In March, in an unprecedented move, three Arab Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar. This move reflected a break with the Gulf monarchies’ tradition of behind-the-scenes conflict management.
This move seems to have had one objective: To send a strict message to Qatar and to all players in the region outlining new “red lines”. The three countries were clearly willing to do whatever it takes to protect their interests.
However, this crisis with all its negative consequences can have an overall positive effect on relations within the Gulf. It could usher the GCC into a new era, which will be more adapted to the “context” of the crisis itself. And despite the ongoing media war on both sides, the fact that Qatar didn’t retaliate by withdrawing its ambassadors from the aggrieved neighbours is a sign of its will to resolve the issues.
The context of the crisis
Certain aspects of Qatari and Saudi foreign policies could explain the current tensions. Since 1996, Qatar has been working on finding its own path, which may not be necessarily in harmony with the rest of the Gulf states, especially with its big neighbour, Saudi Arabia (KSA).
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While pursuing this path, Qatar adopted three strategies. First, it has made gas, and not oil, the core of its alliances as well as its investments. Second, it has hosted a large US military presence in exchange for US protection. Third, it has introduced distinctive international image-building into its foreign policy, which partially explains the heavy investments in sports clubs, prestigious hotels and historical landmarks in Europe, especially in France. Hosting the 2022 World Cup is the most apparent example.
Feeling protected by the US, Qatar concentrated its efforts on ensuring its independence from Saudi influence. One important tool for doing so was distancing its economy from the oil market. Another tool was creating new alliances that are not necessarily with the friends of Saudi Arabia. These alliances included Iran, Syria and Hezbollah before the Arab Spring, and the Muslim Brotherhood after that.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been facing unprecedented challenges after its trust in its long-term ally, the US, was shaken. Washington has recently adopted a new strategy in the Middle East as the cost of keeping its presence all over the world became unbearably high. In a bid to reduce this cost, the US has considered partially replacing some of its presence by a new kind of cooperation with local or global actors, in exchange for some influence benefits. This new strategy of sharing costs and benefits comes at the expense of its allies, such as Europe with regard to Russia, and KSA with regard to Iran. These changes were met with alarm in Riyadh.
Due to power sharing on a large scale among the royal elites, Saudi diplomacy could be defined by what I call “the traditional list”, which is composed of three elements: threat neutralisation, legitimacy consolidation and the pursuit of strategic interests. This partly explains why Saudi foreign policy tended, in the past, to be reactive rather than proactive.
However, the mechanism of sharing power within Saudi institutions has changed, which has impacted the traditional list. Hence Saudi diplomacy has redefined its “red lines”.
It is important to mention that the UAE shares the Saudi position with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood. That is why during the past two years, we have witnessed a heavy crackdown on alleged sleeper cells of members of the Brotherhood in the UAE. On the other hand, given the deep security ties between KSA and Bahrain, as well as the personal ties between the two royal families, Bahrain has always been close to KSA’s position. This is the context of the ongoing Gulf crisis.
The regional dossiers
Egypt represents the main difference between Qatar and the rest of its neighbours. Alongside the Qatari quest for a new role, based on independence and sovereignty, it had made huge investments in the Arab Spring, including standing firmly behind the Brotherhood. At the same time, KSA, feeling vulnerable after the US’ new strategy, believes that it is its own responsibility to stand for its interests. In doing so, KSA is becoming the first line of defence for its own security, unlike the past six decades where the US was the first line of defence for KSA.
Egypt represents, for KSA, the cornerstone of its “anti-Iran” front. Consequently, there were major differences over Egypt between Riyadh and Washington (and of course Doha) since the start of the Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood poses an existential threat to this anti-Iran front. By continuing its unconditional support for MB, Qatar is threating the pro-Saudi regime in Egypt. Also, KSA is fearful that Brotherhood-affiliated Saudis are being mobilised against the government.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia suspects an Iranian involvement in the Houthi infiltration of its border with Yemen. At the same time, it suspects that Qatar might be close to this secessionist group. KSA is also suspicious of Qatari contacts with a number of other groups it deems terrorist, including Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and others.
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Therefore, the political process in Egypt as well as the relationship with some of these Islamist groups, constitute a major difference between KSA, the UAE and Bahrain on one side and Qatar on the other. Doha has responded to the diplomatic crisis saying that its differences with the three Gulf states do not involve Gulf security.
Institutionalisation of foreign policy
Both sides have made decades-long investments in the dossiers at hand. Therefore, it is not realistic to expect one side to easily concede to the other.
Rather, a lasting solution must take the context of the crisis into consideration. Up until now this has not been possible because both sides have lacked an institutionalised foreign policy. So far, both sides have invested diplomatic capital in crisis management, more than in stable and long term policies, which would have necessitated a strategic framework.
To institutionalise their foreign policy, the Gulf countries in question have to develop a strategic framework to guide policy-making. This framework should define the following elements: the concept of national security and its borders; spheres of influence; strategic interests; political discourse, based on a system of values as well as cultural and internal investments to enhance that system of values. At the same time, institutional infrastructure has to be set up to oversee this strategic framework and review it on a regular basis.
Qatar can only ensure its independence and sovereignty through an institutionalised foreign policy. By doing so, Qatar will encourage the other side to do the same.
This could also be a way to turn the conflicting alliances of both sides into a means benefiting all parties through what I could call “proxy alliances” (in contrast to proxy wars). In that sense, KSA and UAE could benefit from Qatar’s ties with the Brotherhood, Oman’s relations with Iran, as well as Egypt’s new approach to Russia. Only institutionalising foreign policy can allow the Gulf to emerge from this crisis and preclude future ones. Otherwise, a solution to this crisis will be difficult to achieve.
Mansour Almarzoqi Albogami is an academic and researcher on Saudi politics at Sciences Po de Lyon, France.