Analysis: Behind the punishing blockade against Qatar

Qatar has embraced a domestic and foreign policy independent of Saudi’s regional hegemony, making it a target.

Women walk past buildings as the sun sets in Doha
Women walk along the Corniche with downtown Doha in the background [File: Fadi al-Assaad/Reuters]

Doha, Qatar – Two years after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a land, air and sea blockade, the Gulf crisis shows little sign of ending any time soon.

In fact, according to Gulf academics, the rift may never be mended.

Speaking during the 13th Al Jazeera Forum, held last weekend in the Qatari capital Doha, analysts said Qatar and other small Gulf nations are still at risk of punitive action by the Saudi-Emirati coalition given the underlying conditions that resulted in the blockade still persist.

Those conditions were in place long before 2017 when it was imposed, said Rory Miller, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Doha.

Miller told Al Jazeera that, unlike other small Gulf states, Qatar’s leadership has embraced a domestic and foreign policy independent of Saudi hegemony.

On the domestic front, aided by its vast hydrocarbon reserves, Qatar has modernised its infrastructure and raised the standard of living of its citizens to the highest in the world – a level other Gulf states have been unable to achieve.

Regarding foreign policy, Qatar’s independent regional course led to it supporting popular demands for democratic change in the Arab world, especially during the Arab Spring revolts throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Middle East conflict

Miller highlighted two factors that have in recent years resulted in the eroding bonds between Qatar and its neighbours.

The first was the combination of political and security changes that took place in the region, brought to prominence by the spread of the Arab Spring.

The second was the rise of a young, aggressive leadership in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that is far more ambitious and less cautious than the older generation of leaders.

New Saudi and Emirati rulers saw Doha’s policies as standing in opposition to their political views on how regional politics should play out.

“The Saudi and Emirati leaders have led a coalition of Arab regimes that supported the reversal of gains made by Arab societies during the Arab Spring upheavals and the restoration of authoritarian rule in the region,” said Majed al-Ansari, a professor of political sociology at Qatar University.

Al-Ansari added smaller Gulf states have historically been cautious of Saudi Arabia because of its attempts to dominate the Gulf region.

Saudi-Emirati axis

Qatar’s opponents publicly accused Doha of supporting “terrorism” and siding with regional rival Iran – allegations it has vehemently denied.

Al-Ansari told Al Jazeera the Saudi-Emirati alliance seeks to consolidate its agenda in the region while US President Donald Trump is in power, as he is perceived to be accepting of their goals.

Any country in the region that supports “democratic change” becomes a target, al-Ansari argued.

Because Qatar has used its “soft power” in the form of diplomacy and international media networks to highlight demands for reform in the region, it has become marked by the Saudi-Emirati axis, he added.

Miller told Al Jazeera that Qatar and smaller states in the region are still at risk in the current unstable political environment, even though Doha has proved remarkably resilient to the pressure applied by the blockading countries, which initially expected to bring it back into the fold within weeks of launching the punitive measures.

Future of the GCC

Both sides of the Gulf conflict are looking to deepen their alliances with countries in the region and on the international stage.

Gulf analysts say the Gulf Cooperation Council will end up becoming a shell of its former self as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar branch out seeking regional and international partners who share their political and security objectives.

“Once the GCC is viewed to be unfit as an offensive security body, the UAE and Saudi Arabia will look to find other security coalitions to replace it. But so far they have not succeeded,” said Miller.

As for Qatar: “It can deepen its cooperation and diplomatic outreach with countries in the region and around the world,” he added.

Follow Ali Younes on Twitter: @ali_reports

Source: Al Jazeera