The inauguration of a new naval facility by Qatar on 14 July, offers Doha a main base for its coastguard in the strategic and increasingly highly-contested waters of the Persian Gulf.
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The announcement is significant given the heightening tensions between Iran, on the one hand, and the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), the United States and the United Kingdom on the other. The Al-Daayen base highlights Qatar’s sense of insecurity and the urgent need for Doha to protect its maritime boundaries.
The new naval base signifies a strategic shift in Qatar in response to the increasing brinkmanship and destabilising rhetoric coming from Tehran. Although Qatar is a member of the GCC, its more independent foreign policy stance and perceived closer realignment with Iran in recent times precipitated the diplomatic rift with Saudi Arabia and close Saudi partners, such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Qatari wariness of Riyadh’s influence the subsequent political and economic isolation resulting from the dispute have not brought Qatar back into the fold. This will prove to be a bigger headache for a Saudi Government that is currently stuck in multiple proxy wars with Tehran, ranging from Libya to Syria and Yemen.
While the Qatari coastguard can only build and maintain relatively small patrol vessels and fast attack craft, the shallow depth of the Gulf, at an average of 90 to 93 metres, allows for manoeuvrability and speed, which are not characteristics of large surface ships. This, in conjunction with the ports of Doha and the strategically important Halul Island, enables Qatar to police its maritime boundaries and contest Saudi dominance in the Persian Gulf. If an Iran-Qatar axis were to come into being and if Qatar were to further increase its naval presence, it could block the entire Saudi Eastern Fleet from passing through the Strait of Hormuz. Such a situation would be unacceptable to Riyadh as the naval ports of Ras al Mishab, Al Jubayl and Ad Dammam would be rendered impotent and the Iranian presence strengthened.
Although Qatar suffered a financial setback from the fallout with Saudi Arabia in 2017, GDP growth has slowly recovered from 1.6% to 2.6%. The Qatari economy is still vulnerable to volatility in energy markets, however. Any significant disruptions due to the ongoing diplomatic and security crisis between Tehran, Riyadh, London and Washington, would significantly hamper Doha’s ambitions of fully protecting its shipping.
For now, Qatar is buying military equipment from the United States, which has so far remained neutral in the spat between the GCC members. Indeed, Washington’s careful tip-toeing around the issue, highlights how fraught and dysfunctional the GCC has become and the potential dilemma in which the Trump Administration is increasingly being entrapped. As Qatar continues to strengthen the Al-Daayen naval port and relations between Doha and Riyadh worsen, Washington has to decide whether to conduct its strategy of economic containment against Iran with a GCC increasingly at odds with itself, or to force Qatar out of the equation and thereby risk giving Iran a strategically important partner.
Yet, the Al-Daayen base only confirms the sheer insecurity that Doha faces. The Saudi Government’s threat to turn Qatar into an island, while it may sound preposterous, is a symbolic warning to Doha that Riyadh has the economic, political and military leverage to completely threaten its financial and maritime security. The Al-Daayen port also has symbolic importance for Qatar, however, as it sends a message to Riyadh that Qatar also has leverage. The Qatari Government knows well that if a war were to break out between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman, would be caught in the crossfire.
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