A day after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates suddenly cut relations with Qatar, President Donald Trump weighed in Tuesday morning with a series of tweets:
With that, Qatar’s isolated position perhaps became untenable. How did we get to this point and what does the episode say about U.S. interests in the Middle East and the Gulf in particular?
In November 2014, the assembled leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh boldly declared the end of the crisis that had led Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar. They were “opening a new page” and “doubling the efforts and closing the ranks to protect their security and stability.”
The backstory to that episode is remarkably similar to the events of this past weekend. Then as now, the same three countries charged Doha with interfering in their domestic politics and supporting terrorism. Then as now, the crux of the matter was Doha’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Al Jazeera network.
Given Saudi Arabia’s political, economic, and military dominance in the Arabian Peninsula, the five smaller Gulf monarchies have long sought to simultaneously maintain their independence from and avoid direct confrontation with their bigger brother. The United Arab Emirates has become “Little Sparta” – a key U.S. military partner with elite counter-terrorism capabilities. Oman has carved out a regional mediation role, with a credo of “friends to all and enemy to none” and serving as a discreet backchannel with Iran for the Obama administration. Kuwait has developed a vibrant – often raucous – political cultural with a relatively dynamic elected parliament. Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni minority and beset by sectarian tensions, has tacked closely with, and reportedly contemplated political union with, Saudi Arabia.
Qatar, however, has chosen to play the gadfly. It has attempted to serve as an intermediary in conflicts from Afghanistan to Gaza to Sudan to Yemen, and acted as a backchannel (sometimes irresponsibly but occasionally to real benefit) with radical groups like Hamas and the Taliban. Doha enjoys better relations with Iran than Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates (though not as warm as Oman), in part because the two countries share the world’s largest gas field. Al Jazeera, Qatar’s crown jewel, has helped to break the monopoly of the region’s hidebound state-run media establishments but offended neighbors along the way, leading Saudi Arabia to pull its ambassador for six years beginning in 2002. Meanwhile, its efforts to rein in terrorist financing are lax. It has supported national-oriented Islamist groups in Syria, such as Ahrar al-Sham, and the leadership of Hamas, some of whom reside in Qatar.
But the most grievous transgression, in Saudi and Emirati eyes, is Qatar’s support for revolutionary Islamist movements, especially since the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011. Although the Muslim Brotherhood played a significant role in the Gulf during the Egyptian crackdowns of the 1950s and 1960s, in recent decades Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have come to consider Islamist groups like the Brotherhood a potentially more dangerous threat than even nihilistic terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Although severely repressed in Egypt and elsewhere, Brotherhood groups retain some residual popular support. Because they seek power through popular elections, the thinking goes, they could, over time, threaten monarchical rule.
But if the causes of the crises in 2014 and 2017 are similar, the regional contexts are not.
When Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain pulled their ambassadors in 2014, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was 89 years old and ailing. There was a sentiment, both in the Gulf and the West, that perhaps Tamim bin Hamad, the emir of Qatar — 33 and newly ascended — was less stubborn than his father and cultivatable. Today, it is the Saudis who have the dynamic young leadership, in the person of the ambitious 31-year old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the king’s favorite son.
Notwithstanding President Trump’s tweets, it is not clear whether his administration had direct involvement or even advanced notice of this newest confrontation. But Trump’s choice of Saudi Arabia as the backbone of his approach to the Arab world, with political Islam in all forms as an enemy, have certainly effected Saudi Arabia’s thinking. Perhaps Riyadh and Abu Dhabi calculated that this, the immediate aftermath of the president’s visit, was their moment of maximum leverage.
But this conflict is less about geopolitics than about Saudi and Emirati domestic threat perceptions at a moment of extraordinary regional turmoil. The Middle East is in even worse shape today than three years ago. The Saudi and Emirati led intervention into Yemen is going badly. Saudi Arabia is feeling acute economic pressure in the wake of the collapse of hydrocarbon revenues. Thus, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi appear in no mood for forbearance on what they believe is Qatar’s failure to live up to its November 2014 commitments.
Previous iterations of the Saudi-Qatari rivalry were as much political theater as policy substance. There are signs, though, that this time is different. The Saudi closure of peninsular Qatar’s only land border and restrictions on commercial air traffic constitute a partial economic embargo on Qatar, which imports 90 percent of its agricultural products and faces the prospect of significant economic dislocation in the weeks ahead.
Several Arab countries, including those that receive political and economic support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, such as Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, have lined up against Qatar. Turkey, ideologically aligned with Qatar and boasting both NATO membership and a powerful military, is without question Doha’s most important regional partner. Last year, Turkey opened a small military base in Qatar, its first in the Arabian Peninsula since the fall of the Ottoman empire a century ago. Other countries, such as Iraq, Oman, and Tunisia, have either political or financial incentives to see Qatar retain a degree of independence from Saudi Arabia.
Some experts have predicted the closure of Al Jazeera or even a change in leadership in Doha. Certainly, in a contest of wills, with just a 20th the combined population of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar faces an unequal struggle. But for all of the anger in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, neither capital will want a sustained political crisis that benefits Iran, which has offered food and airspace access to Qatar.
Given Qatar’s relative weakness, Trump’s tweetstorm probably will be decisive. Although U.S. Central Command, which conducts and coordinates much of its regional air operations, including against the Islamic State, out of the al-Udeid airbase in Qatar, stated on Monday that it has “no plans to change [its] posture in Qatar,” Trump’s statement surely hints at the possibility of changes in American military posture.
Secretaries Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis, traveling together in Australia, both stated that the crisis would not have a significant impact on the military efforts against the Islamic State. In a narrow operational sense, this is likely accurate, at least for the short-term, since U.S. military assets have apparently not been impacted by the commercial flight bans. But in a broader political sense, the spat has already undermined the unity of the coalition efforts against the Islamic State by exposing the broader ideological and political cleavages in the Middle East.
It seems highly likely that Qatar will be forced to accept significant concessions. There are certainly aspects of Qatar’s foreign policy in need of improvement – beginning with strengthening its efforts to counter terrorist financing and refraining from promoting extremist voices through Al Jazeera and other media outlets.
But as problematic and downright flaky as Doha’s policies can be, a full capitulation by Qatar carries the risk that the already narrow space for political discourse in the Middle East will further contract and that a highly polarized Middle East will be even less disposed to de-escalation and conflict resolution. Closing Al Jazeera would have a profound and chilling effect on a thriving independent Arab media, which face increasing pressure from authoritarian regimes.
There is also a broader lesson for the Trump administration. The appeal of Trump’s tack toward Saudi Arabia during his recent visit to Riyadh was obvious. It represented the opportunity to choreograph a desperately needed display of foreign policy competence for a White House consumed by political crisis. It was a chance to repair relations with an important regional partner. And it offered the prospect of simultaneously pressuring Iran, creating momentum for counterterrorism efforts, and leveraging a possible Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.
Of his visit to Riyadh, President Trump declared “there has never been anything like that in history.” But the Middle East is a difficult, complicated place and the Gulf is no different. The Obama administration, too, struggled to navigate these ideological fault-lines. The idea of Arab unity was and is a mirage. Three weeks after President Trump announced a united effort against the Islamic State and Iran, the effort looks rather disunited.