Isolating Qatar: Unintended Consequences
The magnitude of Qatar’s diplomatic rifts with its Sunni Gulf partners is in serious jeopardy. We’ve seen these kind of spats before and it seems like Qatar and its relationship with the Gulf states especially Saudi Arabia is very serious at a critical time for the geopolitical atmosphere of the Middle East. Iran is still a major actor in the region and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is as divided as ever, even after President Trump’s visit to Riyadh last month, where he gave a speech to all the Sunni countries calling on them to unite against Iran.
Saudi Arabia is also facing security threats on all fronts including its meddling war of words with Iran, the growing escalation in Iraq and Syria, the ongoing destruction and martyrdom in Yemen that has taken the lives of many innocent Yemenis, and even in Bahrain, where the Shia majority are facing social unrest against the Sunni ruling Al Khalifa family. However, Saudi Arabia has also been the main culprit in spreading and funding radical Wahabbi terrorism with the ideology of Wahabbism being the state religion of the Kingdom. Domestically, even though Saudi Arabia is finding new energy alternatives to oil, Riyadh is facing a civil war inside its own country with the Shia minority population in Al-Awamiyah, where there has been a constant unrest with the Saudi Royal Family. In addition, near a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s population is still living in poverty.
The Qatar situation is more than a diplomatic spat, and six Muslim countries including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain have cut ties with Doha. When you ask ordinary citizens in the Middle East about the polarized geopolitical divide what is the greatest challenge? The greatest challenge facing the region is the possibility of Arab countries going to war together and creating sectarianism with extremist Sunni militias.
Saudi Arabia has put Qatar in a sticky position because Qatar actually dared to question the basis of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious geopolitical goals in the region. Some of Saudi Arabia’s goals include convincing its GCC partners that Iran is a threat to the region, and using arms sales to justify geopolitical gains in Yemen, as well as in Iraq and Syria. The question now becomes, what happens next and we do not know the answer to this question.
It was simply easy for President Trump to travel to Riyadh and deliver his speech to the Sunni allies, but enabling our allies to overcome their political divisions and create a united front against an ascendant Iran, as well as against extremist Sunni militant groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda is extremely difficult. Qatar’s ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other Islamist groups is a factor, but also, Doha’s foreign policy towards Iran is key. Like other GCC states, Qatar is pushing for the Arab Gulf countries and Iran to be more accommodating to each other which clashes with what the Saudis, Bahrainis, and Emiratis want, which is a much more confrontational approach towards Tehran.
A normalization of relations between the Gulf States and Iran would be a win-win for everyone in the region, but given the hostile geopolitical landscape, this seems very unlikely. The Gulf States aren’t the only countries who have severed ties with Qatar, but African countries like Egypt and the provisional government in Libya have also done the same. As said before, Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas is a key factor. Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamic State in Libya is also supported by Qatar. When Trump arrived in Riyadh, he was more popular with the GCC elites than President Obama was. Obama was seen by many Gulf leaders as too soft on Iran. Former President Obama also gave Iran too many benefits in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
President Trump is seen as a new policy hero from his Sunni allies. It is similar to when the British established the Arab League at the end of the Second World War, which was an axis between London, Riyadh, and Cairo to contain American influence. Now, this has been replaced by an Arab NATO which is a new axis that consists of Washington, Riyadh, and Cairo in order to contain Iran. The United States is also using this axis to contain Russia’s growing influence in the region.
The Wild Card in the Middle East
It seems like Qatar is being denied its right to conduct its own foreign policy, and there is also the possibility that many Gulf countries want to push for regime change in Doha. Roads have been shut down, and Qatari airlines such as Qatar Airways, have carried out limited flights coming in and out of the country. Regime change is a possibility, it does not mean that this will happen. Qatar has had a history of overthrows going back to Saudi and Bahraini rule throughout most of the 19th century, Ottoman Rule throughout the late 19th century into the First World War, and British rule until gaining independence in 1971. The brothers of current Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani are more pro-Saudi than he is. The Qataris have always been the ‘wild card’ in the region and Qatar has had a long history of being closer to Iran than anybody else, maybe even Bahrain with its majority Shia population. Qatar questioned Saudi ideology, and dared to create a new way of critical thinking, but you can also argue that maybe the Saudis and the Emiratis are not so obsessed with Qatar’s funding of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, but use this as a possible pretext. Doha has threatened a way of thinking within the GCC, and it is so obvious that the capital running the GCC is Riyadh. Saudi Arabia decides on what the foreign policy is, and there is no alternative voice or debate in this regard.
In an interview with CNN, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani stated that, “We are willing to sit and talk…We are not a superpower here, we are not believing in solving things with confrontation.” Unfortunately, this will not happen, but it is Saudi Arabia who has heavily invested in President Trump. It has heavily invested $350 billion in defense and arms sales, as well as creating a defense force against Iran. What do these autocracies in the Gulf do when their policies fail and they start to lose confidence in themselves? This is exactly the same thing that is going on in the European Union in Brussels as it is with Riyadh. When autocracies doubt themselves, they can only do one thing, and that is power grabbing.
Qatar’s Diplomatic Rift
Saudi Arabia is on the move in a negative way. Its disastrous policy vis-à-vis Yemen has gone nowhere and it is trying to circle the wagons to start an anti-Iranian front which is why the Gulf elites like Trump so much. The Saudis think that they have Washington’s back and this may not be a good thing. There are a lot of military personnel in Qatar, and the U.S has the strategic Al Udeid airbase where it conducts some of its military exercises and air campaigns throughout the Middle East.
Trump’s presidency and his recent speech in Saudi Arabia are important factors in play when it comes to Qatar, but let’s keep in mind that the same three GCC states; Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain also took action against Doha in March 2014 when they withdrew their ambassadors. The GCC’s objectives back in 2014 are more or less the same as they are right now. These states are trying to squeeze Doha, and pressure the Qataris to changing their stance on foreign policy. Some of these consequences include possibly shutting down Al Jazeera, deporting a number of clerics who make controversial remarks on Qatari media platforms, and aligning more closely with Riyadh against Tehran. Obviously, these Arab Gulf states did not believe that the Qataris behavior changed enough as a consequence of the 2014 action, and now, along with Egypt and some other Sunni countries, the same GCC states are putting pressure on Qatar.
It is also going to be very interesting to see the extent to which this pressure from the Arab Gulf states and Egypt can change Qatar’s foreign policy. Let’s also keep in mind that Qatar has a lot of partners. Doha has close ties with Turkey, it’s very close to western governments like the United States, it has a cordial relationship with Iran, Doha has close growing ties with Russia in the energy sector, and strong financial ties with China as well. Given the fact that Qatar has friends and allies around the world who are influential in foreign policy, it remains to be seen whether or not this GCC pressure can succeed in achieving the Saudi and Emirati goals in the region.
Doha’s Engulfed Crisis
Doha and Tehran have common interests in the Middle East. Both countries have vast natural gas sectors, and they have similar financial/economic interests. Qatar can also be a strong player that can balance the Saudi-Iranian tensions by punching its own weight as a tiny country that can play its cards right. The effects of Qatar’s mediation efforts remain to be seen, but the economic and political consequences can hurt Doha’s regional ambitions as a balancing player in the Middle East. The Saudis have already revoked the business licenses of Qatari corporations and airlines that have already enormously impacted Qatar’s economy and tourist industries. In addition, trade ties will also be restricted due to the severed relations between Qatar and other GCC countries. The population of Qatar is as small as the population of Connecticut, and even foreign workers from Egypt, and South Asia will be effected as well. Let’s not forget that foreign nationals make up 90% of Qatar’s population, and if these foreign nationals leave Qatar, it will have a bad effect on the Qatari economy.
The good news for Qatar is that they do have a multi-faceted foreign policy so they can turn to other global partners. Doha has options, but Saudi Arabia is not the best option considering its actions in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq and Syria, their internal problems with the Shia minority population, and now with Qatar. In addition, Riyadh does not think strategically, and the Saudis just generate more problems for themselves and it is just self-inflicted. Since 2014, a lot has happened in three years. The Saudi economy has taken a pasting with oil prices falling, and Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region, which is based so much on business and trade might not happen as much anymore. For the Saudis, it is all about influence and power in the region. Also, Riyadh is beginning to feel that they don’t have the clout they used to have a few years ago. The Al Jazeera factor is a significant part of the equation also. If Qatar did not have Al Jazeera, perhaps a lot of this realm could be a storm in a teacup, and Qatar punches above its weight on foreign policy because of Al Jazeera. Because a lot of Arabs watch Al Jazeera in English and Arabic, media finances can go in a downward spiral as well.
The Double Game
Turkey is also an interesting factor. Ankara quickly moved to mediate the situation in the Gulf States. Over the last three years, Saudi Arabia has been losing its influence and Saudi Arabia does not want Qatar to play the double game in the escalating tensions between Tehran and Riyadh. If you look at the Middle East map of the periphery states and the states in the core of the Middle East, some of these countries are also playing the double game. Turkey has relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as Bahrain, which is a majority Shia country with a Sunni royal family in power. Even countries like Kuwait and Oman have ties to both Middle East powerhouses. The double game of some of these nations are external relations with the west and other partners like Russia and Turkey. Egypt also has external relations with Trump, but it is also looking to grow its relations with Russia and Iran. The Saudis are terrified about the double game that is evident all over the region. Part of this antagonism by the Gulf States against Qatar can also be aimed at Qatar’s natural gas and energy fields so this can also be about big business which is what a lot of these nations build their economies around. Qatar shares gas fields with Iran so cooperation is essential between Doha and Tehran in this regard. Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world with a vast amount of wealth and gas resources so there could be jealousy in this as well.
What Does This Mean For U.S Interests?
One of Riyadh’s main focal points on foreign policy has always been on Iran. Qatar will not totally rely on the united Sunni front against Iran which was addressed in President Trump’s speech a few weeks ago and the Iran-Saudi Arabia shadow war just makes policy even more complicated in the region. Qatar is also home to a very important U.S military base in Al Udeid, and Doha looks towards Washington as a very important ally for their geopolitical interests. The United States also needs Qatar for arms sales and defense purposes. By hosting a major U.S military base, Doha has certainly had quite a bit of leverage in its relationship with Washington. Right now, there is pressure coming in from certain think tanks like Brookings, lawmakers on the hill, and former higher ranking officials in the U.S government who want to see the Trump Administration tell Doha that unless Qatar adjusts its foreign policy, the U.S will move its base from Qatar to Saudi Arabia or the UAE, so there is also a debate in Washington about what a viable plan would look like, but nonetheless, the United States would move its base from Qatar to another part of the Arabian Peninsula. If this were to happen, Qatar would lose a lot of its leverage with Washington.
On the other hand, if the Saudis push the situation and if U.S troops were to withdraw from Qatar, this could create even more instability that will go against the Saudis on the Arabian Peninsula. The nightmare scenario would be one GCC country possibly, as ridiculous as it sounds, to be in a situation of serious conflict with other countries in the region including Iran. Riyadh is gambling with its actions in the Middle East, and there is concern that this could backlash against them and even the United States.
The survival of Qatar is at stake here, and this proves to be existential. The unintended consequence for Qatar since its only land border is closed by Saudi Arabia, is to look towards Iran. Russia would certainly reach out to Doha to maybe help mediate something, it has good relations with both Iran and Turkey so this could be a huge gamble. Another option could be for Iran to keep out of the situation and maybe play a more neutral role with Qatar. The U.S airbase of Al Udeid used to be in Saudi Arabia, but in the late 1990’s, the Saudis did not want the US to have bases on Saudi soil.
Turkey can play a role in the crisis, given the geopolitical landscape, Russia’s role will most likely be limited, and maybe Kuwait, along with U.S pressure must be directed towards the Saudis to calm down the escalation in the region. Qatar should have its own foreign policy as a sovereign nation, and many countries in the region need to respect this.