Clipping Qatar's Wings: The Gulf Split Two Decades in the Making

By Shayan Ahmed
Managing Editor
June 16, 2017

The row between Qatar and its Arab neighbors erupted on June 5th after Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic ties, including air and sea traffic, with Qatar, and suspended its membership from a 41-nation Saudi-led military alliance fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The rift has continued to escalate, driving world leaders and international news outlets into a frenzy. Saudi Arabia has closed its land border with Qatar, “stranding thousands of trucks carrying supplies,” while the UAE has also halted trade with its Gulf neighbor.

Isolated by its two biggest suppliers, Qatar has reached out to Iran and Turkey to ensure its food and water security.

The Saudi-led bloc leveled various allegations against Qatar, which included its “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region,” including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and groups supported by Iran.

The Qatari Foreign Ministry called the measures “unjustified and based on false claims and assumptions,” adding that the country has been “subjected to a campaign of lies” with the intention of imposing “guardianship” over the state, an attempt to infringe upon its sovereignty. Meanwhile, Turkish and Kuwaiti leaders are calling for calm and have offered to mediate between the parties amid an intensifying row.

Although the severity and magnitude of Saudi-led efforts to isolate Qatar has taken world leaders and observers by surprise, it is crucial to contextualize the unraveling crisis through a historic lens that spans three generations of Qatar’s ruling family, the House of Thani.

A New Power Emerges in The Region

In his 2012 piece for the Mediterranean Journal, Understanding Qatar's foreign policy objectives, David Roberts notes that Qatar’s geostrategic location between two regional powers, Iran to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south, has kept the micro-state’s rulers preoccupied with security concerns.

Historically, the Gulf state attempted to “play one power off against another” as it sought to ensure its own autonomy. Qatar’s small land mass, an area half the size of New Hampshire, makes it even more vulnerable to threats from regional powers that are far larger and possess stronger militaries.

In the 1970s, however, Qatar became increasingly dependent on Saudi Arabia in matters of security and policy when Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad, grandfather of the current Emir, took power by deposing his cousin. Under Sheikh Khalifa’s rule, Qatar emerged as one of the Gulf's most rigid states, “deferring to Saudi Arabia on virtually all matters related to foreign policy and maintaining strict prohibitions against criticism of the country and its gulf neighbors.”

This relationship cooled considerably during the 1980s as Sheikh Khalifa’s son and crown prince, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, rose through the ranks and showed little inclination to follow in the footsteps of his pro-Saudi father. Wider regional politics, including Saudi Arabia’s inability to defend itself and Kuwait during the Gulf War, further compelled Qatar to reduce its dependence on Saudi leadership and break away from the image of being a Saudi “vassal” state.

A more assertive Qatar truly emerged in 1995, when Sheikh Hamad deposed his father in a coup d’état while the Emir was vacationing in Switzerland. This move not only angered Sheikh Khalifa who vowed to gain back control, but also alarmed other Gulf states which were well aware of Sheikh Hamad’s preference for an independent foreign policy and stronger ties with Iran. From a historical perspective, Sheikh Hamad was keen to revert to the policy of his forefathers – hoping to balance the Saudi-Iran rivalry to his country’s advantage.

Saudi and Emirati leaders, however, were determined not to lose a strategic ally on the whims of a radical prince and reportedly backed at least three failed plots to overthrow the new Emir with the aim of reinstalling his pliant father. Despite these attempts, Sheikh Hamad’s rule survived, and he set upon an ambitious project of moving away from the domineering influence of Saudi Arabia.

The Qatar Brand – Small State, Great Power?

While Sheikh Hamad’s ambition and shrewd policies played a major role in his country’s transformation into an influential player and a regional hub for innovation, the discovery of the world’s largest offshore natural gas field to the country’s north was instrumental in providing the wealth needed to realize the Emir’s dream.

Qatar shares the gas field with Iran, which encouraged the deepening of bilateral relations over the years. The gas field not only made Qatar immensely wealthy, but also provided the freedom to pursue policies independent of the Saudi-led bloc of oil producers. Qatar forged its own ties with other global powers, which included convincing the US to set up its largest military base in the Middle East on Qatari soil.

Some respite in Saudi-Qatari relations came in 2010, after Sheikh Hamad “pardoned an unknown number of Saudi citizens accused of taking part in [the 1996] coup against him” on the Saudi King’s request. Nevertheless, Qatar’s brazen refusal to toe the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) line has continued to aggravate its neighbors. Qatar backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the GCC supported the military coup by General Sisi. Similarly, Qatar has provided a base for Hamas and armed factions opposed by the UAE or Saudi Arabia in Libya and Syria.

Moreover, Qatar’s savvy public diplomacy tool, the Al Jazeera network, has at various times embarrassed or angered most Middle Eastern governments by covering controversial issues and sparking critical public discourse. In a region where governance is underpinned by fealty to the rulers, Al Jazeera’s reporting was viewed by Gulf countries as Qatar’s attempts to incite their respective citizens.

In 2002, Al Jazeera’s coverage of a Saudi-proposed peace plan for the Israel-Palestine conflict angered the Kingdom, and it recalled its ambassador from Qatar as a result. The UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan have used similar pressure tactics over the years to rein in Al Jazeera’s maverick reporting. The current row has already dealt a blow to the network, as its operations in Riyadh have been shut down and its website blocked in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Al Jazeera is also reporting an intensifying campaign of cyber attacks as the diplomatic spat continues.

While Sheikh Hamad stubbornly pursued an independent foreign policy, the GCC hoped for a more malleable Qatar when Sheikh Tamim, son of Sheikh Hamad, was handed the country’s leadership by his father in 2013.

The new Emir initially complied with GCC demands and signed an additional security agreement that stipulated “non-interference” in the “internal affairs of any of the other GCC countries”. By 2014, however, Saudi Arabia and the UAE remained unsatisfied with Qatar’s policy changes and, together with Bahrain, withdrew their ambassadors from Doha.

The row ended later that year when Qatar signed additional concessions, which included the relocation of key Muslim Brotherhood figures from Doha to Turkey, and the shutdown of Al Jazeera’s Egyptian branch.

From late 2014 until President Trump’s visit in May 2017, GCC and Qatar enjoyed normalized relations, which was underscored by Saudi King Salman’s visit to Doha in December 2016.

Taming Qatar - Beyond The Rhetoric

The current row comes on the heels of President Trump’s visit to the Saudi kingdom, where he accused the Iranian regime of funding and training “terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region” – signaling a firm departure from Barack Obama’s conciliatory approach towards the theocratic regime. Observers believe that Trump’s tough posture on Iran may have emboldened the GCC states in moving against Qatar, in a bid to teach their Iran-friendly neighbor a tough lesson.

On May 24th, days after Trump’s departure from the kingdom, Qatar News Agency (QNA) published controversial statements attributed to Sheikh Tamim, further inflaming the GCC. The Emir, speaking at a graduation ceremony of military recruits, highlighted a campaign by UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to undermine Qatar’s leadership. He argued that Qatar does not interfere in internal matters of other countries and cautioned against escalating tensions with Iran, while calling the new US administration problematic. His remarks included support for Hamas and Hezbollah, which he described as legitimate resistance movements.

The QNA report was picked up by media outlets in the region, resulting in strong responses from Saudi Arabia and UAE. Qatar has since claimed that QNA was in fact hacked and the remarks were “falsely attributed” to the Emir. The country has enlisted the FBI to investigate the hacking, and made initial findings of the probe public on June 8th. The findings confirm that “the hacking operation used high technology and innovative methods by exploiting a cyber-bug in the website of Qatar News Agency.”

Despite increasing tensions, Sheikh Tamim remained unperturbed in the aftermath of the QNA report. He called the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, on May 27th to congratulate him on winning his second presidential term – a move heavily scrutinized in the wider Arab media, and portrayed as Qatar’s continued defiance.

As relations deteriorated in the Persian Gulf, international media broke two news stories that threatened to have grave political ramifications for the Middle East.

On June 1st, British press revealed that Theresa May’s government was refusing to publish a report on terror-financing, as the report implicated Saudi Arabia – a country with whom May had recently struck an arms deal worth £3.5 billion.

On June 3rd, American news outlets reported on the email account hacking of Yousef Al-Otaiba, the UAE’s Ambassador to the United States. Among other controversial details, the leaks divulged the Ambassador’s close ties to a pro-Israel neoconservative think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

In one email exchange, FDD’s Senior Counselor complained to Otaiba about a Hamas meeting being hosted at an Emirati-owned hotel in Qatar. Otaiba responded by saying that the real issue was the U.S. military base in Qatar and added, “How’s this, you move the base then we’ll move the hotel :-)”.

Leaked emails also revealed that FDD and UAE officials had scheduled a meeting between June 11-14 to discuss wide ranging issues, including “Al Jazeera as an instrument of regional instability” and “possible U.S./UAE policies to positively impact Iranian internal situation.” While the UAE government has made no comment on the authenticity of the leaked emails, its embassy in D.C. did confirm the hacking.

The email leaks, especially links to a pro-Israeli organization, signaled an embarrassing turn of events for GCC in general, and the UAE in particular. GCC’s cordial relations with Israel or its affiliate organizations remain at odds with the Gulf states’ official foreign policy, as they do not recognize the Jewish state. Moreover, sentiments of the Arab public remain overwhelmingly hostile towards Israel, owing to the unresolved conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Reports of Saudi Arabia’s potential ties to terror financing – and the UAE’s deepening ties with a pro-Israeli think tank against Iran, Hamas, and Qatar – have the potential to disturb stability in a region where citizens are becoming more politically aware and engaging with state policies. Arab rulers are acutely aware of the potential consequences of these developments and may even be willing to take desperate measures to distract their citizens from controversial and covert state policies.

While it would be difficult to establish with any certainty what led to the GCC-Qatar split, it would be fair to argue that a combination of the above – a hawkish U.S. administration, Qatar’s unwillingness to back down from its independent policies, and potentially destabilizing news reports about Saudi Arabia and UAE – all contributed to the current standoff.

Egypt – President Sisi’s Retribution

In 2013, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled the country’s first democratically elected President, Muhammad Morsi, and brought various charges against him, including espionage involving Hamas and “passing confidential documents related to Egypt’s national security to Qatar.” Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, was sentenced to death for these and additional charges, though he awaits the final decision by the Egyptian courts after appealing the sentence.

In 2014, following a year of interim government, General Sisi came to power as Egypt’s President and oversaw a “crackdown on most forms of opposition with tens of thousands of dissidents detained, and thousands killed.” Egypt has since declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, sparking tense relations with Qatar. The Gulf state has continued its decades long support to the Brotherhood – providing a haven to members fleeing crackdown from neighboring Arab states – in a bid to boost its influence in the region.

Since the toppling of Morsi, Egypt has worked to isolate the Brotherhood internationally by pressuring governments – including the current US administration – to label the organization a terrorist group. Certain right-wing groups in the US have shown support for Egypt’s demand, intensifying pressure on Donald Trump.

Amid mounting pressure in the U.S. to label MB a terrorist organization, a coalition of 82 civil, human rights and faith-based groups has released a statement urging the Trump administration not to proceed with the move. Analysts at the Brookings Institution also maintain that declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist organization would be illegal. It is unlikely that the U.S. would make any drastic changes to its policy towards the Brotherhood, which was underscored by Rex Tillerson’s testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Relations on June 13th. The Secretary of State argued that labeling the entire Brotherhood as a terror group will complicate security dynamics in the Middle East owing to the organization’s diverse affiliates, many of whom have renounced “violence and terrorism” and today serve in positions of power in several Middle Eastern governments.

In the ongoing diplomatic standoff, Egypt joined the GCC as a result of Qatar’s patronage of the Brotherhood. A statement from the official spokesperson of Egypt Foreign Ministry said they took the decision “in light of the insistence of the Qatari government to take an anti-Egyptian stance and the failure of all attempts to dissuade [Qatar] from supporting the terrorist organizations.”

United States – An Unpredictable Variable

While involving the U.S. as a mediator might have been the most effective move for Qatar under the previous U.S. administration, President Trump’s belligerent rhetoric towards Iran and his unstable record of diplomacy make this option a lot less promising.

Even as the U.S. reevaluates its relations with Iran, ties with Qatari leadership remain strong. Qatar continues to host the largest US military base in the world and this fact alone will prevent this diplomatic standoff spiraling into a full-fledged armed conflict.

However, the ongoing row has elicited contradictory statements from the Trump administration. Initially calling for de-escalation of tensions, President Trump resorted to his preferred tool for communication – Twitter – to share his personal opinions on the matter. In a series of tweets he wrote, “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding… extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

As the White House scrambled to send out a consistent and coordinated message, the Pentagon issued its own statement of support for Qatar, commending the Gulf state’s "enduring commitment to regional security". This move further highlighted the disconnect in U.S. foreign policy under the new administration.

Following the initial confusion, the U.S. is now attempting to play the role of the mediator by inviting the Qatari Emir to Washington to discuss the matter. The Emir has since declined this proposal, citing the importance of staying in Doha until the row is resolved.

Regional Reverberations: Kuwait Mediates, Turkey Plays Favorites

Three countries best positioned to resolve the current standoff are the remaining Sunni-led countries in the Middle East, namely Turkey, Kuwait, and Oman. While, the former two have already mobilized efforts to reduce tensions, Oman has distanced itself from the row altogether.

President Erdogan and Kuwait’s leader, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed, called on Saudi and Qatari leaders to urge calm, and offered to help in de-escalating the tensions. Consequently, Qatari leaders have promised to not take any retaliatory measures against the Gulf countries in the hope of resolving the conflict through dialogue.

As the stalemate continues, Turkey has moved to bolster Qatar’s position by increasing troop deployment on its military base in the country, which was set up in 2014 and already hosts 200 soldiers.

In a seemingly unrelated development, a Turkish columnist has claimed that the UAE spent “$3 billion to topple Erdoğan and the government in Turkey” through a failed coup attempt last year. Mehmet Acet, who writes for Yeni Şafak, a conservative Turkish daily known for its support for President Erdogan, made the allegation on June 13th, citing sources in the Turkish Foreign Ministry. While Turkish officials have yet to comment on this controversy, their silence itself can be taken to mean tacit approval. Considering the publication’s close ties to the government, the timing of breaking this story is crucial and signifies Ankara’s posture of implicit aggression in the ensuing Gulf crisis.

The Way Forward: Qatar Between a Rock And a Hard Place

The situation is still unfolding at the time of writing, with no official overtures of reconciliation from the Saudi-led bloc so far. Even if a reconciliation does materialize in the coming days, Qatar has very little room to maneuver and will be expected to make some painful changes to its policies.

These would most likely curtail the Gulf state’s ambitious power projection: including its deepening relations with Iran, and its support for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, and Hamas. The Al Jazeera network – a constant source of contention between the GCC and Qatar – may also have to radically change its agenda to appease Qatar’s neighbors.

While Qatar should not compromise on its sovereignty, it is important to differentiate between the right to form independent policies and actively working against the interests of its neighbors. It is important for Qatar’s policymakers to realize the limits of an ambitious foreign policy for a small country surrounded by antagonistic regional powers.

It remains to be seen how firmly Qatar will defend its actions and what compromises, if any, it would be willing to make. Officially, the country remains adamant, and maintains that it will not “surrender” to GCC demands.

It is highly unlikely that this standoff will turn into an armed conflict, especially due to the presence of the U.S. military base in Qatar. The Saudi-led bloc has in any case made its intentions very clear by crippling Qatari economy through the land, air and sea blockade. The UAE insists that the GCC does not seek regime change, but hopes to bring about a permanent change in Qatar’s policies.

Furthermore, at least two Qatari groups are taking legal action against the Gulf states for imposing the blockade. Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee will be suing the Saudi-led bloc for inflicting “collective punishment” on the people, while Qatar’s Regulatory Authority for Charitable Activities will be taking legal action against the bloc for including the organization on a list linking Qatar-based organizations to terrorism.

With the crisis showing no signs of abating, Qatar has reached out to an aviation body affiliated with the United Nations hoping to end the airspace ban on its flights over Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain. The UN body has yet to confirm if it will intervene on Qatar’s behalf.

Lastly, in a bizarre turn of events, the U.S. finalized a deal on June 13th to sell F-15 fighter jets to Qatar. The agreement, worth $12 billion, was inked days after Donald Trump accused Qatar of funding terrorism "at a very high level" - a charge Qatar denies.

At the time of writing, Yemen, Libya, Senegal, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, and the Maldives have joined the GCC and Egypt in cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar, while Jordan has downgraded its diplomatic representation.

Shayan Ahmed is pursuing his M.A. in Global Communication, with a focus on conflict resolution, at the George Washington University.

Picture licensed under CC-BY-2.5.

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