In early June, several major regional states abruptly severed ties with Qatar, closing land borders, air-transit corridors and seaborne access to the Peninsula, sparking an apocalyptic rush on supermarkets and diplomatic chaos in the small-but-wealthy nation. While the intensity of the embargo is certainly surprising, this is the second diplomatic exile of Qatar from the GCC in three years and simply underlines the historical incompatibility of Doha with the wider GCC. While Riyadh has issued a list of complaints which it says Doha must address to see the embargo lifted, the reality is that the GCC is a flawed experiment that is unlikely to ever be the “Arabian Five-Eyes” that Saudi Arabia hopes.
On June 5th, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut ties with Qatar, claiming that Doha’s attempts to leverage its huge hydrocarbons wealth into heavyweight diplomatic prowess was fueling extremism throughout the region. Shortly after, other states in the GCC’s orbit severed or downgraded relations.
This crisis appears to have been specifically prompted by reports that Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the Qatari leader, had made critical remarks against the United States while espousing support for Iran, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatari officials quickly denied the reports, claiming that hackers had planted the story on state media sites. In the weeks before those reports, Qatar is also believed to have played a significant role in a land-swap deal in Syria which saw a large cash payment delivered to an Iranian-backed Shi’a militant group in Iraq.
While these incidents may have been the final straw, the reality is that Qatar has long been a poor fit for the GCC experiment. A recent release by Wikileaks shows a 2003 diplomatic cable containing a reference to an earlier request by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed that the United States “bomb” the al Jazeera news station in Qatar during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. While this request was likely to be humorous in nature, it neatly highlights the enduring frustration that many of the Arab powers have with al Jazeera, which as the largest Arabic-language news network holds significant influence over regional populations.
Running most deeply throughout all of this contentious history, however, is the looming issue of Iran.
Beyond regional media influence, the Qatari government has repeatedly been accused of provided financial support to the Islamic State militant group. While Doha has vigorously denied these allegations, Qatar – alongside other GCC states – has given money and weapons to hardline Islamist factions fighting the Assad regime in Syria, with accusations that the al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham has been one such beneficiary. The Islamist Afghan Taliban also maintains an office in Doha, and Qatar has been instrumental in negotiations between the Taliban and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (the country’s internationally recognised government).
This has long been an uneasy state of affairs for Riyadh, which has aspirations of forging the GCC (and wider Sunni-Islamic world) into a close-knit military, political and economic alliance. While Saudi Arabia also supports Islamist groups in Syria, it expects that its GCC neighbours would only support the same “approved” groups and avoid providing materiel to groups which have criticised the Gulf monarchies or attempted to import jihadi activity onto the Arabian Peninsula.
This has much to do with the fact that Doha has, since the bloodless coup that saw Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani take power in a bloodless coup in 1995, pursued a policy of transforming itself from a Saudi satrapy into what al Thani sees as a Saudi near-peer rival. In 1992, a border clash with Saudi Arabia over disputed stretches of the frontier left two Qatari soldiers dead. In 1994, when Yemen once more broke into civil war, Qatar and Saudi Arabia backed opposing sides. Although in Yemen’s latest civil war both Riyadh and Doha have (until this latest dispute) cooperated, this long history of diplomatic antagonism has positioned Qatar as a thorn in the Arabian Peninsula’s side. Qatar began cultivating trade relations with Israel, much to Riyadh’s annoyance. The nation also saw the establishment of a large American military base, in part a strategy by Doha to counterbalance Saudi Arabia’s significantly larger native military.
Running most deeply throughout all of this contentious history, however, is the looming issue of Iran. Doha maintains relatively good relations with Tehran, with Qatar being the only UN Security Council member (in a temporary membership position in 2006) to vote against UNSC Resolution 1696, which demanded that Iran to halt its nuclear program. Qatar and Iran also share the South Pars Gas field; the world’s largest natural gas site. While Riyadh could likely tolerate this friendliness with Iran while Tehran stood isolated and firmly under the United States’ hawkish gaze, following the JCPOA deal that saw Iran begin global diplomatic reintegration in 2013, Saudi Arabia has seen Iran as a more significantly threatening existential adversary than ever before. As a result, and with the war in Yemen against Iranian proxies progressing poorly and nearby Bahrain already in a barely-contained state of supposedly Iranian-sponsored Shi’a revolt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE now find themselves unwilling to offer further gains on the Gulf’s southern coast.
The last GCC-Qatari split, which occurred in 2014 surrounding similar GCC concerns with Qatari foreign policy, saw a GCC statement suggesting that Doha was not abiding by “a November 2013 agreement not to back anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC whether as groups or individuals—via direct security work or through political influence, and not to support hostile media.” The 2014 dispute lasted 9 months, but did not escalate thanks to the mediating role of some of the region’s more neutral powers. Kuwait in particular mediated the 2014 dispute, and is taking the same role in the current crisis. Despite Kuwait’s ability to mediate and temporarily mend the 2014 rift, at this point it appears that the GCC is not only broken, but incompatible with Qatar’s outsize foreign policy ambitions.
Lewis Sage-Passant is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific in a variety of geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently focuses on MENA-region geopolitical and security analysis.
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Photo credit: Jaseem Hamza