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Experts: Gulf Rift Widening as Qatar Quits OPEC

Khalid Al-Falih, Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources of Saudi Arabia attends a news conference after a meeting of the OPEC, and non OPEC members in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.
Khalid Al-Falih, Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources of Saudi Arabia attends a news conference after a meeting of the OPEC, and non OPEC members in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Qatar’s official withdrawal from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) this week has renewed debate over the rift with its neighbor Saudi Arabia, with some observers saying the move could further complicate the relationship between the two Gulf countries.

The departure, which was announced earlier in December, took effect Tuesday, ending the peninsular Arab country’s 58 years of membership in the international union.

The move is seen by many analysts to be shadowed by the political atmosphere in the Gulf region following a Saudi-led blockade on Qatar since mid-2017.

“There is a geopolitical angle, it is about reinforcing the message that Qatar is acting in what it considers to be its own national interest given the blockade imposed on Qatar since 2017 by fellow OPEC members Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, told VOA.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain imposed an abrupt trade-and-travel blockade on their fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member, Qatar, in June 2017. The countries accused Qatar of fueling terrorism by supporting Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood group in Egypt and maintaining relations with Iran. The relations have since remained in a standoff.

Other GCC members

Ulrichsen said Qatar’s decision is being closely watched by other fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) who have also voiced concerns about the direction Saudi Arabia is moving in terms of its foreign policy decisions under Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Qatar's officials in the past have denied their decision to quit OPEC was influenced by the divide with Saudi Arabia, saying the move was to turn the focus from oil to other energy resources.

As a minor OPEC supplier of oil, Qatar had 600,000 barrels a day of crude oil production, constituting less than 2 percent of the group’s total output. It ranks, however, as the world's No. 3 producer of natural gas and the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.

“The withdrawal decision reflects Qatar's desire to focus its efforts on plans to develop and increase its natural gas production,” the country’s Minister of Energy, Saad al-Kaabi, said in a tweet early last month.

Al-Kaabi then said the decision was not going to affect the global oil process given his country’s low oil output.

Experts warn the decision could potentially also affect the status of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is at an all-time low in its ability to preserve unity since its establishment in 1981.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a Doha-based scholar with the Brookings Institution, charged that GCC has, since the 2017 Gulf crisis, ceased to function effectively because of its inability to find a solution to several political and economic issues among its members.

Fathollah-Nejad said Qatar’s growing role in the Council had irritated Saudi Arabia, the biggest and richest member.

“Qatar has started in the 2000s to engage in an independent foreign policy and become ambitious to a point that was unacceptable to Riyadh, as the latter has the goal of being the uncontested power in the Arabian Peninsula and within the GCC,” he told VOA.

The GCC concluded its most recent summit in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Dec. 10, without reaching any decisions regarding the crisis with Qatar.

Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani received an official invitation from Saudi King Salamn bin Abdulaziz, but only a delegation headed by Qatar Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sultan bin Saad Al Muraikhi attended the meeting.