Akshat recently traveled to Doha as a member of the Qatar Exchange Fellowship, sponsored by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations and the Northeastern University International Relations Council. The content of this article is largely sourced from conversations with officials from the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, Qatar’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministries, Al Jazeera Network, and various other government and cultural institutions.
In May of 2017, the four nations of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain declared a diplomatic blockade on the State of Qatar, thus commencing one of the longest-standing disputes among allies in the Gulf region. The so-called “Quartet” of blockading countries issued a list of 13 demands and statements regarding Qatar, including allegations of state support of terrorism and calls to shut down Qatari media agencies such as Al Jazeera. Nearly two years later, the rift persists with no end in sight.
While the NUPR published an overview of the situation last October, the goal of this analysis is to provide a clearer and more comprehensive representation of this critical international crisis. Western reporting of the situation often over-emphasizes certain factors of the dispute or completely overlooks more important ones. For Americans to develop policy in the Middle East that is truly cognizant of the norms, intricacies, power structures, and regional specificities of those nations, we must be accurately informed. This article will aim to provide clarity on the motivations behind the current tensions in the Gulf, and why the rift has played out the way it has.
Qatar’s foreign policy as an irritant
In order to fully understand the Quartet’s gripes with Qatar, their motivations must be painted against the backdrop of Qatar’s international actions. Qatar’s foreign policy modus operandi has been to position itself as a diplomatic international actor through counter-terror and conflict mediation efforts. The Qataris have built a sizeable CV of conflict mediation efforts, including an ongoing role in mediation between the U.S. and the Taliban, national mediation in Somalia, brokering of talks between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, prevention of civil war in Lebanon, facilitation in the Darfur peace process negotiations, presence at the Ethiopia-Eritrea discussions—the list goes on.
Through these efforts, Qatar has actively tried to prevent conflicts and extremism through mediation, with the thought process being that conflict begets violence and the deterioration of public institutions, which often begets recruitment of dejected individuals to groups with extremist ideologies. In this fashion, mediation ultimately serves a counter-terror end-goal. With respect to self-gain out of these shows of diplomacy, the Qatari mentality is that they do not need a strong military if they have no enemies—a concept that held true until the Gulf rifts of this decade.
In contrast, the leaders of the Quartet, including the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, maintain their power and influence through strong authoritarian rule. With the promotion of democratic ideals during and after the Arab Spring protests of the early 2010s and the state’s demonstrated conflict mediation capabilities, Qatar has become an irritant to these figures’ influence throughout the region. Qatar’s larger cousins, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, did not like that Qatar was punching above its weight as a foreign policy actor and sought to dispel the perceived threat by means of the blockade.
Subsequent historical tensions
Under the lens of perceived threat to strong authoritarian rule, several of the blockading countries have some historical struggle with Qatar that have motivated them throughout this rift.
For Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s ability to maintain its regional power has been threatened. The Saudis want to remain in charge of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and derive power from major institutions such as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Seeing a burgeoning liquid natural gas (LNG) economy in Qatar posed a threat to Saudi regional economic power. Moreover, Qatar’s actions in brokering negotiations in the Middle East and North Africa region—such as those between Hamas and Fatah or previous talks in Yemen—have led the Saudis to feel their toes stepped on.
The UAE’s relationship with Qatar, meanwhile, is more complicated. The Emiratis often view Qatar as the “breakaway emirate,” and the leading families of these countries have historically been at odds due to lasting tribal rivalries. For example, the current Emirati emir has bad relations with former Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa (also known as the Father Emir).
This tenuous relationship culminated in 1996. Through secret meetings at the Intercontinental Hotel in Abu Dhabi, the ruling tribes of the UAE led an attempted coup of the Father Emir, in conjunction with the very same Quartet states. This was largely motivated by the Father Emir’s inability to calm the Gulf neighbors, who were in their then-third attempt to topple the Qatari government. Given the political history of this relationship, the current blockade is a continuation of anti-Qatar policy actions.
Additionally, much like Saudi Arabia, the UAE continues to face regional economic competition with the Qataris. Beyond its prosperous LNG economy, Qatar has also doubled down on diversification efforts through promotion of international business in Doha. While the UAE has notably accomplished similar goals through Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Emiratis fear Qatari competition and see Qatar as a major threat to their ability to establish the leading international business destination in the Gulf.
Lastly, Egypt’s motivations are directly stated in the Quartet’s 13 demands, which cite the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and demand that Qatar cease its support of the group. It is important to clarify that the Brotherhood is not recognized as a terrorist group by the international community, but still played a pivotal role in promoting democratic ideals during the Arab Spring with Qatari support. Even then, Egypt was a key battleground for Gulf countries vying for international influence, with the Qataris backing the Brotherhood, and the Saudis and Emiratis supporting the military regime of the current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. As such, Egypt’s allegations against Qatar were an act of public labeling for Qatar’s image, albeit misleading.
The current blockade is one of many phases of disagreements stemming from these tenuous relationships. In fact, in 2014, the Quartet brought forth similar concerns and briefly pulled diplomatic relations out of Doha. The parties reached an agreement at the time that sought to limit Qatar’s sovereignty by allowing those states to monitor Qatar and forcing the Qataris to coordinate policy with its regional neighbors. That being said, the agreement itself was sparse and vague with scant mechanisms for enforcement, nor did any of the parties really adhere to it.
Come 2017, both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia came under new leadership, so the Emiratis used this window to bring back claims against Qatar. The Emiratis remain firm believers in Qatari misdeeds, and the current Saudi leadership—driven by the Crown Prince’s deeds of adventurism and political maneuvering—continue to support this belief.
The role of external actors
An easy trap to fall into—as evidenced by Western reporting—is to attribute the Gulf crisis to the ongoing regional power struggle between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. While notes of tensions with Iran are certainly involved, as evident in the first of the Quartet’s thirteen demands calling for severing diplomatic relations with Iran, to simply view this as another proxy play between these two powers overlooks decades of the aforementioned deep-rooted, historical tensions between Qatar and the blockading countries. In truth, it is more so these tensions than Iran’s relations with Qatar that were the principle motivators of the Quartet’s actions.
Moreover, the Qataris are careful to walk a fine line in their relationship with Iran. Qatar’s interactions with Iran are situationally-induced more than anything else. The geography of the two states compels the Qataris to cooperate with the Iranians in accessing the North Field LNG repositories in the Persian Gulf. In addition, the Qataris were vulnerable at the start of the blockade, and Iran’s assistance by way of food imports and airspace were certainly needed.
That being said, the relationship with the U.S.—whose leaders continue to have disagreements with Iran—is the single most important bilateral relationship for Qatar, with those with the Gulf neighbors being a close second. It is not realistic for Qatar to have these allies in the daytime while courting the Iranians at night. Therefore, the Qatari leadership has been clear to separate Iranian relations for food trade from American and Gulf relations for everything else.
It is also important to understand the strategic, symbiotic relationship between the U.S. and Qatar. American military presence in Qatar by way of the Al Udeid Air Base, home to U.S. Central Command, has shaped the U.S. as the de facto guarantor of regional security for Qatar. By virtue of its central location in the region, Al Udeid has served as a home base for U.S.-led coalition forces, such as the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Syria and the NATO missions in Afghanistan. In return, the presence of the American base has served a deterrent effect to Qatar’s Gulf neighbors, keeping the rift a diplomatic crisis rather than allowing it to become a military one as well.
The Qataris feel little need to make concessions, especially in response to the allegations of support for terrorist groups. The reports that Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, denounced Al Jazeera and supported Hezbollah—a U.S.-designated terrorist group based in Lebanon—were proven to be planted by Saudi and Emirati hackers. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s state-run news agency, Al Arabiya, already had guests in the studio when the story broke. In addition, the Qataris cite their counter-terror track record—including their mediation efforts and their role in the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee—to demonstrate their clear interest in combating terrorism rather than supporting it.
In truth, the Quartet’s target was Qatar’s sovereignty, yet they made a fundamental miscalculation in believing that Qataris would turn against their Emir. The opposite has happened, as the rift has made Qatar stronger and wholly improved the nation’s internal resolve.
Within the last 22 months, there has been a heavy shift of focus towards developing Qatar’s self-reliance. Geopolitically, the government has been forced to build stronger trade logistics (particularly regarding food and materials transportation), re-assess and strengthen their trading partners at large, and refine their military operations. Outside of these adjustments, the economy backed by the state’s world-highest LNG shipments has continued to prosper uninterrupted, with further LNG shipments to expand from 77 to 110 million tons per annum.
Looking within Qatar, this impetus for national resolve assuaged internal, pre-rift tensions as the nation united, with steps being taken towards the removal of the nation’s societal hierarchy in recognition of the fact that all within the nation had to cooperate. As such, the Emir has become exceedingly popular, with his public identity soaring to celebrity status.
Motivations for a solution
In reporting on this crisis, the social detriments tend to be overlooked. Given the interconnected nature of the GCC, there are many cross-border marriages and families. However, with the restriction of travel and residency between the blockading countries and Qatar, many families have been separated as a result. The blockade also began at the start of Ramadan, which meant that many families were prevented from traveling to be together for the holiday. Especially in Islamic cultures, where family is sacrosanct, this government-enforced separation continues to be unfathomable to citizens who ultimately bear the consequences of their leaders’ decisions.
In addition, Qataris are prevented from entering Saudi Arabia, and, therefore, from visiting Mecca and Medina––the two holy cities of Islam. This barrier to religious obligation, coupled with the social and family separation, remain the sorest spots for the Qataris throughout this rift.
The GCC has always been viewed as a family by the members of its constituent states—often in a literal sense—so the now 22-month-long diplomatic rift bodes poorly, not only for the mass of individuals that these states govern, but also for the broader image of GCC unity. Despite thriving in their own right, the Qataris still feel wounded on this level and consider the impacts on social, religious, and family life as a major impetus in maintaining their diplomacy with the Gulf neighbors throughout the blockade.
History has proved that a united GCC is in the best interest of all of its member nations. The Gulf region remains geostrategically central to the conduct of international relations around the world, so it is in the best interest of not only the Qataris, but also the Saudis, Emiratis, and the rest of the world to seek a diplomatic resolution.
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