Jim Rolfe is the former Director of the Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Strategic Studies who has just completed a term advising the United Arab Emirates Government on defence policy.
The details of the tensions in the Gulf region are well enough known. Some members of the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and others, led by Saudi Arabia and strongly supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have withdrawn diplomatic recognition of Qatar because of, amongst other reasons, that country’s support for terrorism.
Additional factors are Qatar’s links with Iran (the regional rival) the perceived shelter given to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and the continued presence and funding of Al Jazeera, which routinely criticises Gulf states and (worse) their leadership.
Direct transport links between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been closed, Qatari nationals have been required to return home and expressions of sympathy for Qatar’s plight have been criminalised.
Leave aside the legitimacy or otherwise of the charges and leave aside the easy finger-pointing charges of hypocrisy on the part of all parties. This is an internecine battle and like all such battles is waged with emotion as much as with reason; it’s all the more intense as a consequence.
Given the continuing conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, external military involvement in the region, the continuing tensions caused by Kurdish separatist movements on the Iraq and Turkish borders, and the overlapping allegiances of different parties to the various conflicts, the latest Gulf developments only add unwanted complexity to an already over-complex region.
Although these events are geographically remote, the have the potential to affect New Zealand and New Zealand’s interests directly. The UAE is the centre for New Zealand’s regional military involvement. New Zealand has some 100 hundred military personnel in the region across the core Middle East and in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Bahrain, These men and women are supported from the UAE which hosts a New Zealand support and administrative element.
New Zealand also has national interests in Qatar and New Zealand’s embassy in the UAE is also accredited to Qatar. Qatar is the richest (per capita) of the Gulf states and is defined as one of the ‘key planks’ in New Zealand’s strategy for ‘Opening Doors to the Gulf Region’. The strategy is aimed at:
l Building strong and enduring political relationships with the GCC;
l Expanded trade and economic relationships with the region; and
l Developing connectivity with the region
One important component of the strategy was a free trade agreement between the Gulf states and New Zealand. This is now on hold.
Clearly, tensions within the Gulf region have implications both for New Zealand’s military activities in the wider Middle East and also for the Gulf regional strategy.
The problem is clear, the solutions less so. The immediate requirement is to ensure New Zealand’s day-to-day position remains as effective as possible. This means that sides should not be taken and criticism, even by implication, of any GCC member avoided. The second requirement is to develop work-arounds for any problems that have arisen. No doubt the embassy and businesses are doing that now. Finally, and most difficult, a way ahead needs to be developed. It may be that the military fall-out is limited given that Qatar is not central to New Zealand’s regional activities. If so, that is fortuitous. More difficult is New Zealand’s regional strategy, which appears to be in tatters. Developing, amending, or dropping the strategy are all possibilities. In the short-term, it may be sensible to wait and see. But if nothing changes within the next few months (and it very likely will not as both sides seem set on their own approach), wait and see will have to be replaced with a more active plan.
If the tensions within the Gulf get worse it is not inconceivable, although there are no signs of this yet, that countries such as New Zealand could be invited to take sides in support of the Saudi-UAE initiatives by, for example, removing diplomatic recognition from Qatar, or removing the right of Qatar’s airline to fly to New Zealand. Any suggestion of such steps by the Gulf states would be an egregious extension of the dispute and would make a regional problem become global. New Zealand’s diplomatic efforts should be directed at ensuring New Zealand is not put into this position.