Tensions in the Middle East reached unprecedented levels on June 5, 2017, after four members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) imposed a host of sanctions upon a fellow GCC member, Qatar, for their alleged support of extremist groups and strong relations with countries like Iran. If reconciliation can not be achieved between both parties, antagonism and non-cooperation will run rampant—worse than it has for the past century. In addition, the four nations attempting to change Qatar’s foreign policy through these measures put the international legal concept of noninterventionism in a precarious position.
While Qatar and its allies argue that the sanctions are a grotesque violation of international law, those parties fail to realize that similar sanctions have been frequently used by countless nations (including the United States) with the purpose of altering a certain country’s policy. Despite vehement protests from many of these countries, these objections have been largely ignored by the international legal community. Seeking resolution through a legal solution is a rarity, the only remedy being on the grounds of humanitarian strife which Qatar is currently pursuing. The only problem is the law is far from defined. Non-interventionism is a sticky subject. There have been too few court cases to define abstract legal lingo, but the Qatar-GCC conflict will no doubt define something. Neutral nations must become involved to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible in order for the region and its allies to resume action on more pressing matters, and the international legal community must certainly define with the utmost specificity the rules of law when it comes to sanctions attempting to alter a country’s policies and when humanitarian intervention becomes a justified reason to end such actions. Such inaction and conflict on the part of ourselves and our allies will only breed continued action from our foes in the region.
Despite more than seven months of stalled political objectives at home, President Donald Trump’s efforts abroad have shaken up foreign affairs—for better or for worse. In late May, on his first foreign trip as president, Trump visited a variety of countries in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. The goal of these visits was to indicate a reorientation of U.S. foreign policy in the region by embracing a collective turn against Iran.
Just a few years prior, Trump’s predecessor, former President Barack Obama, asked allies around the globe to work with Iran. Concurrently, Obama encouraged Iran to reform their dangerous practices through the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has reversed this policy. Whereas Obama saw hope for moderation and diplomacy throughout the region, Trump sees an alliance between Israel and a plethora of Sunni Arab states working against Iran. This strategy reversal began in Riyadh when Trump made a 30-minute speech holding Iran responsible for global extremism while asking “nations of conscience” to counter the rogue nation.
Besides the policy shift on Iran, Trump urged Arab and Muslim nations to “prevent the financing of terrorism” and “strip them of their access to funds.” He concluded by reaffirming the strength (both economic and diplomatic) of the Saudi Arabia-U.S. partnership and the ability for all Arab nations to fight against extremist ideology. Iran’s change in perspective from friend to foe appeared easy to follow for most U.S. allies who witnessed the speech—except for Kuwait and Qatar. Both countries are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and have joined in U.S.-led coalition efforts to defeat the Islamic State, but they are also hoping to contain Iran. The two nations prioritize reducing tensions and conflicts in the region over picking a side. This makes sense considering both nations need Iran for two key economic reasons: the influx of trade and gas fields.
But Qatar’s appease-both-sides approach has sparked an international crisis. On June 5, five Arab countries, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, the Maldives, and Egypt separately and publicly announced that they were cutting all diplomatic relations with Qatar. In a follow-up to the removal of relations, there was a Saudi-led effort (supported by the four other countries) to launch and enforce a land, air, and sea blockade on Qatar—an impactful ban considering Qatar depends on Dubai’s Jebel Ali port and Saudi Arabia’s land border for the influx of imports. The reason for the isolation and blockade? Saudi Arabia said it made the decision due to Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region”—groups including the Islamic State, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al-Qaeda. It seems as though Saudi Arabia’s leadership heralded Trump’s advice when he claimed that the Qataris have “historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”
Rational international relations experts have asked why Qatar’s isolation from its Middle East neighbors occurred so quickly? Was it all because of Trump’s visit and speech? According to the blockading countries and experts, the regional breakdown began because of a military graduation ceremony attended by the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, in late May. Following the ceremony, Qatar News Agency (a state-run organization) reported that the emir made a speech which questioned the longevity of Trump’s stay in office, and the tensions between Qatar and the western world—particularly the United States. The story also reported that the emir argued that Hamas was a “legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people and reaffirmed Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Following the publication of the story, Qatar News Agency’s twitter announced that the story was falsified, and an investigation later confirmed that the agency was hacked.
Despite the Middle East’s version of “fake news,” officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt it all too true. Qatar’s embracement of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in the past, along with their perceived cool relationship with the United States, has long been considered the private viewpoint of Doha officials. And just as it has sparked a diplomatic crisis now, it sparked a similar one in 2014. Three years ago, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar for similar reasons—the only difference being the current separation has gone farther in their punishment towards Qatar by including economic sanctions and isolation from a sizable portion of the Arab community.
The five countries currently united in separating and blockading Qatar still provided the country with a way out. But Qatar doesn’t want it. Shortly after instituting the blockade, Saudi Arabia in conjunction with its four allies, issued a series of demands through Kuwait—who has served as an intermediary during the crisis. The demands include non-starters like shutting down the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news network, payment of reparations for “years of alleged wrongs,” and closing the Turkish military base in Qatar while ending all Turkish military presence and joint military cooperation inside Qatar. The coalition also insisted on Qatar reducing diplomatic relations with Iran, renouncing all alleged ties to recognized terrorist groups, and faithfully “align[ing] itself” with the other Gulf and Arab countries in a variety of ways—politically, socially, diplomatically, militarily, and economically. But amongst all of the regional pressure and threats, Qatar has balked at the demands. After refusing to meet the coalition’s demands in a timely manner, the governments of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain all released joint statements saying their initial 13 demands were void and that a host of new legal steps designed to hurt Qatar were coming.
Despite U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent trip to the Gulf to reach an amicable agreement, along with multiple international efforts to reunite Qatar with the GCC nations, the conflict and diplomatic breakdown was not completely surprising or new. What is surprising is just how serious the coalition partners are and how long the crisis might go on for. Since Saudi Arabia and the UAE issued sanctions with the utmost seriousness, and plan to double-down on their efforts due to Qatar’s unwillingness to meet their demands, many international leaders and observers have wondered if the coalition partners can legally intervene in Qatar’s foreign policy using harsh tools of economic and political force? The answer is yes. It’s called coercive diplomacy—or more diplomatically speaking, “forceful persuasion.” While the coalition’s punishment of Qatar may seriously disrupt regional coherence and progress for broader goals in the region (i.e. defeating the Islamic State), their diplomatic and economic strong-arming of Qatar with a list of demands is perfectly legitimate and reasonable—as long as you take their legal rationale at its absolute word.
PARTIES’ PERSPECTIVES OF CRISIS
Concurrent with most geopolitical issues, especially those centered in the Middle East, who conducts the most responsible foreign policy is in the eye of the beholder. With decades of passive aggressiveness between countries, the GCC-Qatar dispute bears no exception. The four GCC countries who initiated this embargo and breakdown of diplomatic relations justified their actions by accusing the Qataris of financing and sponsoring terrorism and radical Islam through various mediums. Qatar—which considers itself the black sheep in the region—believes that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are using the embargo as a means of radically changing the Qatari government—and thus its foreign policy, which has rarely ever run completely parallel to the ideas and principles the Saudis have outlined and demonstrated in both the region and the world. For those institutions and nations not directly involved in this family quarrel, they want the conflict to be over, the parties to patch up their relationship, and the region to get back to accomplishing short- and long-term goals—like fighting ISIS.
a. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their allies
No one has been more vocal or scathing in their attacks on the contrarian nation of Qatar than Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government, which played a vital role in the articulation of the 13 demands handed down to Qatar, appears as though they are trying to shift Qatar’s roguish foreign policy which has consistently riled their more conservative Sunni counterparts in the region. Particularly their alleged connections and support for radical Islam and terrorism—which Gulf monarchies (like Saudi Arabia) view as a major menace to their dynastic rule. The Saudi government believes that Qatar’s relations with radicals weaken the country’s national security against acts of extremism and terrorism. The Saudi Cabinet, in its weekly-convened meeting following the announcement of a breakdown in relations with Qatar, acknowledged that the Saudi government, and its GCC partners, decided to act because of the “grave violations committed by Qatari authorities—overtly and covertly—throughout the previous years.” The Cabinet further announced that they believed Qatari’s recalcitrant approach was solely aimed at weakening Saudi political leadership because “Doha instigated people to disobey [Saudi Arabia] and breach [its] sovereignty by securing safe havens for numerous terrorist and sectarian groups trying to undermine the region’s stability.” When the Saudi Cabinet didn’t provide specific examples of Qatari’s alleged acts of aggression, or a reason for why the dispute had unfolded so rapidly, the British newspaper, The Guardian, suspected the punishment was not because of terrorism funding, but because “the country has hosted members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and pursued a conciliatory relationship with Iran.” But in an exclusive interview with the Harvard College Law Review, a senior Saudi diplomatic official stressed that the cause and timing of the dispute were much more complex and thought-out than portrayed by news outlets. The issue dates to the 2013 dispute, where “despite repeated assurances from the Qatari leadership…that Qatar would clampdown on the flow of funds from within its territory to extremist groups and end its destabilizing campaign, Qatar has done little to show progress.” The official further explained that Qatar’s alleged funding of terrorism consisted of “its support for Al-Qaeda and Daesh affiliated groups, paying over $300 million to Iranian-controlled militias in Iraq with most of it ending up with the Quds Force in Iran, and paying ‘ransom’ to Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria.” From the Saudi viewpoint, there is a direct correlation between Qatar and terrorism funding.
Qatar’s dismissal of the GCC’s demands regarding their alleged sponsorship of terrorism has been largely accepted as the public reason for the sanctions. What the Saudi government (and the four other nations) actually hope to accomplish is a much more complicated question. Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, noted that the “severity of demands lends credence to the idea that Saudi Arabia’s true goal is regime change in Qatar.” The rationale provided is that the 13 demands were created by Saudi Arabia knowing full well that Qatar would reject them. However, when asked what the four GCC countries plan to gain from this dispute, the senior Saudi official hoped that “Qatar will change its destructive policies that undermine peace and security in the region and the world.” For the Saudi government, on face value, this dispute is nothing more than protecting themselves in region—regime change is pure lunacy.
The Saudi government’s allegations concerning Qatar’s malicious foreign policy actions have been largely accepted by its GCC counterparts. According to the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, while the “litany of subversive support, infringement, actions is huge,” him and his government have argued that the “most serious [reason for the sanctions] is the extremists and terrorist angle.” On a more optimistic note, the UAE government officials offered a degree of hope for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Even though the Saudis still see the potential for compromise as nonexistent. The senior Saudi diplomatic official emphasized that “there [are] no negotiations on the demands.” The official explained that compromise and a negotiation with Qatar was off the table because they have “repeatedly broken every agreement to stop their activities,” and noted that “Qatar has been conducting a destabilizing campaign through its support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. He added, Qatar also “stands accused of supporting a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist cell exposed in the UAE in 2012.”
The Qataris are assured that the entire crisis is based on false accusations. Shortly after the release of tweets documenting the emir’s support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood (among other things) were posted, the Qatar News Agency and the government swiftly announced they were hacked. The UAE and its three GCC partners countered by accusing Qatar of lying—suggesting that the published tweets were crafted by the government and represented their true geopolitical views. However, the July 16 Washington Post article which revealed that US intelligence officials discovered that the UAE orchestrated the hacking of Qatari government websites, has vindicated the claims of both Qatari government and diplomatic officials. 24 hours after the release of the Washington Post’s article, the HCLR had an interview with a Qatari embassy official in the US who acknowledged that his government was “very happy that the US officials have confirmed the hack.” But he stressed the importance of the revelation: “If you look back at everything [the UAE] is telling the truth or they are lying. If someone is telling one lie he has technically told thousands of other lies…This shows that these countries are discrediting themselves…Lying to an important ally—like the US—is not something small.”
Now that the Qatari government has proof that the accusations levied by the four GCC nations are false, and that they were purportedly hacked by at least one of those nations, Qatar feels confident in clearly emphasizing the illegitimacy of the whole affair. The same Qatari embassy official reiterated that “the measures are unjustified and are based on claims and allegations, that have no basis in fact.” As such, Qatar has continued to advance the narrative it has used since June 5: the sanctions occurred because officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are furious over Qatar’s unwillingness to abide by the foreign policy goals largely orchestrated by Saudi Arabia. Unlike Bahrain, which almost always follows the Saudi lead (including in this conflict), Qatar has adopted its own foreign policy principles—whether it be working with a variety of regional factions, or trying to promote dialogue and economic relations with Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran. Instead of punishment for “composing” radical tweets, Qatar believes they are being punished to “pressure [them] to abandon [their] national decision-making and sovereignty,” read a statement from the Qatari cabinet. For the government and people of Qatar, they see the crippling sanctions as castigation for bucking the Saudi-led Arab foreign policy, and an attempt to limit their own sovereignty.
Despite the harsh repercussions of the sanctions, Qatar remains defiant. The Qatari senior official told this publication that the country is “fearless…and we respect other countries, and we definitely take action on any country that is interfering with our policies.” For the small Arab nation, their proclaimed dislike of interference in a country’s sovereignty is a major factor in this crisis. The official explained that while UAE officials, like the country’s Ambassador the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, accuse Qatar of interfering in their internal affairs, Qatar sees the UAE and others as “interfer[ing] in our internal affairs.” “And it’s okay for them, but not for us? We never interfere in their internal affairs. Our foreign policy goals are clear, and our intentions are very clear,” the Qatari official inquired. But despite the finger-pointing over which country interferes, Qatar believes international mediation will be the only way to end the crisis.
Reaffirming their obedience to the rules of the international community and dedication to the partnership with the United States has been a crucial goal of Qatar’s plan to resolve the crisis. Along with expressing gratitude to Secretary Tillerson for his visits to the region, the senior Qatari official lay emphasis on the strength of the two countries’ relations. “Our relationship with the US government has not been for just a few days or two, it has been for years and years.” But his primary focus was not on the duration of the friendship, rather the depth and effects of it. “Qatar plays a very important role in the international community. Through creating peace in the region and counter-terrorism,” the official said. He also noted that the Qatar government (just like many of its Arab neighbors) could not completely wash its hands of any relations with extremists; the issue for the Qataris was how these relations were going to be resolved. The official said that the best way for resolving these problems is allowing a sovereign country to acknowledge them, not for international partners to publicly accuse them. “If we have problems,” the official said, “we clearly say we have problems. If a country comes out and says they are perfect, and points the finger at another country, this is a big issue. You should never point fingers [while] never check[ing] where you are as a country.” He used his own country’s method of dealing with these problems, as an example. Clarifying that Qatar’s foreign minister has remained mature and diplomatic during the crisis, “he did not disrespect any country or accuse any country of funding terrorism—as much as we know who is supporting it.”
The Qataris want to continue to work with the Arab community—not only to repair their current state of affairs, but to also counter extremism in the region. The official said to this publication that Qatar believes working together “to finding a solution to funding terrorism in the region,” will be the most effective policy. “We have to create strong laws punishing these individuals and re-educating society…having a more appropriate thinking towards grappling with this issue is more reasonable to me,” he added.
c. The US and Neutral International Community
Perhaps more confusing than the reasons behind the GCC-Qatar diplomatic dispute is the United States’ position on the issue. Following the June 5 announcement, the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon have all issued different opinions and statements regarding their concerns over Qatar’s precarious situation in the region. United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has assumed a leading role from the US side, has traveled to the region as a mediator. He believes compromise is an option. A State Department statement noted that it “will be very difficult for Qatar to meet the demands” but there were some areas that could “provide a basis for ongoing dialogue leading to resolution.” In an effort to speak truth to his words, Secretary Tillerson recently visited Doha where the United States and Qatar signed an agreement to confront terrorism financing in the country. Secretary Tillerson also encouraged the Gulf countries to resolve the dispute in an expeditious manner, noting that stability in the GCC (and thus, the Middle East) is crucial for the United States, our allies, and world stability.
While the State Department has offered a relatively neutral stance towards the conflict, President Trump has sided with the four GCC countries—fitting, since he likely inspired them to target Qatar in his May visit to Riyadh. Juxtaposing Secretary Tillerson, President Trump accused Qatar of terrorism financing and praised the measures adopted by the UAE and Saudi Arabia on his Twitter account. “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders point to Qatar – look!” President Trump tweeted. Countering the President’s viewpoint, the Pentagon has reaffirmed its gratitude to Qatar for support of the US military and to its military commitments like fighting ISIS and reassuring overall regional security. A key factor in the Pentagon’s appreciation concerns the United States’ air base in Al-Udeid, the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, which is station in Qatar.
With the Trump administration’s inability to craft a comprehensive policy to resolve the conflict, a more coherent explanation of the United States’ position was articulated by former United States Ambassador to Yemen and former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs in the Department of State, Gerald M. Feierstein. In an interview with the HCLR, Ambassador Feierstein expressed the significance of both the United States’ air base in Al-Udeid, but also its necessary role in the GCC and greater Arab community. Regarding the air base, Ambassador Feierstein noted that the base “is an extremely significant asset in the region,” since a great deal of the air campaign against ISIS is run out of Qatar. Furthermore, Ambassador Feierstein reasoned that “Qatar’s dropping out of the Arab coalition would be significant…not necessarily because Qatar itself plays a critical role, but because it reopens issues within the larger Arab community.” Because the goal of the United States is to achieve success against both violence and confronting Iran, Ambassador Fierstein reasoned it is “extremely important that: a) the Sunni Arabs would stay together; and b) that the GCC, in particular, remain a viable organization.” While President Trump may like to take credit for encouraging the harsh rebuke of Qatar, senior United States officials, and international experts both agree that the US needs to take a neutral position between the two sides; but take a strong position in advocating for a quick resolution in order to get back to fighting issues that jeopardize the whole region.
LEGALITY OF ACTIONS
a. Introductory Legal Basis
The GCC’s abrupt split with Qatar, followed by a list of demands considered impossible for the Qatari government to meet, has prompted some to suggest that the GCC sanctions against Qatar are downright illegal. The Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, declared that his country was “not going to accept anything infringes on our sovereignty.” Sheikh Mohammed argued that the “world is governed by international laws, that don’t allow big countries to bully small countries…No one has the right to issue to a sovereign country an ultimatum.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an increasingly vocal supporter of the Qatari administration, shared Sheikh Mohammed’s interpretation of international law, adding that he and his administration “approve and appreciate the attitude of Qatar against the list of 13 demands,” since the demands were “against international law because you cannot attack or intervene in the sovereignty of a country.”
Qatar and its emerging allies seem assured that the rule of international law will set them free from regional isolation and domestic strife caused by this conflict. But does international law forbid these sanctions and the actions of the four GCC countries in this dispute? Sheikh Mohammed and President Erdoğan believe that the five nations are intervening in the affairs of Qatar—which, according to them, is a violation of the non-interventionism doctrine outlined in United Nation resolutions. Arguing against claims of illegality, in an interview with a senior Saudi diplomatic official, their government argues that everything is legal. “We [the Saudi government] have the sovereign right to make decisions consistent with international law,” the official said. From the Saudi perspective, along with the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, their countries have every right to cease trade with Qatar and isolate them from the GCC and the Arab community because of Qatar’s alleged dangerous actions and choices which jeopardize regional security. On the grounds of international law and an extremely narrow view of the crisis, which country has the right perspective? Saudi Arabia.
b. International Precedent
The foreign policy principle of “non-interventionism” dates to the Swiss philosopher Vattel in 1758, but its actual definition and subsequent prohibition weren’t established until the adoption of the UN Charter in 1945. In Article 2.4 of the Charter, the principle of non-interventionism is defined as the prohibition of “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.” In a subsequent clarification of the UN article, Oppenheim’s International Law notes that the prohibition of such intervention “is a corollary of every state’s right to sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence,” and that the “interference must be forcible or dictatorial, or otherwise coercive, in effect depriving the state intervened against of control over the matter in question, interference pure and simple is not intervention.”
While “use of force” is prohibited under the UN Charter, the language of Article 2.4 chooses to not define or explain what “force” qualifies as. The accepted understanding is that “force” does not include measures of economic and political coercion (like the actions taken by the four nations against Qatar). Rather it refers to armed or military force. But how far does the definition of military force extend? What if you monetarily support military force, but do not partake in it? The only widely-accepted and practical application of the “use of force” prohibition doctrine occurred when the International Court of Justice weighed in on the Nicaragua case brought by Nicaragua against the United States—when the former accused the latter of alleged support for contra rebels. The judgment passed down in 1986 explained that an illegal intervention—one where “use of force” is used— “must be one bearing on matters in which each State is permitted…to decide freely” on what type of political, economic, social, or cultural system they should have. Furthermore, the policy of intervention becomes illegal when it employs “such choices, methods of coercion, particularly force, either in the direct form of military action or in the indirect form of support for subversive activities in another State.” While the UN Charter definition and other theoretical ruminations of intervention may be vague, the practical application of the doctrine in international affairs yields an unquestionable result: unless a country uses direct military action, or engages in efforts to lend support to a group advocating the overthrow of the incumbent government, the intervention is legal. Up to this point, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt have not used any form of military action against Qatar; with our current knowledge, the four countries have also not tried to support any subversive group in Qatar. If the four nations do either of these two transgressions, then their action would be illegal and trigger a substantial backlash from the international community. Besides those rules, and unless their sanctions against Qatar necessitated humanitarian intervention (which we will subsequently discuss), the four GCC countries are legally secure.
c. Saudi Arabia’s Defense
Regardless of what international experts may cite as the Saudi government’s true intentions behind the diplomatic breakdown and sanctions, the government and state-run news agencies have stressed that the decision was made to protect “national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism,” while accusing Qatar of destabilizing their country and the region through their alleged support of terrorist and extremist organizations, including, but not limited to, Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and ISIS. Saudi Arabia’s legal argument is very convincing if you subtract the years of regional history and tension that is it at play in the conflict. From their viewpoint, Qatar is threatening the security of the Middle East and the stability of their own country’s regime and their efforts to impose sanctions on Qatar is a matter of national security—life or death, if we are being extra histrionic.
The fact that harsh sanctions, such as the United States’ sanctions with Cuba for the past 60 years, have been justified on less dramatic grounds, lends legitimacy to the Saudi rationale. The four nations opposed to Qatar have also been increasingly wise in how they levied the sanctions. While many international news outlets and commentators noted that the actions against Qatar are a “blockade,” a senior Saudi official repeatedly stressed to this author that their actions against Qatar were “not a blockade.” The official explained that “foreign carriers can fly over Saudi territories to Qatar” and that foreign vessels can “sail through Saudi waters unimpeded to Qatar.” Saudi Arabia has been smart to acknowledge that they have only prohibited their own country from dealing with Qatar, not the world—despite the fact that approximately 80 percent of Qatar’s food requirements are imported from its Gulf Arab neighbors. The ability for them to deny the status of a blockade and allow other travel and resources gives them political cover, while still jeopardizing Qatar’s daily way of life.
The greatest tactics to remove any doubt of legal insecurity has been to turn Qatar’s accusation of the illegality of foreign intervention against them. When UAE Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba wrote in a June op-ed for The Wall Street Journal that Qatar had to “stop interfering in its neighbors’ internal affairs,” the claim became a rallying point for his country’s justification of the sanctions. The Qataris countered that the embargo is deliberately being used to interfere with their government’s administration. The UAE and Saudi Arabia argue that the sanctions are imposed because Qatar interferes with their administration and tries to undermine their governments by giving financial support to known subversive groups, by using its news network, Al Jazeera, as a means of attacking their governments. Since the four nations haven’t used military action or engaged in subversive activity against Qatar, they are legally compliant. And if you believe everything that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have said, then Qatari support for opposition groups equates subversive activity—which is illegal under Article 2.4’s recent applications.
d. Qatar Defense
As the Saudi government justifies its sanctions through the lens of national security and claims of Qatari interference, Qatari’s government has used virtually the same argument. In response to the June 5th announcement of a breakdown in relations between the four nations and Qatar, the latter responded that there was “no legitimate justification” for the harsh actions while accusing the Arab states of violating their nation’s sovereignty. Just as Saudi and UAE officials stressed that Qatar was in violation of international law for intervening in subversive activities within their country, Qatar countered by making a parallel accusation about its Arab neighbors. Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, stressed that the procedures taken “have clear violations of international law and international humanitarian law. They will not have a positive impact on the region but a negative one.” The Qatari government’s main reason behind calling the sanctions illegal rests upon their conviction that a sovereign nation cannot issue an ultimatum to another sovereign nation, and that they won’t “accept anything that infringes on [their] sovereignty.” Qatar artfully increased the severity of such illegal actions by portraying the crisis as an international David and Goliath situation, with their foreign minister noting that the “world is governed by international laws, that don’t allow big countries to bully small countries.”
The Qatari government finds the sanctions taken by their Arab neighbors as both a double-standard and an infringement on the human rights and civil liberties of its citizens. While Saudi officials accuse Qatar of interference, a senior Qatari embassy official pointed out the hypocrisy: “They say we interfere in their internal affairs, and now they want to interfere in our internal affairs. And it’s okay for them, but not for us. However, we never interfere in internal affairs.” The list of demands also elicited condemnation from Qatar’s government because it infringes on the rights of its citizens. A contentious demand has been the order to shut down Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera—known for its less-than-positive portrayals of countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar’s UN High Commissioner for Human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein noted that the demand was an “unacceptable attack” on Qatari citizens’ rights of expression, press, and opinion. The senior Qatari embassy official noted that this demand is not legally allowed, emphasizing that “Qatar has not blocked any news agencies, or any Saudi or UAE channels…if a Qatari citizen wants to see a UAE channel has the freedom to do that.”
The biggest argument against sanctions in the name of freedom concerns the treatment and effect such policies have had on the livelihood of ordinary Qatari citizens. The government’s belief is that the sanctions imposed are too punitive and that ordinary citizens and business should not be targeted in a political dispute between Arab nations. In the HCLR interview with the senior Qatari embassy official, he highlighted that, “there is no reason…to bring the citizens into this drama…but you continuously see that our country got even closer, and the people are much stronger and united in confronting this issue.” The official added that the conflict is hard not just on his country’s citizens but citizens of the involved Arab parties, since they “are all inter-connected. You can find someone with family in the UAE, and someone in Qatar who is married to someone from Saudi Arabia…We are one tribe and this blockade rips us apart.”
The damage to the inter-connectedness of the Arab community represents a diminutive part of a much graver problem caused by this crisis: the forced movement of nationals. The National Human Rights Committee in Qatar has led the charge in fighting back the sanctions on humanitarian grounds, and recently hired a Swiss law firm to investigate the human rights consequences of the sanctions—which, according to a report released by the committee, has caused more than 13,000 citizens from the four GCC countries residing in Qatar to be affected by forcible repatriation measures. The documented measures have included Gulf officials expelling Qatari citizens from living in their countries, and asking their own citizens to return home within 14 days—with the threat of sanctions if noncompliant. The Qatari National Human Rights Committee Chairman Ali al-Marri underscored that “that people have been forced to immediately leave behind their jobs, homes, universities, or business activities…families have to decide whether to split up or face sanctions.” The senior Qatari embassy official noted that even Qatari students “studying in the UAE were told that they were suspended and that they had to go back home.” The abruptness of the announcement and harsh that followed has affected a wide majority of citizens in the Arab community—regardless of their citizenship and nationality.
As Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee works with the Swiss law firm to try to end the sanctions through a humanitarian route, it is worth asking if such legal action could work? The only viable legal route Qatar has to stop the economic “force” from the four GCC countries is to object on humanitarian grounds while hoping to gain support and promises of intervention from the international community. But how far do humanitarian violations caused by economic sanctions extend? Not far. The international community typically remains quiet on issues that walk a fine line between human rights and a state’s sovereignty—especially in the context of the legality of economic sanctions. The only hope the Qataris have in utilizing international law via humanitarian arguments is a 1984 UN General Assembly resolution on Economic Measures as a Means of Political and Economic Coercion Against Developing Countries. The resolution, in the wake of recent humanitarian crises and economic sanctions, “reaffirms” the notion that:
“developed countries should refrain from threatening or applying…[types of] economic sanctions, incompatible with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations and in violation of undertakings contracted multilaterally or bilaterally, against developing countries as a form of political and economic coercion which affects their economic, political and social development.”
After the acceptance of the resolution, no solid measures were adopted to clarify the rules behind unilateral or non-sanctioned UN sanctions. Thus, those nations who are sanctioning other nations must be careful. The resolution doesn’t mean that any use of economic sanctions is a violation of UN principles, but it does mean that if the sanctions break UN rules, their actions will be considered illegal.
Because Saudi Arabia and its three GCC counterparts have stressed that its actions are not a “blockade” and have largely followed the vague rule of law when it comes to international disputes, it will be challenging for Qatar to effectively end the efforts against them on a legal basis. However, if they are truly dedicated to the international court system then their current course of action is the best plan for action. The only way Qatar can trigger help from the UN or other multilateral organizations is through humanitarian action. Their Human Rights Commission must prove, per the requirements of the 1984 UN resolution, that the actions of the four GCC countries significantly harmed and “affected” their political, economic, and social development. Consequently, the Qataris need ask themselves in internal meetings, and answer in courtrooms, this question: how did the forcible repatriation measures caused by the sanctions affect their economic, political, and social development? Their Human Rights Commission better hope that some citizens of the 13,000 can demonstrably and passionately answer that question.
Qatar’s legal approach to fighting back the sanctions, with help from the international community, will be delayed and impacted by vague international laws and varying interpretations. Because the sanctions of the four GCC countries do not qualify as a technical “blockade,” and because Saudi Arabia has emphasized that it is launching the measures to protect its people, the actions taken by the four nations are legally valid. Article 2.4 of the UN Charter prohibits the “use of force,” but it only applies to military actions, not economic sanctions. Although some argue that Article 2.4 extends to prohibiting non-military interference, like economic sanctions, no serious action has been taken by the UN—and it will most likely stay that way. If Qatar is to have any chance of success, pursuing a strategy of focusing on the humanitarian aspect could yield sympathy from neutral powers and the international community. Creating enough backlash to end the divisive conflict.
The time to test the international community’s willingness to restrict or interfere in acts of economic and political coercion is now—mainly because of how serious this crisis has become. In his interview with the Harvard College Law Review, Ambassador Feierstein explained that the current dispute is “an extreme example of the effort to coerce a member of the international community,” adding that the biggest issue is that “Qatar is a partner—a member of the GCC, part of the Arab coalition…[But] you don’t use that kind of approach to allies, and that’s what we are seeing here.” While embargoes and sanctions are frequent features in foreign policy, they are also extremely serious, just like war. Ambassador Feierstein noted that “an economic embargo is an act of war,” and that technically “there is a state of war that exists between Qatar and other states.” Despite the severity of the crisis, even if Qatar’s plea for international legal support succeeds in gaining help from the UN, it is unlikely the world would see a change in international laws regarding non-interventionism. Ambassador Feierstein explained the doubt of an international agreement to curb political and economic measures because of their frequent use: “[The US] used it for 60 years in Cuba…In any event, I don’t think there’s an international law or agreement solution to the problem.”
b. Resolution to the Crisis
Unlike most diplomatic and foreign affairs-related problems, the GCC crisis doesn’t have any obvious solution—or any, as of now—even as Qatar remains optimistic about reconciliation within the Arab community. A senior Qatari official assured the HCLR that the countries involved “will come back together. No matter what.” But he did present a more pessimistic view when his focus shifted from geopolitical factors to people’s feeling: “The people are hurt, and they left a very hard scar. The government will forget about, but the normal citizen of Qatar or Saudi Arabia will not forget what they did to Qatar.” The official remarked that his country has been willing to come to the table as the Kuwaitis work on a mediation agreement, but that “you don’t see any movements from the other countries.” For the four GCC nations, the message is uncoordinated. From the UAE perspective, the country is willing to part ways if their demands aren’t met. A senior Saudi embassy official believes that the “boycott of Qatar will continue until Doha ends its destabilizing campaign and support for extremists and terrorist groups.” Such disparate predictions from those on the same side of the conflict do not bode well for a speedy and successful resolution of this regionally- and globally-important conflict.
The predictions have also led to divided opinions from the experts. A report by the Eurasia Group suggested that the “crisis will continue to escalate before the Qatari leadership ultimately adjusts its policy positions, or in a slightly less likely scenario, opts to cement an alliance with Turkey and closer ties with Iran.” Ambassador Feierstein is more optimistic, believing that Qatar’s “approach is to try and work through mediators, primarily the Kuwaitis…they are trying to continue and negotiation either directly or indirectly through third parties.” In terms of how the crisis becomes resolved, Ambassador Feierstein doubted whether “there is a role for the UN in this [conflict]—this is an inside baseball issue that will be resolved by the parties with close partners.”
The details behind the eventual resolution—whether it involves some degree of compromise or a complete separation—doesn’t matter. What matters is the timeframe. If things can be resolved in a timely manner, then most of the damage will be reparable and negligible. The issue for the GCC, the broader Arab community, and the rest of the world is that if this crisis goes on for much longer it will certainly tarnish the legacy and efficacy of the GCC as well as broader Arab partnerships and world goals in the region.
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