As the region careens toward twin crises related to Trump’s Jerusalem decision and the sectarian conflict whose latest round is playing out in Lebanon, one crisis the Middle East and Western allies could do without is the needless internal imbroglio in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that pits Qatar against Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC. This avoidable sideshow is continuing apace, just as Iran and Saudi Arabia are both ramping up and raising the regional stakes and the new U.S. administration needlessly roils the whole region. A resolution would help the West and the Sunni states to focus more squarely on the chess moves being played out of Tehran.
While Qatar is important to U.S. interests in the region (mainly because of the critical American bases located there), time is not on Qatar’s side. If ultimately forced to choose, the United States will side with the Saudi-led countries and with good reason—the economic and security interests of the Saudi-led coalition and the United States are inextricably linked. While it is true that Qatar presently assists with strategically important military objectives of the United States, with ISIS at the top of the list, it has also repeatedly engaged in endeavors that harm western and regional interests.
Were this behavior to persist, the conditions are ripe for a shift. For the Emiratis have long wanted to provide the Americans with similar military basing opportunities within their own border. The Emirati ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, has continually lobbied for the United States to move its bases to the UAE for quite some time. To this end, the U.S. relationship with Qatar, while important, essentially offers a non-unique benefit to the United States, which could easily be replaced or replicated by other GCC governments. Thus, it would be wise of the Qataris to attempt to settle this dispute before the United States is forced to pick sides.
Although conventional wisdom views the Saudi government—with President Trump’s support—as having overplayed its hand in touching off the crisis this summer, in fact there is immense complexity to the rift that is proving costly to U.S. national-security interests. Part of the key to explaining the origin of the disagreement in the Persian Gulf lies in understanding the opaque relations among the powerful families that rule the Gulf states. More than likely, the solution will also emerge at least in part from ameliorating relations among these families or reducing the influence of specific individuals who prioritize their own personal grievances over the interests of their country.
Notably, the Saudi and the Emirati royal families are particularly close. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud enjoy a sincere friendship based on mutual trust and a close personal bond. On the other hand, the father of the Qatari Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who served as Emir himself from 1995 to 2013 (after deposing his own father in a palace coup), has a tense relationship with both the Emirati and Saudi royal families. This tension can in large part be traced back to long-standing personal grievances that still resonate today. When Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani came to power via a coup in 1995, the Saudis, Bahrainis and others attempted to replace him with a different member of the Al Thani family—one with whom they had closer relation. The group ultimately failed in its attempt to replace the new leader but succeeded in sparking fury with the then-Qatari Emir.
Today, while the father of the Emir is officially retired from his previous position, it is well understood throughout the Middle East that he continues to play a significant role in power politics and is often in the background pulling the puppet strings. He is referred to as the “Father Emir.” Family relations are important to understanding key regional dynamics, as they help to explain the somewhat illogical moves the Qataris have made at various points that appear to be counter to their own self-interests. The reality is that the “Father Emir” enjoys jabbing the Saudi and the Emirati families purely for the sake of it, even when it runs counter to Qatar’s national interests to do so.
Qatar has conducted itself in a way that is intriguingly contrary to its own interests, throwing its weight around as a much smaller country with an unmistakable desire to assert itself as a major player in the world arena. But in the process of pursuing its larger ambitions, Qatar has pursued policies that often offend its closest allies and other peer countries in the GCC. Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood serves to destabilize and undermine other countries in the region that Qatar views as competition to its own power.
Egypt in particular plays an outsized role in the region. Contrary to its interests, Qatar proved instrumental in fomenting tensions and supporting dissidents during the Arab Spring, both through Qatar’s direct support of the Muslim Brotherhood and through media coverage via the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera news station. Moreover, Qatar paid significant sums to various NGOs in Egypt that supported the overthrow of President Mubarak, causing many in the region to question whether these NGOs were working in the interest of the Egyptian people or in the interests of the country funding them.
Adding to the list of grievances against Qatar, Doha reportedly paid a $1 billion ransom to Iranian and Al Qaeda affiliated groups for the release of a Qatari hunting party that supposedly included members of the royal family. Skeptics say the ransom payments were a farce, orchestrated by the Qataris to function as a cover for providing lucrative financial support to nefarious terrorist groups and rogue regimes. The ransom deal was concluded in April of 2017 and is widely considered a key contributing factor to the GCC blockade of Qatar that was initiated in June of that same year.
There is little doubt that the GCC expected its “shock and awe” diplomatic pressure on Qatar to bring it rapidly to heel. Qatar unexpectedly doubled down on its position and responded by deepening relations with Iran. While this move was perhaps understandable from a short-term commercial perspective—i.e. the immediate need to import goods to meet the daily demands of the Qatari population—it was not a particularly savvy long-term diplomatic move. As Qatar moves to cement its burgeoning alliance with Iran, which is largely viewed as a pariah state in the GCC (Qatar recently appointed a permanent Ambassador to Tehran in August), the country is only further alienating itself from the mainstream global community.
Iran is widely known to fund terrorism and instability in the region, principally Syria, Yemen and Iraq. With a less stable Middle East not being in the United States’ interests, the Qataris have been highly adept at using soft power to foment discord in much larger, geostrategically important countries. Regrettably, in August, the Qataris filed a dispute at the WTO stipulating that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain are violating status quo trade laws and conventions by implementing the blockade. However, the Saudi-led coalition believes its broader national-security concerns and the internal meddling by the Qataris, and their support for terrorist groups, justifies the coalition utilizing a national-security loophole in these treaties, which allows it to legally abandon the agreements under WTO rules.
It would thus appear the Qataris are fighting a losing battle with their suit at the WTO, but more crucially in their taking on the whole of the rest of the GCC. The onus is now on Qatar to come to the table and be willing to compromise with the rest of the GCC countries and the United States. To their credit the Qataris have begun this process by signing an anti-terrorism Memorandum of Understanding with Secretary Tillerson in June of this year. However, much more needs to be done to resolve this conflict. The WTO suit and abrasive comments at the Arab League Summit and UN General Assembly have not helped matters.
One potential way forward would be for Qatar to use its newfound closer relations with Iran to persuade Tehran to moderate its support for the Shia Houthi forces in the proxy war it is fighting with Saudi Arabia in Yemen; for example, Qatar could achieve this feat by halting the flow of advanced anti-ship weapons to the Houthis. The Saudis have long viewed Yemen as a soft underbelly in the region and have always believed that Yemen could be used as a staging ground to infiltrate Saudi Arabia. The Iranians have supported the Shia Houthis with SCUD missiles inter alia (such as the missiles fired at Riyadh in recent weeks). Qatar could use its diplomatic leverage with the Iranians to discourage further arms transfers to this group. This could prove to be a timely way to curry favor with both Saudi Arabia and the United States, and help inveigh against the likelihood that the Trump administration will walk away from the Iran nuclear deal—which is not in the interest of any Sunni or Shia state.