The struggle for influence in the Gulf after the Saudi-Qatar crisis

In the weeks after a devastating conflagration swept across parts of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, including its capital, Riyadh, Canada led the charge to criticize the countries for the blockade of their diplomatic missions in Doha, Qatar. Although both countries withdrew their ambassadors to Canada, the Trudeau government continued to campaign to free the ones it had left. While Saudi Arabia demanded assurances that Canada would cease what it said was interference in its internal affairs, Qatar rejected Canada’s demands, and its diplomatic relations remained suspended.

Gulf Arabs began to decry Canada’s stance on the blockade, and Canada soon lost its passported ambassador to Qatar. On June 14, King Salman of Saudi Arabia gave Canada 48 hours to reverse its position or face “tough consequences.” On June 19, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II of Jordan in Amman, where, according to Jordan Times, Abdullah referred to Canada’s position in the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar as “unfortunate.”

With little time to think about how their country was going to appeal to the protestations of millions of Arabs, Canada’s leaders began to ponder King Salman’s threat. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told CBC that both the government and King Abdullah II wanted Canada to reverse its stance in the ongoing dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “I would say that it is not just the king of Jordan. The Canadian government will be made aware of the importance of the position of Jordan and Saudi Arabia because we are neighbours and want things to go back to normal,” he said.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, King Salman’s brother and the former Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, appeared to confirm Jordan’s demand, and suggested Canada should reconsider its stand on Qatar: “I would urge Canada to stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, especially in the region,” he told the BBC. “I would also urge Canada to understand that their action could have serious consequences.”

As the decision to withdraw their ambassadors loomed ever larger, both Canada and Saudi Arabia started eyeing reinforcements. Then-Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted on June 19 that Canada would remain a “benevolent global actor.” The very next day, he visited Canada’s military base at Al Udeid, and the following week, the government announced that 500 Canadian soldiers would provide support for Operation Reassurance, the U.S.-led coalition currently attempting to isolate Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

According to the Associated Press, Jordan’s military members were dispatched to Canada in March 2018, just days after a teenager, who had been jailed in Saudi Arabia for appearing in a Women’s March, boarded a bus for freedom in Jordan, crossing the border into Jordan that same day, according to Jordanian news websites. Jordan has been one of the most vocal champions of the Trump administration’s attempts to ease diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and it has seized the chance to expand into a region now marked by the inability of diplomacy.

On June 22, the day after Canada was threatened by its king, the Trudeau government held a conference in Calgary to discuss the importance of “an expanded regional security apparatus, including Canada’s leading role in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).” In a typical bit of diplomatic opportunism, the conference kicked off with a press conference by Minister Freeland in which she congratulated Kuwait on its membership in the GCC. Less typical, perhaps, was that Kuwait later announced the dissolution of the GCC, and the leaders of the countries that remain part of the organization set the stage for a bitter summer.


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