The rift between several member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) widens as the land, air and sea blockade of Qatar continues. At the beginning of June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain broke off relations with the country over its alleged support of terrorism and destabilisation of the region. Yet these reasons seem to be mere pretext, since the Saudis, the de facto leaders of the bloc, hold far more complex grievances towards the neighbouring kingdom. (Featured image © Wikimedia Commons)
To end the blockade, the three GCC states and their ally Egypt made thirteen stringent demands. Curb ties with Iran, shut down Al Jazeera, stop supporting terrorist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), terminate Turkish presence in Qatar, and submit to monthly audits are key take-aways. Since, several other countries joined in on the move to put a leash on Qatari foreign policy. One of the first parties to the blockade that was particularly keen to do so, was Saudi Arabia.
The principal foreign policy goal of Saudi Arabia is to ensure its own state and regime survival. To this end, they seek to strengthen an international order in which they can thrive by increasing their influence abroad in a multitude of ways. The small Qatari neighbour, however, supposedly punching above its weight, has complicated and often thwarted this Saudi endeavour.
Case in point is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which has become a serious challenge to Saudi influence in the Arab and Islamic world. Democratic protests during the Arab Spring often led to the rise of political Islam, embodied by the MB. They did not only upset the regional power balance by replacing Saudi allies such as Egyptian President Mubarak, but they also threatened Saudi Arabia from within. Qatar, on the other end, saw a perfect regional ally in the MB. They offered refuge to some Brotherhood leaders, and supported them financially, both within the region and the Saudi kingdom specifically.
The small Qatari neighbour, supposedly punching above its weight, has complicated and often thwarted Saudi foreign policy.
This Qatari desire to sculpt an independent foreign policy has often obstructed Riyadh on a strategic level too. They have undermined the Saudi efforts in mediating an Israeli-Palestinian peace by supporting Hamas. Furthermore, Qatar holds to a far less aggressive and even constructive discourse towards Iran, Saudi Arabia’s largest regional opponent. It also saw the Qataris support the MB and, later, more radical elements within the Syrian civil war. This resulted in the demise of the so-called moderate opposition, which in turn thwarted a Saudi attempt at uniting the entire opposition to overthrow Assad, a staunch ally of Iran.
Finally, there is the global influence that Doha gains from supporting several media outlets, most notably Al Jazeera. While it’s internationally hailed as an example of excellent journalism, Al Jazeera (Arabic) has also been accused of overly criticising Qatar’s neighbours and giving airtime to Brotherhood leaders.
Taken together, these are major examples of Saudi frustration with Qatar’s actions. In fact, many of the thirteen demands made towards Qatar can be traced back to these arguments. It is not a surprise then, that the Saudis pushed to pull the plug together with fellow GCC members.
Catalyst or Collission Course
It is important to understand why this decision was made now. The official reason for breaking ties were (hacked?) comments made by Qatar’s emir. Yet this one press release alone fails to explain the depth of the current rift.
Trump’s election and his subsequent visit to the Riyadh Summit are often put forth as having emboldened the Saudis. While U.S. relations did improve significantly, it seems unlikely that the Trump administration gave its explicit approval. U.S. foreign policy prefers a united GCC and it should be noted that Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East.
Riyadh and Doha have been on a collision course since 1995.
Another contributing factor could have been the more hawkish and perhaps high-risk foreign policy adopted by Saudi King Salman and his son, Mohammad bin Salman, who was recently appointed crown prince. For the first time in Saudi history, lineage for the throne did not shift between brothers, but is being solidified in one family branch. The crown prince is known for his decision to invade Yemen, and perhaps his assertive attitude played a role in the Qatar crisis as well.
More important, however, is the fact that Riyadh and Doha have been on a collision course since 1995. That year, the father of the current emir toppled his own pro-Saudi father. Qatar’s neighbours were hostile to this move, as they feared similar scenarios, and the Saudis backed a failed countercoup in 1996. Ever since, relations have gradually degraded as the new emir sought an independent foreign policy, paid for with its increasing oil revenues.
The public rift signals that the attempted reconciliation has clearly failed.
In response to Doha’s meddling in the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors in 2014, in a rare move to put public pressure on Qatar. The crisis was resolved some months later, with Qatar agreeing to take steps to reassure its neighbours. As testified by recently leaked documents, there have been several such efforts to mend relations. Today, the public rift signals that the attempted reconciliation has clearly failed.
Taking both grievances and timing into account, it seems that Saudi Arabia is entirely fed up with Qatar’s attempts to carve out an independent foreign policy at the expense of its larger neighbour. In the meantime, the overall situation is aggravating. The economic consequences are potentially grave, especially for Saudi Arabia and its allies. It may also grant Iran the opportunity to pull Qatar into its camp. Turkey too, has chosen to publicly support Qatar. Consequently, greater regional instability looms, a scenario that is usually dreaded by the Saudis.
The attempt to marginalise Qatar currently outweighs the negative consequences. This is a significant indicator of just how big of a threat the Saudis consider Qatar to be to their own survival.
Yet, despite all these risks, Saudi Arabia seems adamant on seeing through on its actions. The gravity of the thirteen demands, described by Doha as ‘made to be rejected’, further stresses Riyadh’s determination. One Saudi analyst even made the bold statement that “you [Qatar] cannot have sovereignty if you are going to undermine the security of your neighbours.” Apparently, the attempt to marginalise Qatar currently outweighs the negative consequences. This is a significant indicator of just how big of a threat the Saudis consider Qatar to be to their own survival.
The problem is, however, that Riyadh has little to no leverage to force Doha back in line. Qatar can weather the financial storm and risks domestic backlash if it does give up its independent foreign policy. While the Saudis did send troops to help crack down on anti-government protests in Bahrain in 2011, it is quite another thing to go to war with the Qatari government, not in the least because of U.S. and Turkish presence. As a practical consequence, the conflict is likely to remain stuck in a stalemate.
Even if a diplomatic solution abounds under international pressure, the fundamental issues that caused the rift are likely to remain unaddressed.
Even if a diplomatic solution abounds under international pressure, the fundamental issues that caused the rift are likely to remain unaddressed. Neither side has any real incentive to change its stance, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar will thus continue to joust over influence in the Middle East. What will be the result then, is a downward spiral of political struggle in an already volatile region. For now, the only deadly victims of the Qatar crisis are camels, but as Yemen can testify: regional power play can come at a far more atrocious cost.