Neil Partrick, editor and main contributor to Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict & Cooperation (IB Tauris, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @neilpartrick.
The crisis at the heart of the GCC is encapsulated by the blunt attempt to curtail Qatari independence. Led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with Bahrain along for the ride, this development represents the total failure of the Gulf Union project. Under King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, integration was by rhetorical assertion, but de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman has an actionable strategy: turn your foreign policy on its head or we will snuff out your economy and your independence. Even more disturbingly, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed have been encouraged in this reckless gambit by a hapless U.S. Middle East policy based on ill-informed notions of its own interests and those of its Gulf allies.
The Qataris are refusing to define the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as the root of all regional terrorism or to define Iran as their greatest security threat. This is because the MB isn’t, Iran isn’t, and, from where Qatar sits, claiming this would be irrational. While the Qataris have created enemies in the GCC, Al-Jazeera is old news and Qatar’s backing of Islamist militants in Syria has been downsized in favor of a Saudi monopoly on that role. Inviting Turkey, a fellow MB admirer, to install a few troops in Doha angered the Saudis and Emiratis, but it hardly compares to the military platforms that the Qataris, Saudis, and Emiratis all give the United States. In the last Qatar-related intra-GCC crisis in 2014, Doha got itself off the hook by exiling some MB figures and promising to tone down sympathetic Al-Jazeera coverage. This time, some senior Hamas figures have already been sent to Turkey or told they cannot set up home in Qatar. However, these measures are not enough for a new Saudi approach that accepts no deviation among the rest of the GCC.
Faced with a Saudi-led squeeze, the Qataris paradoxically have been obliged to extend their relations with Iran, as its airspace and port facilities are now crucial for access to the outside world. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani just visited Russia, and Moscow seems assured that Qatar will maintain its investment in Russian energy giant Rosneft. Absurdly, the Saudis and Emiratis may welcome these developments, which might encourage the United States to shut down the regional military command center at al-Udeid in Qatar.
Qatar needs the U.S. base as a continued hedge against Saudi dominance; the United States wants to keep it for fear that, without it, Qatar will become the very thing its neighbors already accuse it of being: a “door” for Iran. What is more, if abandoned by the United States, Qatar could turn the token Turkish troop presence into a garrison and, even worse from the perspective of the U.S. security establishment, the Russians might set up shop too. With Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others in the U.S. administration aware of the dangers of what the president unleashed in the Gulf, the U.S. base near Doha may be the lever that Washington will use to encourage the Qataris to change aspects of their foreign policy.
Before 1990, it was Kuwait that the Saudis tried to boss around and that the United States got paranoid about. Lacking a U.S. base because of Arab nationalist posturing, Kuwait had to shut down its troublesome parliament under Saudi pressure in 1976. Qatar knows that the huge U.S. military facility is what stops the Saudis running its domestic and foreign relations in the same way today. A few leaders within the MB may have to pay the price of keeping it. Yet Qatar probably will not concede much else, and it has some leverage of its own. Should its hand be forced, its importance to regional and global gas access means that its Western friends and the UAE (its biggest Gulf customer) could be made to suffer. Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed will need to back down substantively to avoid escalating the crisis further. This is a diplomatic challenge that the United States will need to actively get behind so that the Kuwaitis and other would-be mediators have something meaningful to discuss.