Disunity in the Gulf

David Roberts traces the fraught relationship between Qatar and its neighbours over recent decades, and the long-standing disputes between Doha and Riyadh that precipitated the current conflict.

Qatar obtained independence from the UK in 1971. Khalifah bin Hamad al-Thani took over within six months of independence and set about building the modern Qatar state. In terms of foreign policy, Khalifah showed significant deference to Qatar’s neighbour Saudi Arabia. There had long existed vast disparities between the states, with Saudi Arabia being significantly larger in terms of geographical size, population numbers, and overall power. Khalifah heeded these basic metrics and evidently came to the conclusion that Qatar’s security was best served essentially deferring to Saudi Arabia on all key foreign policy decisions. Though an independent state, Qatar had very little profile internationally. It came to be known as the ‘most boring’ place in the Gulf or the place that was ‘known for being unknown.’



By the late 1980s Khalifah’s son, Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani, was ever more prominent in the state, directing and driving policy. However, Hamad had a fundamentally different conception of how best to establish Qatar’s security. He wanted Qatar to have an active international profile. Visibility was, he reasoned, better than anonymity when it came to securing the state. He thus pursued a range of unusual policies on the diplomatic front such as boosting Qatar’s relations with Israel and Iran. To advance the country’s soft power, he also founded Al Jazeera and assiduously sought to cultivate Qatar’s reputation as a state promoting culture and sport.

But striving to exit Saudi Arabia’s political orbit through such relatively unilateral actions was not well received in Riyadh. By 1992 relations had descended to the level where there were skirmishes across the Saudi-Qatari border with deaths on both sides. By 1995, when Hamad took power from his father in a soft coup, Saudi Arabia’s rulers were so enraged that they allegedly supported at least one counter-coup against Qatar. At the very least, a group of Saudis was arrested for attempting to overthrow Hamad and released in 2010.

As well as boosting Qatar’s soft power, Al Jazeera was an asymmetric weapon for Qatar, sniping away at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Hosting dissidents and critiquing Saudi policy on television might not sound that offensive, but this was, in the mid-1990s, revolutionary. By 2002, Saudi Arabia had had enough. It withdrew its ambassadorial representation in Doha as part of a plot to force change in Qatar. This plan did not really work. By the end of 2007, the ambassador’s return was agreed. The only real price that Saudi Arabia extracted was for Qatar’s leadership to circumscribe Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Kingdom to a greater degree. In effect, Qatar had challenged Saudi Arabia and won. It had defied pressure, asserted its policies, and, with only relatively minor conciliations, retained its core modus operandi. Though these issues may seem like ‘ancient history’, these Saudi-Qatari difficulties still frame current debates.

The Arab Spring and Qatar’s involvement therein have a direct relevance on today’s fractious relations. Qatar shifted its foreign policy approach from an arbitrator-type approach, where Doha tended to develop relations with all sides, to becoming an active actor in the conflicts. Qatar essentially chose sides, supporting the uprisings across the Middle East against long-standing autocratic regimes. It mostly did this through an array of intermediaries who were present in Qatar at that time, many if not most of whom were on the Islamist spectrum. The clearest example here was Qatar’s use of the Libyan cleric Ali al-Sallabi, who had long been exiled from his home country in Qatar, as a central conduit for support. It should also be noted that Qatar was perfectly eager to support such individuals: Qatar’s leadership viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a reasonable organisation to support.

But this modus operandi of channelling support often along Islamist lines drew criticism.

First, the governments ranged against the proxies that Qatar was supporting were understandably enraged, and so were their allies. When the Brotherhood-based Mohammed Morsi government was overthrown in Egypt, Qatar’s Al Jazeera continued to snipe away at the new el-Sisi government undermining its credibility and pointing out its flaws. But, for states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia that were financially supporting the troubled el-Sisi government, this was a deeply destabilising policy for Qatar to support.

Second, though Qatar did not agitate for change against any of the monarchies in the Gulf, the elites in the UAE and Saudi Arabia feel that Qatar’s support of Islamists created a more permissive atmosphere overall. Thus, Qatar’s neighbours feel that when it comes to their own domestic troubles with Islamists, Qatar has effectively made the situations worse.

Thirdly, a reasonable critique to pin on Qatar is simply that it was not very good at channelling support to these groups. Qatar and a range of other states bear some responsibility for the way that the conflicts in Syria and Libya spiralled out of control, as it provided plentiful material and financial support to a range of different groups.

In 2014, the three states of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE sought to pressure Qatar into changing its Islamist-supporting policies by removing their ambassadors from Doha. This ultimately elicited promises from Qatar that it would not interfere in the affairs of other states and several important members of the Muslim Brotherhood left Doha. But the agreement was unfulfilling for all sides, and there is little evidence that Qatar fundamentally changed its modus operandi.



Thus, in early June 2017, likely emboldened by the visit of President Trump to Saudi Arabia (his first foreign trip, no less), the troika along with Egypt tried once more to get Qatar to change its policies. This time they enforced a stringent diplomatic, air, land, and sea blockade on Qatar, in an unprecedented escalation.

Qatar was, once again, entirely blindsided by this decision. Initially, shelves in supermarkets were empty as people panic bought food, aware of just how dependent Qatar was on importing food. Equally, Qatar’s industry soon suffered and its helium production shut down because Qatar was unable to export.

Qatar quickly recovered. Food imports from Turkey and Iran soon kicked in, and plans are underway to diversify Qatar’s imports and exports from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. How successful this can be in a practical sense remains to be seen. Replacing a multi-lane highway through Saudi Arabia only with Doha’s small port will be a logistical challenge. This is especially concerning for Qatar’s construction industry in the run up to the 2022 World Cup.

In the personalised world of Gulf politics, it is always possible for such a crisis to be ended swiftly when leaders meet. Having said that, this crisis has the feel of one that will last a long time. This is the second time that the troika have tried to change Qatar’s policies. They will not want to have launched this latest campaign only for it again to finish with no acceptable resolution. As for Qatar, it is, first and foremost, difficult to be seen to change policies solely through outside pressure. Moreover, Qatar’s leadership will be loath to jettison contacts and links that it has built up over decades, and in which Doha has invested significant cash, diplomatic effort, and opportunity cost.

Ultimately, Qatar needs to reconcile with its neighbours. Qatar cannot change its location and it will become increasingly expensive for the state to bypass its three geographically closest allies. The troika too have much invested in a resolution. This is far from a cost-free enterprise for them. The reputation of the UAE as a crucible of economics is taking a battering as it bows to a regional political spat. And Saudi Arabia has long pushed for regional unity, to circle the Arab wagons against what it sees as persistent aggression from Iran. The blockade has driven Qatar to boost its relations with Iran considerably at least in the short term. Though it is not easy, and there are important and keenly felt divisions, the states need to realise that, ultimately, far more unites them than divides them.

David B Roberts joined the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London in October 2013 and is based at the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS). His book Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State was published by Hurst in January 2017.

This article was first published on 19 June 2017 by Defence-In-Depth, the research blog of the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. It is reproduced here with permission.

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