A brewing conflict among the rulers of the Persian Gulf region reached a crisis stage in early June when Saudi Arabia led other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in cutting ties with Qatar. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain have halted all land, air and sea traffic with Qatar, ended diplomatic ties and ordered to Qatari citizens to leave. With 40 percent of Qatar’s food supply coming over the border from Saudi Arabia, there are fears of shortages of food and water.
Qatar is a small but very wealthy nation on a peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf. It shares a single land border with Saudi Arabia to the south and west, and lies across the Gulf from Iran to the east and the small island nation of Bahrain to the north and west.
Qatar stands accused of supporting Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies hold responsible for fomenting terrorism and instability. In reality, the Saudi autocracy has led the way in crushing pro-democracy movements and pursuing a sectarian conflict with its chief regional rival, Iran, that is at the root of war and suffering in the Middle East. Qatar has supported some movements that Saudi Arabia opposes and leans toward Iran in aspects of the regional conflict, though Qatar also has close ties to the U.S., as the site of some of the Pentagon’s most important overseas bases.
Gilbert Achcar is a socialist who grew up in Lebanon and author of numerous books, including Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising. He wrote this analysis untangling the sources of the conflict for the Qatari-owned newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi. It appeared in English at The Arabist website. The translation is credited to Industry Arabic and was revised by the author at SW’s request.
TO UNDERSTAND the violent campaign launched by the Saudi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahraini and Egyptian governments against Qatar, we must look beyond the trivialities of the Qatari ransom money allegedly paid in Iraq and the charges leveled against Qatar of supporting terrorism. Such charges lose all credibility when they come from actors that have, for decades, engaged in just that. We must return to the scene before the Arab Spring and how it was affected by the Great Uprising.
During the reign of Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emirate of Qatar took an approach to regional affairs not unlike Kuwait’s after it declared independence from Britain in 1961. The announcement outraged the Republic of Iraq, which demanded the Emirate be restored as part of its territory. But Kuwait benefited from the tension that existed between Iraq, under the leadership of Abd el-Karim Qasim and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in order to secure Arab acceptance of Kuwait’s independence, in addition to British-provided protection. To deter its Iraqi neighbor from annexation ambitions, Kuwait pursued since then a policy of Arab neutrality, maintaining good relations with the two poles of what was called “the Arab Cold War”: Egypt and the Saudi kingdom.
The similarity is that Qatar, as is well known, has a historically strained relationship with its Saudi neighbor, particularly since declaring independence from Britain in 1971. After seizing power in 1995, Emir Hamad pursued a policy that sought to make up for the emirate’s small size by reinforcing ties with the two main axes of regional conflict as they emerged after the extensive deployment of U.S. troops in the Gulf: the United States and the Republic of Iran. Qatar thus managed to simultaneously host (and fund) the United States’ most important regional air base and cultivate cozy relations with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The policy of good relations with opposing forces also manifested itself in Qatar establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, while also supporting Hamas.
Qatar’s role during the reign of Emir Hamad was not limited however to cultivating good relations with different parties in the Kuwaiti way, which is neutral and passive, but it also used its considerable wealth to play an active role in regional politics by sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudi kingdom had rescinded its support to the Brotherhood, after sponsoring it since its inception in 1928, due to the latter’s opposition to American intervention in the Kuwait-Iraq crisis in 1990. The weight of Qatar’s political role greatly increased with the establishment of the Al Jazeera TV network, which resonated with Arab audiences by welcoming Arab voices of opposition, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.
SO WHEN the volcano of the Great Arab Uprising erupted in 2011, Qatar was able to play a major role through its patronage of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Jazeera. As a result, the two poles of the conflict that dominated the Arab world since then—the old regime and the Islamic fundamentalist opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood—found support in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). While Saudi Arabia supported the old regime throughout the region—with the exception of Libya where it remained neutral and Syria where the sectarian factor produced an alliance between the Assad regime and Iran—Qatar supported the uprisings, especially where the Brotherhood was involved, except for fellow GCC member Bahrain, for obvious reasons. The conflict between the Emirate and the Kingdom became obvious since the onset of the “Arab Spring” with Qatar’s support for the Tunisian uprising contrasting with Saudi political asylum to deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The Obama administration saw Qatar as a means to ward off the danger of a radicalization of the Arab uprising that would threaten U.S. interests. So it played both sides, at times supporting the old regime with the Saudis (as in Bahrain), and at others, trying to contain the uprisings with Qatar through the Muslim Brotherhood and its associates (like in Tunisia and Egypt). But Qatar’s role in urging Washington to adopt a policy of flirting with the uprisings was a cause of Saudi indignation, and outraged the United Arab Emirates, which had designated the Muslim Brotherhood as its public enemy number one. The pressure that the two Gulf countries exerted on Qatar escalated after the great defeat of Qatari bets on the Muslim Brotherhood that became clear when the Egyptian army overthrew President Mohamed Morsi and violently suppressed the Brotherhood. That came at the same moment as Emir Hamad’s decision to step down in place of his son, the current emir, Tamim, only to see Gulf pressure reach its first peak in 2014 to force the new emir to change course.
After that peak, it seemed that the Gulf conflict had come to an end. Through the accord of the three Gulf states in supporting the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, which strained relations between Qatar (and with it, the Muslim Brotherhood) and Iran—and, later, Qatar’s participation in the military campaign against the alliance between Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis in Yemen, all against the backdrop of a new king ascending to the Saudi throne—it seemed as if concord between GCC members was possible. This trend was reinforced by the Saudi kingdom’s pursuit for a while of a Sunni consensus against Iran that includes the Muslim Brotherhood, and coincided with tension between Riyadh and Cairo. This trend also aligned perfectly with the politics of the Obama administration.
However, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States changed the equation. The new president is a supporter of a confrontational policy of opposition to change and revolution in the Arab region. He is also extremely hostile to Iran and a close friend of Israel. Some of his key advisers want to classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, concurring in this with the UAE, as evidenced by recently uncovered correspondence of its ambassador to Washington. This fundamental change in the equation led the Saudi kingdom to reconcile with al-Sisi’s Egypt. Together, accompanied by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, they launched the current frenzied attack on Qatar to impose a radical change in its policy.
Thus, the latest episode of the Great Arab Uprising’s relapse and the counterattack launched by the ancien régime across the region, supported in most arenas by the Gulf axis and by Iran in Syria and Yemen, is almost complete. But a new wave of revolution will inevitably surge sooner or later (indeed, its harbingers are already visible in Morocco and Tunisia). When it will break out, there won’t be anyone able to contain it, and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may well regret eliminating Qatar’s role in this regard.
* First published in English at The Arabist (https://arabist.net/blog/