Chatham House

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The Gulf Crisis: A Battle of Megalomaniacs

There are fundamental problems in trying to learn lessons or draw conclusions from the Gulf crisis for the role of small states in international relations.

For one, the Gulf crisis is an epic battle between small states rather than simply one small state being targeted by its larger regional detractors. Indeed, it is the United Arab Emirates against Qatar with the UAE rather than Saudi Arabia as the driver in the crisis.

The problem, moreover, in making comparisons is not primarily that both the UAE and Qatar, whose leaders viscerally dislike each other, have massive war chests through their energy exports and therefore are able to wage and sustain the kind of battle that is being fought.

It is that we are dealing with states that are megalomaniac in their ambition and the length to which they are willing to go to ensure the survival of their regimes. Megalomaniac means that their survival strategies go far beyond the normal strategies adopted by small states. Buried in their megalomania is also a measure of naivete, a naïve belief that the consequences of their actions will not come to haunt them.

The UAE and Qatar have adopted strategies that go far beyond the palette of options most small states believe are available to them in the sense that, despite their differing visions of what they think the political lay of the land in the Middle East and North Africa should be, both strive to shape their region in their mold.

In effect, to achieve their goals the UAE and Qatar act not as small states but as big powers, using the kind of tools big powers use: financial muscle, support of opposition forces to stimulate or engineer regime change, military coups, covert wars, and more recently cyberwar.

In fact, the UAE, or what US Secretary of Defense James Mattis likes to call Little Sparta, is in the mold of a big state establishing foreign military bases and using its commercial strength to control ports across the broader region.

In Singapore he parameters of the debate about small states, sparked by the Gulf crisis, irrespective of what the different positions advocate, are far more reflective of the behaviour of small states. They accept by definition, whether they argue for a more submissive or more activist policy, in word and deed that Singapore is a small state. That shapes discussion of what Singapore can and should do and within what parameters it can and should stand up for its interests; a public discussion that one would not be having were one in either Qatar or the UAE.

Singapore also has, beyond the ability to have a public debate, another advantage. However, one wants to describe the Singapore system of government, it is a system grounded in institutions, the rule of law, and checks and balances.

Singapore like Qatar and the UAE is consumed by a degree of fear. It is a fear about national security, it is a fear grounded in race riots surrounding Singapore’s birth, the perception of living in a volatile neighbourhood, and the fear resulting from the fallout of convoluted transitions that have wracked the Middle East and North Africa as well as Islam. It is not a fear about the survival of the Lee family as Singapore’s foremost political family.

Neither Qatar nor the UAE has Singapore’s degree of institutionalization. Their fears are grounded in the equation of the survival of autocratic ruling families with national security.

Ironically, a silver lining of the Gulf crisis could be over time that this could change with the wave of unprecedented nationalism that the crisis has unleashed in Qatar as Qataris rally around the Al Thani family that accounts for 20 percent of the citizenry in a nation of 300,000 nationals.

Both Qatar and the UAE project themselves as regional and global hubs that are building cutting-edge, 21st century knowledge societies on top of tribally-based autocracies in which education, in contrast to Singapore, is designed to ensure that citizens have marketable skills and can interact globally rather than develop the skills of critical thinking that could result in criticism.

Similarly, Qataris protested when in 2009, some households in the Gulf state hired Saudis as maids, yet never raised their voice about the widespread abuse of Asian maids. Saudi maids were too close to home. If Saudis could be reduced to the status of a maid, so could Qataris one day. The limitations of modernity are evident. Criticism of Qatar’s labour regime after it won the 2022 World Cup hosting rights did not resonate among Qataris.

Nonetheless, despite their different attitudes towards political Islam, Qatar and the UAE have both developed societies in which religious scholars have relatively little say and Islamic mores and norms are relatively liberally interpreted.

This, however, is where in terms of survival strategies the communalities between Qatar and the UAE stop. To be sure, Qatar and the UAE share building blocks of soft power creation and the manufacturing of national identity some of which are also employed by Singapore that include foreign military bases; world class airlines that service global hubs; museums that both attract tourism and manufacture a national heritage; high profile investments in blue chips, real estate and the arts, sports and the ambition of becoming centres of excellence in multiple fields.

This is also where the comparison with Singapore or any other small state ends, Qatar and the UAE diverge, and where conflict between the two became inevitable. The UAE views autocracy as the key to regional security and the survival of its autocratic regime, no more so than since 2011 when popular revolts toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

As a result, the UAE has backed regime change in a number of countries, including Egypt and reportedly Turkey; supported anti-Islamist, anti- government rebels in Libya; joined Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen; and in the latest episode of its campaign, driven imposition of the boycott of Qatar.

In contrast to the UAE, Qatar has sought to position itself as the regional go-to go-between and mediator by maintaining relations not only with states but also a score of Islamist, militant and rebel groups across the Middle East and northern Africa. It moreover embraced the popular Arab revolts and supported Islamist forces, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead that emerged as the most organized political force from the uprisings.

Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood amounted to aligning itself with forces that were challenging Gulf regimes and that the UAE alongside Saudi Arabia was seeking to suppress. Qatar did so in the naive belief that it could encourage transition everywhere else without the waves of change washing up on its own shores.

Underlying the crisis in the Gulf are issues that go far beyond the place of small states in the international pecking order. The crisis shines a spotlight on key issues that governments have long sought to keep in the dark even though they complicate efforts to combat political violence, advance greater accountability and transparency, and ensure protection of basic human rights.

The crisis makes more difficult the perpetuation of the fact that the international community is unable to agree on a definition of what constitutes terrorism and basic human rights; and it also lays bare the long-muddled distinction between national security and the interests of parties in government – whether autocratic or democratically elected.

There can be little doubt that the diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar was intended to put the idiosyncratic Gulf state on a dog leash. To do so, the two states need to ensure adherence by others to their definitions of national security and terrorism that includes non-violent groups advocating alternative systems of government they view as a threat to the survival of their regimes, as well as those calling for the respect of basic rights including freedom of the press and freedom of expression. In the case of Saudi Arabia, atheists too are defined as terrorists.

The issue of a definition of terrorism is of course a national prerogative but it became acute in the Gulf with the visit of US President Donald J. Trump in May and his focus on combatting political violence. The crisis is in part a result of a long-standing failure of the US to get its allies in the region to agree on what constitutes terrorism and what does not.

The irony of the power struggle in the Gulf is that it involves, in more than one way, the pot blaming the kettle. The battle pits autocracies against one another. None of the protagonists advocates a more liberal system of government for its own people.

The crisis in the Gulf, beyond different strategies to build soft power as part of foreign and defense policy, is rooted in the histories of the independence of the region’s states and concepts of national security that are defined by geography.

The focus on the Muslim Brotherhood is crucial to understanding the Gulf crisis because it goes to the core of the region’s power dynamics. For starters, the role the Brotherhood plays in the make-up of Qatar differs fundamentally from that in other Gulf states.

To understand Qatar, one has to take into account that it is a country sandwiched between two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which it views as potential threats. It also is the only country besides the kingdom that adheres to Wahhabism even, if Qataris distinguish between its Wahhabism of the sea as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism of the land.

The Qataris looked at Saudi Arabia from the outset of independence and decided that their state would be everything that the kingdom was not. There would be no power-sharing agreement with religious scholars. In fact, Qatar until today boasts no prominent religious scholars beyond Yusuf Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born naturalized Qatari citizen.

The absence of prominent scholars was in part a reflection of ambivalence among Qatari rulers towards Wahhabism which they viewed as both an opportunity and a threat: on the one hand, it served as a tool to legitimize domestic rule, on the other it was a potential monkey wrench Saudi Arabia could employ to assert control.

Opting to generate a clerical class of its own would have enhanced the threat because Qatar would have been dependent on Saudi clergymen to develop its own. That would have produced a clergy steeped in the kingdom’s Wahhabism and inspired by its history of political power-sharing that would have advocated a Saudi-style, state-defined form of Islam.

Qatari religious authority is not institutionally vested. Qatar has, for example, no Grand Mufti as does Saudi Arabia and various other Arab nations; it only created a ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments 22 years after achieving independence. “Saudi Arabia has Mecca and Medina. We have Qaradawi — and all his daughters drive cars and work,” said former Qatari justice minister and prominent lawyer Najeeb al Nauimi.

It is against that backdrop that the Brotherhood was woven into the fabric of Qatari society from day one when by design or default Qataris contacted a bookseller in Cairo, a member of the Brotherhood, who helped them import the staffing of their bureaucracy and education system.

Despite Saudi Arabia being the Gulf’s behemoth, the UAE, and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed’s finger prints are all over the Saudi-UAE-led alliance’s demands, particularly with regard to the insistence that Qatar adhere to the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and the reform if not shuttering, of the controversial Al Jazeera television network.

In effect, the UAE’s efforts to counter Qatar pre-date the first time-round withdrawal of the Saudi, UAE and Bahraini ambassadors in 2014. The UAE and Qatar have been involved in a covert war since 2011 that involved massive investments in public relations and lobbying firms and the establishment of a United Nations accredited network of fake NGOS and human rights groups.

Two factors drive Bin Zayd’s obsession with the Brotherhood and Jazeera: the fact that the Brotherhood had built a substantial power base within the UAE military, and the results of private surveys conducted among Emirati nationals some years ago that showed that the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, that also controls the UAE’s federal government, had low approval ratings.

Distrust of the Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia dates to the emergence of the opposition Sahwa movement in the kingdom and the Brotherhood’s backing of Saddam Hussein in the wake of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The two events prompted then Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud to declare after 9/11 that the group was at the root of all the kingdom’s problems.

The move, however, to outlaw the Brotherhood was Bin Zayed’s initiative. Bin Zayed took advantage of the fact that by 2014 Saudi King Abdullah’s concentration span was approximately two hours. It was at the end of a meeting with Mohammed, who was backed by the head of the Saudi court Khaled al Tuwaijri, that Abdullah agreed to declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

It was a decision that was at stake in the power struggle that occurred as Abdullah lay on his death bed and that in the initial phase Mohammed lost. Abdullah’s successor, King Salman, not only replaced all of Bin Zayed’s allies in the Saudi court, but also made overtures to the Brotherhood. Ultimately, Mohammed’s back door into influencing the Saudi court and stiffening Saudi resolve was Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, who in a palace coup recently became crown prince.

One major difference and advantage that Singapore has in its positioning of itself is that Indonesia is not Saudi Arabia even if it may be flexing its muscles somewhat, and Malaysia is not the UAE. Qatar has benefitted in the current crisis from the fact that Saudi Arabia despite its financial muscle and moral authority as the custodian of the two holy cities cannot bank on a lot of empathy in the international community. Qatar also exploits the notion that even though big states bullying small states is a fixture of international relations, the Saudi-UAE campaign has taken that to new heights.

The demands tabled by the anti-Qatar alliance involve the kind of reshaping of policies and curtailing of sovereignty normally imposed by an occupying force. If successful, the diplomatic and economic vanquishing of Qatar would serve as a precedent for more global powers like China and Russia, not to mention the Trump Administration. It would legitimize tendencies already displayed by Russia, which, in effect, continues to adhere to the Soviet-era Brezhnev doctrine of “limited sovereignty” within its sphere of influence, as well as by China in the South China Sea.

Singapore’s conclusions from the Gulf crisis in terms of ensuring that it has the capacity to defend itself and stand up for its national interests are lessons that Qatar too is drawing with the boycott forcing it to diversify its suppliers of essential goods and services, expand the network of ports its vessels can call on, and enhance its ability to produce at least some basic items like dairy products.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear to have learnt little from their failure to marshal widespread support for their boycott campaign among Muslim and non-Muslim countries alike. If anything, Omar Ghobash, the UAE’s articulate ambassador to Russia, suggested that the two states may risk weakening their position if a potential effort to force the kingdom and the Emirates’ trading partners to choose between doing business with them and dealing with Qatar, fails. It would be a choice many cannot afford to make, and would likely reject as a matter of principle.

Nonetheless, Muslim nations in Asia would be most vulnerable to a more forceful UAE-Saudi campaign that would be designed to force them to align themselves with the two Gulf states. Countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, two of the world’s most populous Muslim states, as well as India, home to the world’s fourth largest Muslim population, fear that Saudi Arabia could threaten to lower their annual quota for the number of pilgrims allowed to perform the hajj and expel millions of migrant workers and expatriates in a bid to force them to join the boycott of Qatar.

The continued inability of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to generate a groundswell of support for their campaign against Qatar suggests that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh need to change their approach. Three options currently present themselves: negotiate a face-saving way out of the crisis, tighten the economic noose around Qatar’s neck, or seek to engineer regime change in Doha.

Despite the jury being out on what the Gulf will look like once the crisis is resolved, what is certain is that the resolution of the crisis will have far-reaching consequences for future norms underlying international relations. No one will be watching the crisis with bigger Argus eyes than small states in the Gulf and beyond, looking for lessons learnt for their own positioning in disputes in geographies near and far—the South China Sea, to name the most obvious example.