Third annual Katara Dhow Festival at Katara Cultural Village, in Doha, Qatar.

Bridging Gulfs: Qatar’s New Alliances

The Arabian Peninsula remains in the grip of a major breakdown in Gulf Cooperation Council relations. Qatar remains isolated from the other Council members, and it appears that the crisis will continue for the foreseeable future. While Saudi Arabia had likely hoped to reign in Qatar’s foreign policy ambitions with the blockade, it now looks as if the reverse is true, with Doha being pushed closer to Iran and Turkey. Russia and the United States are now seeing the effects of Qatar’s search for alternative geopolitical alliances, and Riyadh may be forced to reconsider its position.

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In recent days, Qatar’s ambassador to Russia issued a statement suggesting that Doha is currently negotiating the purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system. The S-400 Triumf (NATO designator “Growler/SA-21”) is a highly advanced surface-to-air system produced by Kremlin defence supplier Almaz-Antey, with a range of 400 km and engagement ceiling of 30 km. It can simultaneously engage 36 targets, as well as conducting a variety of other taskings such as electronic warfare, radar picketing and ballistic missile interception. The S-400 has proven increasingly popular in the region, with both Turkey and Saudi Arabia having surprised their U.S. allies by purchasing the system in recent months.

Qatar is most likely attempting to mitigate the effects of the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) blockade through increased defensive readiness and by matching Saudi Arabian capabilities, while also possibly hoping to create new diplomatic ties with Moscow. Qatar’s military capabilities are likely to continue to grow as the peninsula nation weathers its stalled relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other previous allies, and faces the highly unlikely (but not impossible) threat of military action from the GCC.

Moscow has displayed significant interest in expanding trade and economic cooperation with Qatar throughout the ongoing GCC crisis, potentially seeing an opportunity to intercept a portion of the United States’ armament market share and subsequent diplomatic influence in the region, while simultaneously bolstering Iranian influence along Saudi Arabia’s borders. This strategy would be reflective of Russia’s more assertive defence industry mobilisation globally, and Russia claims that as many as ten Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian nations are in negotiations to purchase Moscow’s air defense systems. Qatar’s relations with Russia and Iran are expected to continue growing ever closer, especially given the isolated nation’s new dependence on Iranian food imports, which will almost certainly draw further condemnation from GCC neighbours who fear another Iranian beachhead south of the Gulf.

Iran and Qatar restored formal diplomatic relations in August of last year. This followed a major deepening of the crisis, following a visit by Sheikh Abdullah al Thani – a minor member of the Qatari royal household, to the Saudi ruler King Salman at his holiday villa in Morocco. This visit coincided with rumours and reports that Riyadh was preparing to orchestrate a coup in Doha, and prompted Qatar to re-engage with Iran after almost two years of silence. The news of the diplomatic restoration between the two nations was received with outrage in the GCC, and represented the first sign that the blockade was failing to punitively push Qatar back into alignment with the bloc’s foreign policy trajectory.

In the days after the S-400 announcement, Qatar and Oman agreed to boost trade relations between the two countries, particularly regarding the production and export of food products. Oman – one of the region’s more staunchly impartial players – has historically enjoyed stable relations with Qatar and remains a neutral party in the ongoing GCC dispute. Muscat has contributed to Kuwait’s attempts to mediate a negotiated solution to the crisis, however in the visible absence of seasoned mediator Sultan Qaboos, these efforts have been unsuccessful. Oman has played a key role in rerouting food shipments to Qatar throughout the crisis, and as such Doha is likely seeking to further cement this crucial relationship.

Strategic dialogue between Qatar and the U.S. is also due to take place this week, with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State for Defence Affairs, Dr Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah, Minister of Energy and Industry Dr Mohammed bin Saleh Al Sada, and Minister of Finance Ali Shareef Al Emadi all arriving in Washington D.C. to meet with their U.S. counterparts. Reports have already emerged from the dialogue that Dr Al Attiyah has suggested that Qatar will expand the Al Udeid air base, home to some 10,000 U.S. military personnel. The potential expansion of the base is likely to be met with concern from Saudi Arabia, however, the U.S. will likely move to manage any Saudi concerns to preserve its longstanding alliance with Riyadh. These reports appear similar to those circulated earlier this month, which suggested that Turkey would also significantly expand its military presence in Qatar as part of a regional plan to deploy an additional 60,000 soldiers throughout the Middle East by 2022.

Overall a new pattern appears to be emerging in Qatari foreign policy, with Doha courting multiple allies in the face of the GCC crisis. This is unsurprising given the peninsula nation’s strategically tenuous position, being cut off by land, sea and air from its closest neighbours and former allies. Militarily, the nation’s small population is significantly outmatched by the GCC forces, despite maintaining similarly advanced stocks of high end Western equipment. As a result, it is likely that Doha now recognises the crucial importance of stationing international forces in the country. The U.S. deployment at Al Udeid is the most critical element here, as Washington would be unlikely to tolerate actions by Saudi Arabia (a close ally) that would risk destabilising both a key ally and the geographical home of its largest base in the world’s most turbulent region.

Turkey’s presence in Qatar, while diplomatically less impactful than that of the U.S., is militarily significant. Ankara has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to ignore U.S. foreign policy ambitions locally, and in its recent efforts to reassert itself as a regional superpower has shown a readiness to engage in outright military skirmishes. A Turkish-Saudi engagement over Qatar is not unthinkable, and as a result the presence of Ankara’s troops on the peninsula is likely to act as a restraining influence should the GCC crisis start creeping towards military actions.

The end result is growing ever clearer; although Saudi Arabia sought to bring Qatar closer into alignment with its own foreign policy, the heavy-handed approach to the GCC crisis has pushed Doha in the opposite direction. The continuing blockade and diplomatic isolation of the small peninsula nation – incapable of feeding or watering its outsize population domestically- has combined with Qatar’s surprising financial resilience to the crisis to embolden the nation to seek out alternative allies. While this has pushed Qatar to seek closer ties with traditional allies such as the U.S. and Oman, it has also set it into a closer orbit with Iran and Turkey, which is likely to frustrate Riyadh’s regional strategies.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies in the GCC must now reconsider their strategy if they still hope to reign in Qatar and avoid another Iranian enclave on the near-side of the Gulf. While it may be too late to change Doha’s course, the current strategy is a clear failure.

Suggested reading list on this topic:

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Paul Trafford

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