Under the banner of regional “solidarity and stability,” the Arab states that began sieging Qatar in 2017 signed a declaration on January 5 at al-Ula in Saudi Arabia to end their blockade. This GCC summit resolution was a victory for Doha given that it did not have to meet any of the thirteen demands set forth by the anti-Qatar quartet—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt—early on in the Gulf dispute. Essentially, the group gave up their campaign to strongarm Doha into aligning with them on sensitive issues that were the root causes of the crisis.
In late 2020, the Trump administration intensified its diplomatic efforts to resolve the Gulf feud. Seeking to unify Washington’s Gulf Arab partners against Iran, the Trump administration had seen the GCC’s Qatar rift as undermining an “otherwise a pretty strong wall of opposition to Iran's destabilizing activities in the region.” However, reduced friction between Doha and Riyadh does not mean that Qatar will embrace Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iranian agenda. The day after the summit, Qatar’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani explained that the al-Ula accord would not change Doha-Tehran relations.
Although one of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s key objectives for the blockade was to force Qatar to scale down its relationship with Iran, Doha and Tehran have deepened their bilateral ties since outbreak of the Gulf crisis. Tehran’s solidarity with Doha grew. Beyond rhetoric, Iran provided food shipments to help Doha avert a food security crisis. Iranian exports to Qatar jumped from around $60 million between 2016 and 2017, to $250 million between 2017 and 2018. Qatar Airways managed to continue its operations by utilizing Iranian airspace. In turn, overflight charges provided Iran with around $100 million in overflight fee revenues, which the Trump administration viewed as undermining its “maximum pressure” against Iran.
Ultimately, the siege pushed Doha closer to Tehran while reinforcing Qatar’s perceptions that the immediate threat to its security emanates from its immediate GCC neighbors, not Iran. For Doha, Iran became more of a lifeline than a threat. Even prior to the blockade, since the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Qatar had maintained a mostly cordial relationship with Tehran in no small part due to these two countries sharing the world’s largest natural gas field, the North Dome/South Pars, which Doha depends on economically. Ensuring security of the field and uninhibited access to it necessitates Qatari cooperation with Iran. Furthermore, any military conflict in the Gulf involving Iran could devastate Qatar’s vulnerable critical infrastructure.
Qatar must also maintain positive relations with Iran in order to prevent Tehran from targeting Doha for hosting the U.S.’s largest military presence in the Middle East—the al-Udeid airbase, where some 10,000 U.S. troops are stationed. That Qatar hosts the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command on its soil is a point of tension with Tehran. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps views al-Udeid as a would-be target in the event of a U.S.-Iran conflict. To balance these dynamics, Doha engages in careful diplomacy with Tehran, which has been increasingly difficult amid Washington’s “maximum pressure” agenda. Much like Iraq, Qatar found it somewhat challenging to maintain strong ties with both the Trump administration as well as Iran against the backdrop of Washington and Tehran’s brinkmanship in the Gulf.
As the 2019 Aramco attacks demonstrated, Iran has the ability to cause significant harm to Gulf countries’ critical economic infrastructure, including Qatar’s. Yet the Qatari government and citizenry view Tehran as far less threatening today compared to before the blockade because of Iranian support during the blockade. A 2018 study found that prior to the blockade of 2017, around 30 percent of the Gulf Arab country’s population saw Iran as one of the gravest threats to Qatar, but that number fell to basically zero after the GCC crisis erupted, according to Majed al-Ansari, a professor of Political Sociology at Qatar University.1 “Iran has never participated in a siege of Qatar nor participated in hostile operations [against] Qatar or Qatari interests, so it is obvious that it is not identified easily [by the Qatari public] as a national security threat [to Doha]” despite the Qatari people having mostly negative views of Tehran’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq, Syria, and other areas of the Middle East.2
Tehran’s View of Saudi-Qatari Reconciliation
For Tehran, the 2017 blockade was an opportunity to help the Qataris expose Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s relative weaknesses while enhancing Tehran’s leverage over a U.S.-friendly Gulf Arab state. Thus, while Iran officially welcomed the al-Ula summit’s outcome, Tehran has concerns about the geopolitical ramifications of a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement. What will also matter to the Iranians are the economic consequences which could deprive Iran of payments from Qatar for the use of its airspace.3 Yet Iran may also see certain positive aspects to the Gulf crisis’s resolution. Mohammad Javad Zarif’s tweet following this latest GCC summit reveals Iran’s view that the move is akin to a capitulation from Saudi Arabia. “[To Iran], the normalization has been a reactive move by Riyadh, implying its weakening hand in the regional power play, [rather] than an active initiative aimed at containing Iran in a new way,” says Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.4
Looking ahead, Tehran understands that Doha is probably in no position to walk away from its partnership with the Islamic Republic. Because the fundamental root causes of tension between Saudi Arabia and Qatar remain unresolved, Iran will likely count on continued cooperation with Doha. Smaller GCC member-states continue to struggle with Saudi Arabia’s dominance and lack of respect for their sovereignty, which contributes to Qataris’ views of Iran as a regional counterweight to Riyadh.
Furthermore, in Tehran’s view, Doha could even help ease its tensions with Washington and some regional states in 2021. In the past, Doha supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 and in 2006 voted at the UN Security Council against sanctioning Iran for its nuclear activities. Even as early as 1997, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani began urging Washington to ease its positions against Tehran. As a regional diplomatic powerhouse, Qatar could also play a facilitating role in talks between the Biden administration and Iran regarding the JCPOA and possibly non-nuclear issues.
Ultimately, while the Trump administration’s immediate objective of resolving the Gulf crisis was aimed at creating a united front against Tehran, there is reason to doubt that Doha would completely abandon Iran. From Riyadh’s perspective, a realistic scenario would entail restoring some of Doha’s trust in Saudi Arabia, giving the Qataris reason to slightly distance themselves from Tehran. At the same time, with the al-Ula summit only papering over the two sides’ differences, it would be easy to imagine Qatari-Iranian relations remaining a grievance for Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama. At the end of the day, Tehran’s support to Qatar amid the three-and-a-half-year blockade bought a lot of goodwill in Doha, which will likely continue to shape bilateral relations for years to come.
Brett Sudetic is an advisor to Gulf State Analytics, a Washington DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. Follow him on Twitter @GiorgioCafiero.
1 Majed al-Ansari, Interview with Authors, January 14, 2021.
2 Majed al-Ansari, Interview with Authors, January 14, 2021.
3 Sanam Vakil, Interview with Authors, January 12, 2021.
4 Hamidreza Azizi, Interview with Authors, January 8, 2021.