Why has Qatar been pushed to the margins of regional relations?

In early June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar and withdrew their ambassadors from Doha. This move was followed by calls for Qatari citizens residing in other Gulf states to return home. Their return would prove difficult, however, as Saudi and Emirati airlines would stop flights to Doha and land and sea borders were also closed. These decisions were made in response to the news that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani had allegedly criticized US President Donald Trump’s policies concerning Tehran and suggested Iran was an “Islamic power,” remarks the Emir disowned as the result of a hack on the official news agency that reported them. This seemingly disproportionate response points to historical tensions that have pushed Qatar to the margins of regional relations.

Three years earlier, a similar escalation in tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia resulted in the withdrawal of Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini ambassadors from Qatar, returning just in time for the 35th Summit meeting in Doha. Following the 2017 withdrawal, a list of 13 demands was published, which included the closure of Al Jazeera, the withdrawal of Turkish troops and a cooling of relations with Iran. This list was later reduced to six points that does not include the closure of Al Jazeera.

The two incidents share similar hallmarks, notably concern about Qatari support for groups that are deemed to challenge the domestic and regional status quo, while also pointing to a long-standing undercurrent in Gulf relations that is perhaps more personal in nature. The inability to resolve the crisis this time around suggests differences between the Saudi-Emirati bloc and Qatari bloc have become intractable.

Two main sources of tension have brought matters to a head: Support for Islamist groups across the Middle East, and the nature of Qatari-Iranian relations.

Understanding the breakdown of the sovereign state in the region over the last five or more years is essential to understanding the wider changes in the political landscape of the region, as people turn to various survival mechanisms amid internal and external threats. Shared tribal and religious identities provide scope for regional states to become involved in the domestic affairs of other nations. In Syria, for example, Iran has provided support to the Assad regime — which is ostensibly Shia — while Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have provided support to a range of Sunni opposition groups. Similar events have taken place in Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon and Egypt, in a number of different guises. Of course, political debate about which groups to support has fed into the escalation of tensions across the Gulf, as tribal and sectarian identities take on political and security meanings.

Although long-standing familial and tribal rivalries underpin the current crisis with Qatar, two main sources of tension have brought matters to a head: The first concerns support for Islamist groups across the Middle East, and the second is the nature of Qatari-Iranian relations. The Al Saud and Al Thani families are bound together by both marriage and shared religious bonds. Both follow the Wahabi interpretation of Islam and, as such, would appear to be natural allies. Yet, there are inter-tribal rivalries and competition over which strand of Wahabism is deemed the right path.

The current Sheikh’s father, Hamad, has been a source of concern for Saudi Arabia and the UAE since ousting his father in 1995. He has continued to wield a great deal of political influence since stepping aside for his son in 2013. Since 1995, the influential Attiyah tribe, who are closely allied with Saudi Arabia, have been pushed aside by more radical members of Al Thani. After Hamad’s coup d’etat, his father, Khalifa, was welcomed in the UAE as counter-coups were plotted; after all, the country had also been heavily involved in shaping the political landscape of Qatar in previous years. Both Saudi and Emirati influence in Qatar are visible, and it is within this context that first Hamad and now Tamim have sought to exert their autonomy in the region.

Qatar’s support for opposition groups across the Middle East — while repressing dissent at home — has been a cause of serious concern for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In recent years, Qatar has provided refuge to key figures from Hamas — including the group’s leader Khaled Meshaal — the Taliban, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It has also provided financial aid to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, along with other opposition groups across the Middle East, at the same time as the Saudis and Emiratis have sought to prevent these groups from gaining power and influence.

Additionally, amid increasingly fraught relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, shaped but not driven by theological differences, Doha’s relationship with Tehran is a cause for concern, resulting in the fragmentation of the Saudi-led Sunni bloc. Of course, Qatar and Iran also share the largest natural gas field in the world, which makes Qatar one of the wealthiest states on the planet.

The construction of regional security across the Persian Gulf has also played a prominent role in escalating regional tensions. Security had long been maintained by the presence of American forces in the Gulf, much to the chagrin of Iran, who saw itself as uniquely qualified to maintain security and stability. On his first foreign visit, US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to mend bridges between the US and members of the GCC that had been damaged during the Obama presidency. In reality, Trump met with prominent Saudi and Emirati officials and seemingly gave the green light for Riyadh’s development plans. In a series of tweets Trump articulated the following: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”

Trump later tweeted: “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!”

What was later pointed out by a number of analysts was that the US has a large military base in Qatar, and also agreed to a US$12 billion deal to sell F-15 fight jets to Doha. In spite of this, Washington has taken a side against Qatar, leaving Kuwait and Oman to play the role of mediators. The kingdom’s foreign policy has been increasingly divisive under King Salman, as Riyadh has taken on a more proactive form of foreign policy, which has created tensions among the Sunni bloc that had emerged to counter rising Iranian influence.

Only five years out from the 2022 World Cup, the world’s eyes are turning to Qatar. Unless resolved quickly, the blockade will have a serious impact upon Doha’s ability to build the necessary infrastructure to host the event. Yet a swift resolution appears unlikely, as both sides want to save face. Kuwait and Oman have both, unsuccessfully, attempted to facilitate a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, as, ultimately, the very future of the GCC appears to be at stake. 

This is one in a series of three opinion pieces that seek to explore some of the aspects of the ongoing Gulf crisis.
by Heba El-Sherif
by Hannah Porter
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