Qatar vs. Saudi Arabia: How Iran and the Brotherhood Tore the Gulf Apart
The Gulf monarchies face the most serious crisis in their history. It is largely being covered as a diplomatic spat, since several Arab nations terminated their relations with Qatar on Monday to protest its support for radical Islamists. But the crisis has an economic component as well. Saudi Arabia severed Qatar’s access to its only land border, across which roughly 40 percent of Qatar’s food needs are imported.
The story of how we got here dates back to 1990. It can be traced to Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s contrasting views on two dangerous forces: Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
When Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces conquered Kuwait in 1990, the move uniformly terrified the five other Gulf monarchies—but it also set some of them on divergent paths. Riyadh came under pressure from local Brotherhood-influenced preachers who demanded political concessions, including the end of the kingdom’s arrangement with the U.S. military. The Saudis terminated their cozy relationship with the Brotherhood.
Qatar, on the other hand, took a separate path. Saudi Arabia’s powerlessness in the face of the Iraqi invasion was a lesson to key Qatari leaders that their nation’s survival required building influence with great powers, and perhaps even nonstate actors, beyond the Arabian Peninsula. In time, Qatar emerged as the strongest backer of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region.
In 1995, Qatar’s Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani overthrew his father in a bloodless coup, seizing power while the ruler was vacationing in Europe. The following year, Saudi Arabia is thought to have sponsored a countercoup, in part out of concern over the precedent that deposing an established Gulf monarch could have set. That countercoup failed.
The Saudi-Qatari power struggle evolved into outright antagonism, particularly in the broadcasts of Qatar’s Al Jazeera Arabic, which Qatar’s Emir Hamad launched in 1996 with $150 million as the first truly powerful pan-Arab satellite station. By muckraking against established Arab regimes, Al Jazeera built up Qatari soft power while irritating fellow rulers. By granting frequent airtime to extreme Islamist ideologues, most notably Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Qatar gave an unparalleled platform to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2002, Al Jazeera broadcast criticisms by Saudi dissidents that led the kingdom to withdraw its ambassador from Doha for the next half decade. During that period, Qatar doubled down on its maverick foreign policy, lending a degree of political and even economic support to Iran and several of its proxies, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime in Syria. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy became somewhat more conventional as a result of facing down an internal Al Qaeda insurgency from 2003 to 2006.
Qatar also jumped at the chance to profit from Saudi Arabia’s loss when Washington looked for an alternate location for its Combined Air and Space Operations Center, moving this crucial air base in 2003 from Saudi territory to Qatar’s Al Udeid. Since then, the base has provided Doha with a measure of impunity from U.S. pressure and considerably reduced Qatar’s reliance on any of its Gulf neighbors for defense.
By 2007 and 2008, however, the possibility of an American strike against Iran’s nuclear program—and the specter of Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces in Qatar—reportedly helped persuade Doha to mend fences with Riyadh. Al Jazeera toned down its criticism of Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi ambassador returned.
However, with outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, Qatar threw its full weight behind various Brotherhood movements, in a bid to challenge the existing order. This pulled Riyadh and Doha apart yet again.
Qatar’s support of Brotherhood militias or political parties across the region deeply alarmed other Arab actors, especially the United Arab Emirates but also the Saudis. These tensions were most visible over Egypt, where Qatar bankrolled Mohamed Morsi’s Brotherhood government, only to see it toppled by a Saudi- and Emirati-funded military regime.
Qatar, meanwhile, upped its support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s most violent regional branch, taking in senior Hamas leaders such as Khaled Meshal when the group’s leaders fled the growing turmoil in Damascus. Over time, military as well as political operatives for Hamas made their way to a comfortable safe haven in Doha.
Eventually, King Abdullah threw his lot with the Emiratis on a plan to bring Qatar to heel, withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha in March of 2014, and persuading tiny Bahrain to do the same. That Gulf crisis dragged on for most of the year, until Qatar caved when faced with the threat of a potential Saudi land and air blockade. Qatar shuttered a branch of Al Jazeera focused exclusively on critical coverage of Egypt, and expelled seven Muslim Brotherhood figures.