Amid diplomatic crisis between Qatar and a rival Saudi-led bloc in West Asia, North Korea has reportedly struck a USD 100 million arms deal with a company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
As the report resurfaced online last week, the regional political equation took a new turn. According to sources close to the Qatari government, North Korea is playing a different role in the ongoing diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf from thousands of miles away. Earlier, both the parties (Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its allies) had accused each other of maintaining an ‘illicit’ economic relationship with North Korea. They knew that it would be a sensitive issue for the US, which is trying hard to isolate the Communist country.
Soon after the report was published, the UAE challenged its authenticity and blamed regional rival Qatar for having a “dangerous” relationship with North Korea. However, Doha rubbished Abu Dhabi’s claim, saying that the UAE was trying to divert the global attention.
In 2015, the New York Times reported that an Emirati company had purchased weapons from North Korea. In fact, Emirati Ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba admitted that his country acquired North Korean weapons when he was summoned to a meeting with the US State Department.
Foreign policy experts are of the opinion that (perhaps) both Qatar and the UAE maintain ‘cordial’ ties with the ‘isolated’ Asia-Pacific nation. They claim that there are an estimated 3,000 North Korean migrant workers in Qatar, with many of them working to build facilities for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The UAE, too, imports arms from North Korea.
Recently, Gulf Affairs Institute – a Washington-based think-tank run by Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmed – has confirmed that Abu Dhabi’s close ties with Pyongyang are influencing the West Asian crisis. So, it has become really difficult for the Donald Trump administration to deal with the crisis. After considering the current political situation in West Asia, the American government has decided to adopt a different policy and to influence the opinion of lawmakers and the general public.
Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the US-based Baker Institute for Public Policy, has advised the Trump administration to closely monitor the Qatari government’s activities. Speaking at a media conference a couple of days ago, he said that Qatar had allegedly maintained ‘close’ ties with al-Qaeda in the past. “I think that a key objective of the media campaign, for all parties, is to win over hearts and minds in the Beltway echo chamber, which is why we are seeing the proliferation of stories guaranteed to resonate strongest among decision-makers,” added Ulrichsen.
For the US, North Korea became an emotive issue after Pyongyang announced that it was ready to build a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile. Senior Adviser with Washington-based Gulf State Analytics Theodore Karasik believes there is definitely a link between the ongoing conflict in West Asia and North Korean weapons. “These articles need to be placed within the context of the information war, but at the same time, this point regarding DPRK is extremely serious,” he said.
In the past, Kuwait was the only West Asian nation that enjoyed strongest economic relationship with North Korea. Now, the UAE and Qatar have strengthened ties with the North, prompting America to reshape its policies towards the region. Andrea Berger, a Senior Research Associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, has predicted that the US will impose sanctions on the UAE or Qatar in near future. “The US could fire warning shots by sanctioning additional individuals or companies in the region acting in breach of US or UN sanctions on North Korea,” stressed Berger.