A Moment of Reckoning for Qatar
The idiom “running with the hare and hunting with the hounds” best describes Qatari foreign policy in recent years. The world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas wants to be part of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc, on the one hand, but it also wants to pursue a unilateral foreign policy well beyond the GCC’s multilateral framework. In short, Qatar wants to maintain ties to Saudi Arabia and, simultaneously, to the Kingdom’s two principal regional competitors, Turkey and Iran. The Qatari-GCC conflict is more than just a reckoning of Qatari foreign policy. It is also a boiling over of deeply rooted ideological and sectarian mismatches in the Middle East as identity and ideology, as well as sectarian and national interests, compete to shape the region’s politics.
Qatar is a member of the GCC, which started in 1981 with the stated aim of economic integration to create a common market and currency among the energy-rich Gulf Arab states. Formed in response to the threat of an expansionist revolutionary Iran, the council has increasingly become an anti-Iran alliance. And yet Doha cooperates with Tehran and restored diplomatic relations with it on August 24, 2017. The state-owned Al Jazeera television network calls for relative freedom in the Arab world, though not in its home country of Qatar. Doha’s support for political freedoms is seen by its neighbors as advocating Islamism. While it seemingly demands accountability from authoritarian Arab rulers, the emirate turns a blind eye toward growing autocracy in its ally, Turkey. Though Qatar appears to be critical of US foreign policy, it houses the regional headquarters of the US military’s Central Command on its soil.
For years Qatar has maintained this Janus-faced foreign policy and has never really been held to account. Even when commentators in the past took note of its magnified role in international politics, they merely commented on how it punched over its weight but never observed how it cleverly positioned itself on both sides of most issues. The key to maintaining such Machiavellian foreign policies is managing the perceptions of one’s allies and foes alike. When the hare looks at you, you should look like a hare; when the hounds look at you, you should look like a hound. Doha pulled this off for nearly a decade. But now, when Saudi Arabia and its coalition look at Qatar, all they see are images of President Rouhani of Iran and Yusuf Al Qaradawi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Clearly, Qatar can no longer remain aligned with Saudi Arabia and its allies while simultaneously advancing a foreign policy that is independent of the Kingdom’s vision for the Gulf and perhaps one that is at odds with the interests of its GCC partners.
The current crisis has brought Qatar to a critical crossroads: Will it remain a subordinate state within the Saudi sphere of influence, or will it seek independence from the Gulf hegemon by entering into a complex and unequal relationship with Iran and Turkey? This latter option might result in nothing more than replacing one master with two new ones. Apparently, Qatar is choosing the latter as it has yet to comply with any of the demands made by Saudi Arabia and its partners (i.e., the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and the Maldives). Meanwhile, it has re-established diplomatic ties with Iran before resolving the ongoing crisis with its Gulf neighbors.
Perhaps this leaning toward Iran is a manifestation of Doha’s fears that Riyadh was fomenting a coup in order to install a new pro-Saudi emir. Given its small size and negligible military strength, not to mention being surrounded by competing regional powers, Doha’s only reasonable choice is to become a client of a dominant power. In fact, this has been a norm in the region for years. Qatar could have opted to remain neutral by maintaining equally open relations with Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia; instead, the country used its twin sources of power, namely, billions in disposable cash from natural gas exports and Al Jazeera, to repeatedly take aggressive stances on issues that impacted stronger regional powers, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Global Drivers of the Crisis
From a global perspective, the Qatari crisis reflects the slow degeneration of the neoliberal order that has dominated global politics since the 1990s. This order promoted liberal democracy, open borders, the liberalization of laws governing trade and capital flows, human rights, and economic integration. Today we are witnessing the pushback: a vengeful form of nationalism that is undermining globalization. For example, the Trump Administration’s calls for “America first” policies are threatening global cooperation on climate and trade and causing Washington to take a back seat in this regional crisis. Brexit has undermined the momentum toward a supranational European state, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) could be the next casualty in this globalization versus resurgent nationalism conflict. What we are seeing in the Gulf is an extension of this weakening of supranational alliances, a struggle between the collective identity rationale for the GCC’s existence and individual national interests.
Time after time, material and ideological differences among these Muslim-majority nations has trumped calls for Muslim unity. Clearly, we must recognize that Muslim nations and their leaders have not been adept at establishing multi-national or even bi-national cooperative structures. A brief history lesson reveals as much: Independent Pakistan lasted for only twenty-four years before it split into Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1971; the United Arab Republic, a union of Egypt and Syria, lasted less than three years (1958-1961); and the current crisis in Yemen is partly due to the continued failure of the reunification process of North and South Yemen. This inability to unite is not unique to the region, however. The European Union (EU), for example, is reeling from Brexit and talks of a possible Frexit. The GCC’s collapse is just another consequence of the neoliberal order’s decline, one that is exasperated by the history of the Muslims’ failure to unite.
Regional Fears Driving the Crisis
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of whom fear Iran’s growing power and influence in the Middle East and in their own neighborhood, perceive political Islam (i.e., organizations ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to ISIS) as a threat to their security and stability. Egypt’s ongoing campaign to eliminate the Brotherhood, which has found new homes in Turkey and Qatar, is willing to go along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE if doing so helps protect the Egyptian regime. Qatar, on the other hand, does not feel threatened by either Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood.
For Saudi Arabia and its allies, Qatar has now become a “Typhoid Mary” in that it hosts many political viruses but is not infected by them. The Muslim Brotherhood, along with many of its affiliated scholars and activists, find a welcome host in Qatar. The organization demands regime change and the Islamization of politics from Syria to Egypt, but not in Qatar. Sheikh Qaradawi is quick to condemn other regimes, but is silent on Qatar. And thus Qatar remains immune to the political forces it hosts and nurtures, both of which are inimical to its former GCC and Sunni Arab allies. The source of this immunity is clear: It owns Al Jazeera and, by serving as a safe haven and an ATM machine for Islamists, ensures that their politics do not enter the country. Not surprisingly, shutting down Al Jazeera and expelling the Muslim Brotherhood were among the Saudi’s coalition early demands. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt view Islamists as a plague that must be exterminated, whereas Qatar sees them as tools for garnering a disproportionate amount of leverage in the region.
Unable to inoculate Qatar against the viruses that it hosts, Saudi Arabia and its allies chose the same solution that the doctors chose for Typhoid Mary: quarantine. The subsequent blockade and embargo raises the cost of challenging Saudi hegemony and, for the first-time ever, forces Doha to face the consequences of its foreign policy. For Saudi Arabia and its allies, this isolation may protect them from Qatar’s deadly viruses. Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to Washington, echoed this sentiment in a recent interview.
Winners and Losers
The Qatari crisis is having a fundamental impact on the Arab world’s existing order and will engender lasting consequences. While it is too early to predict the final outcome of this unfolding crisis, one can begin to assess who is winning and losing thus far.
At this point in the power play, it appears Qatar is the loser. The condemnation of its current foreign policy both within the GCC and the region has been resounding. Instead of making the State safer and more influential, as the Qataris had hoped, Doha’s support for the Arab Spring rebellions, the Muslim Brotherhood, the US military, Al Jazeera, and Hamas have transformed it into a pariah both in the GCC and the Arab world at large. Drawing closer to Iran and Turkey only adds fuel to the fire.
The US, which uses Qatar as a forward base for its Central Command, is doing little to alleviate the situation. The fact that Qatar’s recent troubles began after President Trump visited Saudi Arabia has led many commentators to argue that Saudi Arabia and the UAE actually enjoy Washington’s blessing. And while Qatar may temporarily enjoy Turkish and Iranian support, by drawing closer to Tehran Doha risks alienating itself further from Washington, increasing its isolation from its Gulf neighbors, and becoming more dependent upon Iran.
Saudi Arabia has been the biggest loser. Riyadh has spent many decades investing heavily in becoming the leader of the Muslim world – both religiously and economically – via the Islamic Development Bank and the Organization of Islamic Conferences, its primary pan-Islamic instruments. It sought to dominate its “near-abroad” through the GCC and to counteract Iran’s rise by working to create a Sunni coalition with Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, and the GCC. But now one merely has to look at who is supporting the Saudi embargo to realize how bare that particular cupboard is. Qatar’s continued intransigence and Pakistan’s public refusal to participate in the Saudi war against Yemen are all reminders that Riyadh’s power is on the wane and that its influence in the Muslim world continues to dwindle. The Saudi-imposed sanctions have only pushed Qatar further into Iran’s embrace; meanwhile Turkey’s alignment with Qatar has ended the fledgling Sunni alliance that Riyadh sought so desperately to forge.
For now, Turkey hardly benefits at all. In fact, Ankara’s support for Doha undermines its already strained relationship with the Arab states. Under President Erdogan, Ankara has sought to become an influential player in the Arab Middle East; however, it is now estranged from the two main Arab powers: Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Turkey’s bid for leadership in the Arab world has been reduced to containing the Kurds in Iraq and Syria and supplying groceries to Qatar, neither of which advances its leadership aspirations in the Muslim world, especially if its support of Qatar is neither decisive nor game-changing. In a way, this crisis serves as a reminder of how power is fragmenting in the Middle East in the absence of an accepted Sunni power that is able to lead or hold the region together.
Iran is the main winner so far, because Saudi Arabia has essentially opened the Gulf region to greater Iranian involvement and influence by driving Qatar into its eager embrace. The Iran-Qatar relationship also muddles the sectarian discourse coming from Saudi Arabia and Egypt by empowering Shia Iran to further involve itself in the affairs of Sunni nations. A new Iran-Qatar axis in the region, bankrolled by Qatar and assisted by Al Jazeera’s reach, only amplifies its influence in the Arab world. Now, through its economic ties in Dubai, Shia dissidents in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, an alliance with the Houthis in Yemen, and closer links with Qatar, Iran is increasingly encroaching upon the GCC’s realm.
For the US, the crisis once again exposes the Trump Administration’s lack of vision or strategy in terms of what role Washington should play in the region. Qatar is critical to the US’ regional military presence and its ability to both project power in Iraq and Syria and to deter Iran. Its base in Qatar also protects the area’s shipping lanes and reassures other regional allies who are afraid of Iran’s growing power and belligerence. And yet Washington is not exactly siding with Qatar. By foregoing the opportunity to intercede and guide Qatar in the recalibration of its foreign policy, Washington has effectively outsourced this project, thereby exposing the weakness of Saudi Arabia and allowing Qatar to move closer to Iran. The resulting power vacuum will prompt a heightened contest between Riyadh, Ankara, and Tehran as to who will play the role of regional overlord.
The US will continue to need the support of regional powers as it combats ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and other terrorist groups; to help keep failing states like Iraq and Syria from deteriorating even further; and to address more protracted issues like the Palestine-Israeli conflict. From a US perspective, if its Arab allies become weaker its own regional interests become less secure. Thus, it would behoove the Trump Administration to provide leadership in the region and take decisive steps to help resolve this crisis expeditiously. Before it can do that, however, the Administration must be clear about what exactly it wants to achieve. Until then, the region will continue its slow but inevitable disintegration and collapse. The Qatari crisis is just the tip of the iceberg.
Muqtedar Khan is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy. He also is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. Views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.