A Gulf crisis: How did we get here?

Qatar is being punished for refusing to join Saudi Arabia’s war mongering.

Orb photo from AP - Trump Egypt Saudi
Rather than be dragged into Saudi Arabia's sectarian war mongering and Trump's peddling of American weapons, it would be prudent to chart an independent course, writes Barakat [AP]

Qatar’s residents woke up on the morning of the June 5 to the news that the country is now subject to a siege-like isolation through land, air, and sea imposed by its erstwhile brethren of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt. This latest crisis is more serious than the diplomatic spat of 2014, which involved the withdrawal of ambassadors but not the closing of borders or expulsion of citizens.

The message from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is that Qatar must concede to their demands or be prepared to face a blockade, similar to the one Israel has imposed on Gaza. This will have a real lasting legacy on the integrity of the Gulf, as families are split, employees lose their jobs and people are forcibly displaced.

In effect, it is shocking to see the extent to which the Saudis and Emiratis are willing to go, imposing measures that they have been unwilling to use on their arch-enemy Iran since 1979. This proves Qatar’s foresight in working hard to maintain cordial relationships with all its neighbours. Cynics would argue that if it wasn’t for the US Al-Udeid airbase, located just south of Doha, Saudi tanks might have rolled in across the border.

Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to impose a blockade on Iran knowing well that under international norms, such a move would be counted as a step short of open war. The real issue here is not in announcing such blockades but in having the capacity and will to enforce them. Given that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are bogged down in a military quagmire in Yemen at great cost, they can’t afford to open a new battlefront.

The ultimate driver of the current crisis is Qatar’s insistence on maintaining an independent foreign policy and the attempts of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to bring the country into line with their position. This urge for charting an independent foreign policy course is largely driven by Qatar’s geostrategic vulnerability: The country is located on a peninsula jutting off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia into the Gulf facing Iran, with whom it shares the North Field/South Pars gas field.

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The fact that the country possesses only one land border, which it shares with Saudi Arabia, is now viewed as an existential threat. Qatar’s food security is highly dependent on imports, with 40 percent transiting through Saudi Arabia. Of greater concern is the dependence on the land border with Saudi Arabia for the entry of construction materials required to complete the World Cup construction projects which cost an estimated $500m weekly.

Facing escalation of the latest crisis, Qatar has two choices: conceding in the face of GCC bullying, or increasing trade and cooperation with Iran, which has announced that it is ready to ship goods to Qatar. While the intention of the blockade is to bring Qatar back into the fold, the move could prove a miscalculation and only hasten Qatar’s efforts to ensure its security and independence of its Gulf neighbours.

Qatar's stability and confidence at home has allowed its ruling elite the possibility of viewing the world in shades of grey, drawing fine distinctions between extremist fringe groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and al-Qaeda on the one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood, which practises political Islam and is favoured by millions across the region on the other.


Qatar’s sensible strategy of investing in liquefied natural gas (LNG) rather than gas pipelines, which require land routes, shows how the country has lessened its dependence on its neighbours over time. Qatar will doubtless want to keep Iran at bay, but if pushed, it may be left with little choice but to move closer into its orbit.

The hypocrisy of Saudi Arabia and the UAE

Over the past 20 years, Qatar has developed special relations not only with Iran, but also a wide range of seemingly contradictory actors including Israel, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Fatah. It is also a country where a Taliban representation, Hamas’ political wing, and the largest US military base in the region can all operate.

Doha’s insistence on maintaining an open political and media environment, including offering sanctuary to many political exiles, has long proven its wisdom, enabling it to mediate between sides and help resolve some of the most intractable conflicts in the region.

For those that are genuine in wanting to move away from sectarianism and division in the Middle East, it is not a bad idea to maintain relations with countries and groups that may be on opposing sides on some issues but must nevertheless maintain lines of communication on a host of other issues.

The flagrant hypocrisy of the UAE is quite apparent on this front, in that while it continues to fan the flames of regional tension through its rhetoric against Iran, Dubai maintains an economic lifeline to Iran by acting as a crucial entry point to the region and rest of the world.

Moreover, Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to the United States, is widely known to have a strong personal and professional relationship with the Israeli ambassador in Washington while hacked emails reveal that the Emirati leadership is collaborating with the neo-conservative, pro-Israel think-tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which, by stunning coincidence, held an event alleging Qatar’s funding of terrorism the day before the suspected hacking of the Qatari state news agency.

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In the same way, it is illogical for Saudi Arabia to criticise others for maintaining relations with Israel when its landmark deal with the US has such strong direct and indirect links to the Israeli economy and its manufacturing of drones and other weaponry. It is also clearly a self-interested diversionary tactic to accuse Qatar of failing to stop the funding of extremism, when, for every one Qatari who has done so, there are dozens of Saudis who continue to funnel money to extremist groups with no constraints; while, by contrast, Qatar has taken the lead in prosecuting suspected individuals for terror financing offences in domestic courts.

No one can argue with the fact that under Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar has gone to great lengths to please the Saudis and acquiesce to their agenda. Still, Qatar failed to convince the Saudis and more so the Emiratis of the way Qatar sees things. This is not due to its lack of persuasive skills, but the others’ inability to listen given the level of vulnerability their ruling elites seem to genuinely feel in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

This feeling of threat has led the house of Al Saud to realign themselves with the al-Sheikh family, the leaders of Wahhabi thought, thus turning up the sectarian heat against Shia Muslims while Abu Dhabi launches a dogmatic war against all forms of Sunni political Islam, primarily in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Qatar has refused to follow the Saudis and Emiratis in classifying the millions of followers of the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists.

Qatar’s stability and confidence at home has allowed its ruling elite the possibility of viewing the world in shades of grey, drawing fine distinctions between extremist fringe groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and al-Qaeda on the one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood which practises political Islam and is favoured by millions across the region on the other.

The Trump Effect

Qatar’s insistence on treading its own path in regional and international affairs is not new and does not explain the sudden onset of the latest crisis. Rather, the timing of the moves to isolate Qatar is linked to the Trump administration. Qatar has shown much less enthusiasm than elites in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for the warmongering of President Donald Trump.

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The whole crisis, engineered as it has been by leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, is a cynical move whose primary audience is the White House. While the remarks imputed to Sheikh Tamim caused faux outrage in the Gulf in that they predicted a short-lived Trump presidency, this may not be wide of the mark. Calls for the impeachment of Trump due to the allegations of ties with Russia will only grow louder and are likely to continue.

While the probability of an impeachment may seem remote, the prospect of a reality TV businessman with no experience in politics becoming the president of the United States only a short time ago seemed much less likely. It is amusing to see the Saudis and Emiratis lamenting the prospect of their new hero and saviour leaving office in a shroud of shame – particularly when Jewish lobbies back in Washington, DC have already decided they would be better off without Trump.

Any wise politician would think twice before putting all of their eggs in Trump’s basket. In fact, Trump’s visit to the Wailing Wall, the first official visit to the occupied site by a sitting US president, served as a strong reminder to the Arab street of where Trump’s loyalties really lie, even if this was wilfully or otherwise overlooked by leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Rather than boosting the Arab cause, the visit has emboldened Netanyahu to hold a highly symbolic cabinet meeting in the tunnels under the Wailing Wall.

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President Trump boasting about his “beautiful military equipment” is enough of a reason to question his motives to escalate the rhetoric against Iran. This, combined with the clear objective of drawing Israel closer to the Arab world, bypassing the Palestinian question, in a common cause against Iran makes the point even more valid.

While the US will undoubtedly remain an important security partner in the Gulf, it is wise not to rush into an embrace with the Trump administration. Rather than be dragged into Saudi Arabia’s sectarian warmongering and Trump’s peddling of American weapons, it would be prudent to chart an independent course.

Sultan Barakat is the director of the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute and Professor of Politics at the University of York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.