The Straits Times says

Avoid dangerous precedents in Gulf

The 48-hour extension of the deadline for Qatar to accept a list of demands, or face further sanctions, continues the ill-judged actions taken by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt against a small Persian Gulf neighbour. Doha's initial rejection of the 13 demands - deemed to be "non-negotiable" in Riyadh's view - was occasioned by what it saw as their wide-ranging nature. Indeed, lawyers for Qatar left no one in any doubt about the stakes involved when they denounced the diplomatic tactics as being "reminiscent of the extreme and punitive conduct of 'bully' states that have historically resulted in war". For a member of a former Arab fraternity to even speak of war was a sobering indication of how far downhill regional relations have gone.

Qatar's dissatisfied partners want it to sever links with Islamist groups which they consider terrorist organisations, including the Muslim Brotherhood. This demand would not appear to be excessive, any more than would the anger felt over the Al Jazeera satellite channel, which is funded by the Qatari state, giving such groups media credibility. However, to demand that Doha shut down Al Jazeera is akin to an authoritarian power telling the United Kingdom to close down the British Broadcasting Corporation because its media coverage of the power is deemed unfavourable.

The demand for Qatar to reduce its ties with Iran would appear to be an intrusion into Doha's sovereign freedom of choice. However, countries habitually give up certain sovereign options in order to exercise others. Qatar must balance its ties with Iran - a Shi'ite nation that many status quo Arab and Sunni states consider an enemy - with the need for economic symbiosis and political coexistence with its closest Arab neighbours. The latter would not be wrong in asking Doha to guard itself from being sucked into regional disputes where it would have to choose between being a modernist Arab state, and a pawn in struggles with the West waged by a host of terrorist groups and Teheran.

Both sides in the dispute need to reach a settlement to avoid setting an unwanted diplomatic precedent in the region. Qatar cannot live indefinitely with the economic sanctions and political isolation imposed on it. And its estranged neighbours cannot act as if the threatened punitive action will make no difference to their collective security.

Interlocutors such as the United States and the European Union ought to ensure the dispute does not escalate. And Kuwait must continue with its efforts to bring the opposed sides together. The Gulf states' desire to counter Iran's thrust in the region will be undermined by the current impasse, as the Iranians would like nothing better than to see their rivals in a state of disarray for as long as possible.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2017, with the headline 'Avoid dangerous precedents in Gulf'. Print Edition | Subscribe