for non-Arab Muslim countries is no less acute. Pakistan’s diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE initially soured after the Pakistani parliament in 2015 rejected a Saudi request for Pakistani military assistance in Yemen.

The unprecedented decision ultimately left Pakistan with no choice when the kingdom two years later asked it to allow General Raheel Sharif, who had just retired as chief of army staff, to take over the command of the Saudi-led military alliance.

Pakistan, despite insisting that General Sharif would use his position to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has seen violence along its volatile border with Iran increase, relations with the Islamic republic deteriorate, and prompted calls for Pakistan to recall General Sharif.

Malaysia gets involved

Similarly, Malaysian defense minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein announced in March that Malaysia and Qatar were elevating their diplomatic ties by forming a High Level Committee (HLC) to focus on the structural framework of both countries’ defence institutions.

“There are only a few countries that we have elevated our relationship with (to the level of having an) HLC signed. And now, our relationship has reached a level that we can ink an HLC with Qatar, hopefully,” Mr. Hishammuddin said.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman visited Qatar last month to further enhance relations with Qatar.

Responding to the rupture in diplomatic relations and the military suspension, sources close to the Malaysian foreign ministry said that the government was advising its agencies to remain neutral in the dispute with Qatar. Some sources cautioned however that the defence and interior ministries may adopt a more independent approach.

Civil servants in the defence ministry expressed concern when Mr. Hishammuddin last year agreed to let 300 Malaysian paratroopers participate in a military exercise organized by the Saudi alliance.

Critics in the ministry were further taken aback when Mr. Hishammuddin obliged them to endorse Saudi funding for the King Salman Centre for Moderation (KSCM).

The centre, under the auspices of the ministry’s think tank, the Malaysian Institute of Defence and Security (MIDAS), seeks to counter jihadist messaging in Southeast Asia. An internal ministry memo said MIDAS had a “strategic interest to be collaborating with various institutions internationally particularly from Saudi Arabia.”

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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