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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

Engulfed: Reading the tea leaves on Qatar’s ostracization

After weeks of sniping between Gulf media outlets and Twitter personalities, the latest spat between the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has boiled over into a major diplomatic crisis. Early on the morning of June 6 (Riyadh time), Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt joined Saudi Arabia in severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, also closing off land borders, airspace, and port access.

Those Americans familiar with Qatar from news stories on the 2022 World Cup and cameo appearances on Veep – if they’re familiar with Qatar at all – might be wondering why President Trump is now firing off tweets about the oil- and gas-rich Arab Gulf monarchy.

Barely three years ago, a more subdued diplomatic dispute between Qatar and its fellow Gulf states ended after Qatar agreed to append a “supplemental document” to a 2013 security agreement signed in Riyadh. The document’s cosmetic concessions papered over accusations that Qatar’s foreign policy was seeking to destabilize the entire region, through support for political Islamist groups (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, assorted factions in Libya) and biased coverage by the country’s Arabic-language Al Jazeera channel.

Now, Qatar again stands accused of undermining the security and stability of the region, backing “sectarian groups” and extremists, and sundry other “dangerous practices” that interfere in the affairs of its immediate neighbors. Qatari citizens have been given two weeks to leave the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, while the same holds true for citizens of those three countries residing in Qatar. Traditional means of resolving intra-Gulf disputes, such as sending in the Emir of Kuwait, have failed, with little sense of whether any new scrap of paper might quiet things down anytime soon.

Spats, hacks and the present dispute

The ostensible trigger for the spat is an alleged (and allegedly fabricated) May 23 speech attributed to Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad, in which he supposedly spoke kindly of Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and made thinly veiled criticisms of Arab Gulf neighbors. While the official Qatar News Agency moved to quash the story, it was picked up and hyped by media outlets owned by or strongly partial to rival governments, such as Al-Arabiya (Saudi Arabia), the National (UAE), and Gulf News (also UAE).

Most recently, FBI investigators looking into the hack voiced suspicions that Russian hackers may have been at fault, although it is unclear whether these would have been freelancers working for a private employer.

The capable journalist Brian Whitaker has followed this murky Gulf media campaign against Qatar in far more detail than can be presented here. Commentators leapt to stick additional knives in Qatar’s back, joining a series of critical op-eds published in U.S. outlets by associates of the right-wing think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). Correspondence with FDD later surfaced in emails leaked from the account of Yousef Oteiba, UAE’s ambassador to the United States, feeding into a broader sense that several Gulf states – and especially the UAE – have been laying the groundwork for a PR war against Qatar within the Beltway for quite some time.

Since the initial slew of alleged hacks and hacking allegations, hot takes have flashed back and forth on televisions screens and social media feeds like drifting cars on a Gulf desert highway, careening back and forth in search of the exact cause of the latest dispute. Ties to Hamas? Maintaining channels with Iran? Certain Al Jazeera reports? Gas production? One Gulf commentator even noted to me that concerns over succession in Saudi Arabia might play a role, with banning Al Jazeera a means of keeping meddling to a minimum as Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman moves to acquire even further power. Mehran Kamrava, at Georgetown University’s branch campus in Qatar, joins a number of commentators in pointing the finger at the UAE as the driving force behind recent developments, courting closer ties with the United States and seeking to relocate the American airbase in the region to Abu Dhabi.

Many of these takes (and this article is no exception) have been offered by people living far away from the center of action – as has been duly noted by regional analysts and academics such as Omar AlShehabi and Omar Mohamed.

At the risk of clogging the airwaves with yet another opinion, though, it is hard to believe anything major has changed on Qatar’s side of the equation in recent weeks. Despite the danger of making everything about the United States and President Trump, it seems that his ironclad security assurances to the Gulf from any Iranian threat has emboldened Saudi Arabia and its allies to trigger a massive intra-GCC crisis. This, at a time when Saudi Arabia is ostensibly leading a pan-Sunni-Muslim effort to counteract Iranian influence in the broader Middle East.

As Gregory Gause pointed out in the pages of Democracy back in 2015, “When the GCC states do squabble, it is practically a signal that they are not facing any serious and immediate threats.” President Trump certainly did not improve chances of resolving the dispute when he blasted past his Secretary of State’s measured remarks, crowing on Twitter that it was “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding… …extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

So much for the hope that the U.S. might sidestep this intra-GCC dispute instead of fueling the flames, even if the U.S. military has demurred on moving its main air base in Qatar.

The fallout to come

As the chattering classes try to sort wheat from chaff, a crisis is underway with clear consequences for the thousands of people caught in the middle of this dispute. There are potentially graver repercussions for regional politics down the line.

The Qatari government has assured citizens and expatriates alike that the daily course of life will remain unchanged, even as the airspace closures mean Qatar Airways flights must fly over Iranian airspace to make ever-more-distant connections. Qatar is heavily dependent on imported food, and the prospect of a near-blockade has triggered panicked shopping and cash withdrawals in Doha. Hundreds of truck drivers are no doubt stranded at the Saudi-Qatari border, while the complicated business of small-scale population transfers – what happens to spouses who hold a different GCC citizenship? – slowly unfolds.

It is unclear what could resolve the dispute now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag. A number of shadowy Qatari opposition figures and forces have surfaced and been promoted by Egyptian and Emirati media, including one Sheikh Saud bin Nasser Al Thani and a Qatari “National Liberation Front,” to join the still comically obscure Khalid al-Hail (dredged up by the Egyptians during the 2014 dispute with Qatar). A forlorn Twitter account, @TheQatarLeaks, is slowly dripping mildly disruptive documents from yet another opposition group – the Geneva-based “Qatari Opposition Alliance” – although it seems to have grown a bit over-excited in sporting hashtags like #WeChoseSalmanAndSaudiArabia and #YousefOtaibaIsThePrideOfTheGulf.

A few sources have suggested what is being demanded of Qatar: the UAE’s Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi suggests Qatar would have to shutter its media holdings and forswear any independent outreach to Iran. More bizarre but still plausible are claims by the phantom Sheikh Saud bin Nasser, that Qatar’s prominent former first lady Sheikha Moza bint Al-Misnad would have her international activities curtailed.

The prospect of forced regime change seems real – if the pressure is turned up on Qatar’s elite, they may rally behind some other figure who can broker a credible shift in Qatari foreign policy. David Hearst – whose all-but-linked-to-Qatar news website Middle East Eye has heckled the UAE and Egypt with gossipy, anonymously sourced articles – recently floated this as a concern. So did consulting group Control Risks. Still, Qatar’s leadership seems to be digging in rather than buckling under the pressure, summoning all the nationalism that a 300,000-strong society riven by tribal divisions can muster. Meanwhile, it must ponder what to do with its natural gas pipeline that sends billions of cubic feet of gas per day from Qatar to the UAE.

So here we are. At the heart of the matter is a Qatari foreign policy accustomed to taking on ever-longer odds in the hopes of achieving ever-greater international clout. This has included pulling out all the stops to host a World Cup that its own people might not want, going all in for support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the presidency of Muhammad Morsi and beyond, and holding out hope that shadowy ties with the Nusrah Front in Syria might be cashed in for renewed diplomatic clout, if only the Al Qaeda affiliate could be “flipped” to the side of lawful Syria resistance.

No doubt some Gulf leaders view the recent move against Qatar as a done deal. From the zenith of Qatar’s regional influence in early 2013 (crystallized in Mehran Kemrava’s book Small State, Big Politics), Qatar has lost or been forced to discard most of the meaningful cards in its hand. The Al Jazeera brand has suffered enough damage that the sports channel was renamed BeIN Sports, and Al Jazeera America was a well-publicized management disaster. Qatar’s World Cup efforts generated years of bad headlines, from FIFA corruption to migrant worker deaths, and remains a heavy financial burden for a country facing reduced oil and gas revenues. Qatar’s ability to bargain with certain “problematic elements” matters little to a U.S. administration that views political Islam as an existential threat. Meanwhile, the idea of Qatar being viewed as a neutral, “honest broker” in any future regional mediation seems almost laughable. Kuwait and Oman might try to ease tensions from the margins, but neither is interested in walking the no-man’s-land of the GCC’s internal battle lines.

Yet there is a vast difference between what one can get away with and what makes for sound policy. The present dispute calls to mind the welcome-home scene from Goodfellas, in which Billy Batts ticks off Tommy DeVito again and again until – once all of Billy’s allies have left the restaurant – Tommy and friends kick, shoot, and stab him to death. The Fellas have their revenge, but jumping Billy was the easy part. The political aftermath creates the air of doom and decline that looms over the film’s second half.

A number of extremely wealthy, heavily armed countries with feudalistic political systems are engaged in nationalistic brinkmanship in the heart of the world’s most conflict-prone region. Iran’s leadership is sitting pretty as it watches the squabbling, while the Trump administration, far from acting as the policeman of the Gulf, is all but egging on the fight. The best-case scenario for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain ends with a chastened Qatari regime, possibly under new management. The worst case scenarios veer towards war. This doesn’t end well – for anyone.