Qatar files WTO complaint against Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE

By Keerthana Chavaly

On July 31, Qatar lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) against Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE amid increasing tensions in the Middle East. The complaint, citing “coercive attempts at economic isolation”, was in response to a trade boycott imposed by these countries on Qatar.

This is the latest development in a situation that is becoming progressively worse. The Gulf Arab countries cut ties with Qatar on June 5 amid convictions that Qatar was aiding terrorists and supporting Iran.

A source of terror?

The economic boycott was sparked when Qatar’s news agencies showed the nation’s leader, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani declaring support for Iran and defending groups (Hamas, Hezbollah) considered as terrorists by the boycotting countries. These statements were broadcasted on news stations and social media accounts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE. According to the Saudi kingdom, Qatar is “harbouring a multitude of terrorist and sectarian groups that aim to create instability in the region”.

Qatar denied responsibility for these declarations and stated that the news websites were victims of cyber attacks. Further, The Washington Post reported that the hacking was ordered by senior officials in UAE while the actual hacking could have been performed by an unknown third party.

Attempts at dialogue

Qatar “requested consultations” with the three Gulf countries, essentially triggering a deadline for them to respond within 60 days or else face litigation. Litigation could take anywhere between two and five years, or more, to be resolved under the present system of WTO. So far, none of the three countries have responded to the complaint.

Ali Alwaleed al-Thani, the representative for Qatar’s WTO, said, “We have always called for dialogue, for negotiations, and this is part of our strategy to talk to the members concerned and to gain more information on these measures, the legality of these measures, and to find a solution to resolve the dispute.”

Interestingly, the complaint to WTO only names three countries and leaves out Egypt, despite the fact that Egypt is also boycotting Qatar. There are speculations that this is because Egypt has not asked Qatari citizens to leave its territory—unlike the other three nations.

Response to the WTO complaint

The boycotting countries conveyed to WTO that they would cite national security reasons to defend their actions. This reaction has caused some alarm because this provision under WTO rules, which is both “controversial and almost unprecedented” according to the Guardian, is seldom used.

Some worry that this will open the door for other countries to use the same defence for unjustifiable actions. The national security exemption was drafted to provide an incentive to join the WTO. It allows exceptions that “take care of real security interests” and would motivate countries to join the organisation without the fear of arbitration of their national security concerns.

A breath of relief for Iran

Meanwhile, Qatar’s predicament draws the attention away from Iran, a nation already bearing the brunt of criticism and ostracism by a number of Gulf countries. US President Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia and Israel have painted the country in a terrible light, claiming that Iran harbours terrorist groups in Lebanon and Gaza. Further, most Arab countries oppose Iran’s version of the Islamic government.

Iran has kept mostly silent on the entire affair, with President Hassan Rouhani only stating: “Iran’s airspace, sea and ground transport links will always be open to Qatar, our brotherly and neighbour country”

New friends; never-ending worries

Analysts predict that the crisis could bring Qatar closer to Iran and Turkey. Amin Saikal, director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University stated, ”It can accelerate its relationship with Turkey and Iran, who have already said they are happy to help to compensate for the boycott.”

Iran has offered to help with food shortages and the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has offered to help resolve the dispute. Qatar is experiencing extreme milk shortages due to the embargo. The situation is such that cows were recently flown in from Turkey. Qatar has already made moves to open an air and sea bridge through Turkey, Iran and ports in Oman.

Although Qatar has not included the cost of the boycott in the WTO complaint, speculations suggest that it will be expensive. This is because Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Maldives have banned travel to Qatar and have imposed restrictions on its air-crafts, ports and marine borders, digital services and websites.

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