by Ramy Jabbour

The breaking of diplomatic relations between Qatar and seven regional states—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Libya’s House of Representative (based in Tobruk and supported by Eastern Libya strongman, General Haftar), and the internationally recognized Yemeni government—has brought a dispute about the country’s distinctive approach to regional affairs and the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) inter relations in the near future.

Saudi Arabia and its allies took a firm step in cutting their diplomatic relations with Qatar, imposing economic sanctions and blocking the Qatari news media including Al-Jazeera. This action which was followed by a targeted media campaign against Doha was the result Qatar’s Emir statement on the state-run news agency criticizing the US President Donald Trump. He also described Iran as a force of stability in the region and threatened to withdraw ambassadors from several Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia. Qatar claimed that its official websites had been hacked, however, a number of Arab news agencies close to the Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian leadership pointed out that some of the emir’s remarks had already appeared on Qatar state broadcaster before they were denied. The tension between the Qatari emirate and the different Arab states came directly after a historical US-Islamic summit which resulted in huge agreements between USA and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

After three months of the Saudi lead blockage on Qatar, the crisis is still not resolved even though the Kuwaitis, Turks, Americans and some EU leaders are trying to find a common ground between the GCC leaders to end this dispute. What are the main reasons for this conflict and why did the key players in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region imposed a blockade on one of their closest and the smallest neighbours?

Most of the Western researchers considered that the skirmishes between Qatar and the GCC countries are a result for the Arab Spring. Moreover, they simplify the issue by dividing the states as supporters or adversaries of the “Muslim Brotherhood”. It is somehow true that the bad relations between Qatar and the Saudi-led states developed after the Arab Spring; however it is essential to analyze the historical background to understand the crisis.

“Kaaba of the dispossessed” was an important phrase used by the historical Qatari leader, Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani (reigned from 1878 to 1913), to describe the historical role played by Qatar. By using this phrase, Al Thani was labelling Qatar as an entity hosting regional banished leaders, fleeing criminals, and exiled political figures. The same Qatari policy recently caused a lot of distress with its Gulf neighbours (mainly KSA) by hosting till now tens of opposition politicians and controversial religious figures. The turning point in the relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia rose after Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, seized power from his father in a bloodless palace coup in June 1995. Gulf leaders did not welcome Emir Hamad’s accession and saw it as a threat to the stability of the Gulf monarchies. Saudi Arabia was accused of being implicated in two counter-coup attempts in February 1996 and in 20055. The Qatari government withdrew up to 5,000 members of the Bani Murra tribe (historically located on the Saudi-Qatari border) of their citizenship accusing the tribe’s members in the counter-coup attempt. Following 1995 coup, Qatari leadership aimed for autonomous regional policies seeking to bring the country out of the Saudi shadow. These policies were based on support for regional Islamists (mainly the Muslim Brotherhood), building good ties with Iran and their allies, enhancing their relations with USA and Israel covertly, and provision of Doha-based Al Jazeera as a platform for groups criticizing regional states as a tool for diplomacy. By building relations and alliances with different opposing states and sub-states (Iran, Hezbollah, USA, Israel, Turkey, Muslim Brotherhood…) in addition to playing the role of mediator in the MENA region skirmishes (most notably in the intra-state conflicts in Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen), Qatar was hardly trying to project power aiming to lessen its dependence on its “annoying” Saudi neighbour.

Moving to Bahrain, it is somehow difficult for this emirate to sever its relationship with Qatar due to its close relations with the Muslim brotherhood given that the Brotherhood’s Bahrain affiliate operates as a legal political entity and part of Bahrain’s parliament. Furthermore, Bahrain may be the only country in the Arab world whose branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is loyal to the government. Much of the instability in the Bahrain-Qatar relationship is a result of their close familial ties and tribal heritage. Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa monarchs conquered the island in 1783 from their base in Zubarah in present-day Qatar. They maintained control over Zubarah and other parts of Qatar until the late nineteenth century, when they were forced out by the British following an attempt to capture the current Qatari capital of Doha. Qatar’s ruling al-Thani tribe only gained full control over Zubarah in 1957, again following British intervention against the Al Khalifa’s attempts to assert Bahraini sovereignty over the area. Adding to the historical conflicts between the two states and the territorial disputes, a short return to the demonstrations in Bahrain during 2011 can lead us to answer for this volatile relation. The decision to deploy the GCC PSF (Peninsula Shield Force) to Bahrain in March 2011 at the invitation of Bahrain’s King, is mentioned as the moment in which Bahrain essentially became a vassal state of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis’ military leverage over Manama is compounded by their economic influence, in particular as low oil prices and economic mismanagement have seen Bahrain run a series of budget deficits, with public debt ballooning at an alarming rate. The continuous financial aid provided by KSA and Manama’s fear from an Iranian coup made the Bahraini state a very close ally to Riyadh.

Moving to the Emirati side, it seems that UAE is frustrated from the continuous support provided by Doha to the Muslim brotherhood which is considered as the main threat for Abu Dhabi. Through the strong support provided for the Muslim Brotherhood, Doha and its Turkish ally saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to project their power to influence most of the MENA region states, most notably Yemen, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, and most importantly Egypt. Threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood power, UAE became the main supporter for the traditional military Arab regimes to contain the danger of the Islamist movements. UAE succeeded to lessen the Turkey/Qatari influence in Egypt by supporting the military coup of the current Egyptian President General Abdel Fatah El Sisi. Thus, UAE’s crown prince became the main rival of Doha and was certainly enthusiastic for Qatar’s blockade.

The neutral position of the EU and the unclear US stand in the GCC crisis, adding to the strong Turkish-Iranian support to Qatar, have strongly affected the dynamics of the conflict. The support given to Doha by Tehran and Ankara encouraged the small emirate not to surrender. PKK Kurdish militia’s threat on Turkey and Iran adding to the blockade on Qatar, may bring these three countries together and change the regional order. Two main group alliances are appearing nowadays in the MENA region. On one hand, it is evident that a coalition joining KSA, Egypt, UAE, and Bahrain is becoming strongly “accepted” by the Israeli Jewish state. On the other hand, an alliance composed of Iran, Turkey and Qatar is appearing. The developments in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Libya, adding to the future roles played by the US and EU will strongly impact the future of the region.

07 October 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 69