A year has passed since the Qatar News Agency was hacked and implanted with ‘fake news’. Ten days later this hacking was followed by the diplomatic and economic embargo of Qatar by four regional states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt. The element of surprise strategy applied by the Quartet was intended to shock the Qatari government into acceding to their demands. Now, one year later this approach is misplaced as Qatar proved more resilient than anticipated. Rather than isolating Qatar regionally and internationally, the crisis has widened the cracks in the Gulf into a chasm and has generated unintended consequences that risk inflicting generational damage on its political and social fabric. As with the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990, the blockade of Qatar is an era-rupturing event that will reverberate through the regional politics and international relations of the Gulf for years to come.
Evolving Threat Perceptions
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was formed in 1981 largely in response to regional security threats triggered by the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. The six states that came together in Abu Dhabi to form the GCC often differed in their foreign policy outlook. The five smallest Gulf States shared varying degrees of wariness toward Saudi Arabia, reflecting in part a history of border disputes. For example, Kuwait was put under Saudi blockade in the 1920s and 1930s, Oman and Abu Dhabi had territorial disputes with Saudi Arabia from the 1950s to the 1970s, and as recently as 1992 and 1993 skirmishes occurred on the Saudi-Qatari border. Simmering unease in smaller Gulf capitals at the prospect of Saudi domination of GCC structures hampered attempts to construct collective military and security policies such as the Peninsula Shield Force or a common internal security agreement.
And yet, throughout the three major wars in the Gulf – the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), the Gulf War (1991), and the war and subsequent US-led occupation of Iraq (2003-11), the GCC remained a bastion of relative stability in a region gripped by conflict and insecurity. During this tumultuous period, all six GCC states retained a common threat perception enabling them to overcome instances of intra-GCC friction, such as Saudi and Emirati attempts to reverse the 1995 succession of Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani or the Emirati walkout from the planned GCC monetary union in 2010 after Riyadh was chosen over Abu Dhabi as the site of the prospective GCC central bank. Indeed, GCC states have always worked best together in the face of external threats that draw together the six ruling families’ common interest in political survival – evidenced by the decision in 2011 to revive and dispatch the Peninsula Shield Force to Bahrain to assist in the restoration of order and the creation of a $10 billion GCC fund to assist Bahrain and Oman in the wake of Arab Spring unrest.
Qatar participated in the deployment of force to Bahrain and – along with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE – pledged $2.5 billion to the GCC fund in 2011. However, Qatar’s response to Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa, Syria and its perceived support for Islamist movements in particular, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and its regionwide affiliates, caused mounting alarm in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In 2012, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (‘MBZ’) spearheaded a sweeping crackdown – unprecedented in UAE history – on individuals associated with Al-Islah, an Emirati Islamist group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Then in July 2013, the UAE and Saudi Arabia (together with Kuwait) responded almost immediately to the toppling of Egypt’s (Qatar-backed) Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, with political and financial support to General and later President Abd el-Fattah El-Sisi’s government, ultimately exceeding $20 billion.
The two iterations of the Qatar dispute – the nine-month withdrawal of the Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati Ambassadors from Doha in 2014 and the blockade that began in 2017 – have shredded any lingering illusions of a common threat perception in Gulf security. Saudi Arabia and the UAE designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in March 2014 and, with Bahrain, withdrew their Ambassadors from Qatar in the name of regional security and stability. Their action came three months after a showdown in Riyadh when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia demanded Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to sign a document pledging ‘non-interference’ in neighboring countries’ affairs and to ‘change Qatar’s ways.’ For its part, the Qatari leadership observed that the pressure began within weeks of the handover of rulership in June 2013 that suggested, not unreasonably, that the Al Thani were subject to a Saudi and Emirati power play against a young and untested Emir Tamim as he settled into power.
For the Gulf States as well as the institutions of the GCC, the legacy of the 2014 and 2017 disputes are as profound as they are polarizing. Ties of trust and confidence have been shattered on both sides of the divide as positions have hardened and a ‘zero-sum’ mentality has taken root. Just as Qataris ask themselves if they should ever trust their immediate neighbors again, leaders of the ‘GCC-3’ of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE remain convinced that Qatar violated the agreement that settled the 2014 dispute and would do the same again if given another chance. Kuwaiti and Omani officials watch on, uneasily aware that they too could be vulnerable to regionally-assertive Saudi and Emirati pressure when they undergo eventual leadership transitions of their own. Equally concerning, these two observing nations do not necessarily welcome the way the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi are redefining Gulf politics around a hyper-hawkish axis that appears to have little tolerance for the autonomy that for years has characterized Kuwaiti and Omani (and Qatari) foreign policy. As for the GCC, twice in three years it has been unable to prevent three of its members from turning on a fourth and has been bypassed at every stage of the crisis – from the formulation of grievances to mediation.
Social and Economic Implications
The ways the Qatar crisis has played out have had two overarching implications for social and economic relations in the Gulf, which historically have been inextricably linked through tribal, marriage, and commercial ties, crossing national boundaries and binding together the peoples of the region. The first is the anti-Qatar Quartet’s attempts to meddle in and manipulate tribal and ruling family dynamics to undermine social and political cohesion and drive a wedge into state-society relations in Qatar. The second is the blockade’s effect on local trade routes and, in response, Qatar’s accelerated diversification of economic partnerships. Both developments have targeted the heart of Gulf society’s social and economic fabric, and reversed the GCC’s most impressive and tangible economic achievements in its 36-year history.
From the beginning of the crisis media outlets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have promoted various Qatari ‘opposition’ figures, both imagined and real, and attempted to play the ‘tribal card’ by offering incentives and inducements to powerful tribes whose brethren span the Qatar/anti-Qatar divide. Several days before the diplomatic rupture with Qatar on June 5, 2017, Saudi and Emirati newspapers ran excerpts from an ‘interview’ with Saud bin Nasser Al Thani, almost certainly a fictitious character whom they claimed was planning to set up an opposition political party based in London. Three months later, the UAE heavily promoted Khalid al-Hail, another ‘opposition leader’ who did in fact exist and put on a one-day conference in London that was followed soon after by another in Washington, DC.
While the sponsored opposition events were at best a distraction, the efforts to promote two pretenders to Qatari leadership were more serious. The claims to power of Abdulla bin Ali Al Thani and Sultan bin Suhaim Al Thani were tenuous at best and relied upon an interpretation of counterfactual ‘what-ifs’ that stretched back to the 1970s. Advancing them as alternative Emirs implied a rejection of the entire period of Qatari leadership after 1972, when Emir Tamim’s grandfather, Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, had taken power from Abdulla bin Ali’s older half-brother. Moreover, the fact that both Abdulla bin Ali and Sultan bin Suhaim had close links with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and had not lived in Qatar for years further delegitimized them in many eyes. The ham-fisted attempts to interfere in ruling family matters had the paradoxical effect of strengthening and unifying the Al Thani – historically one of the more fractious in the Gulf with a record of internal schisms – against such external meddling.
Each of the ruling families in the Gulf, with the partial exception of Oman, contain multiple branches and sub-branches whose fortunes have risen and fallen over time. Trying to manipulate the balance of power within Qatar’s Al Thani family could have brought the Saudis and Emiratis short-term gain had it succeeded, but would have set a dangerous precedent that could one day blow back against their own interests.
The blockade has also created human hardships in a region where many enjoyed extended cross-border familial ties and have since faced restrictions on visitation that have been criticized by international human rights groups such as Amnesty International. Collective memories are being formed on both sides of the divide that will be hard to dislodge or overcome due to the sheer intensity of the campaign of vilification against each other.
Aside from the human impact of the political standoff between governments, the blockade has struck a dagger at the heart of the freedom of movement for citizens and goods that until 2017 was one of the hallmarks of the GCC’s decades-long move toward a common market which became operational in 2008. Here again, the Quartet appears to have miscalculated the impact of its blockade on Qatar which – rather than yielding to pressure – instead accelerated existing plans to localize production and diversify economic and trading routes. Prior to the blockade Qatar imported around four-fifths of its food across its only land border (with Saudi Arabia) or by ships that called first at ports in the UAE, but acted very quickly to put new logistical arrangements in place. Trade volumes between Qatar and Oman surged by 144% in 2017 as Qatari-bound shipping was rerouted through Omani ports while bilateral trade with Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan also increased significantly in the aftermath of the blockade.
Changing Regional Dynamics
The strengthening of bilateral relations with extra-regional partners is, on the surface, nothing new, as it has long been a feature of individual GCC states’ decision-making, especially when it came to trade and defense agreements. Saudi policymakers, for example, reacted with fury in 2004 when Bahrain broke ranks with the GCC and negotiated a bilateral Free Trade Agreement with the United States and accused the Government of Bahrain of putting national considerations ahead of the collective GCC interest. There were, nevertheless, signs that the GCC was getting its act together and moving toward a collective position on key issues during, ironically, the Obama presidency which several Gulf leaders came to despise. The Obama administration made concerted efforts to engage and coordinate policy with the GCC as a bloc, particularly on defense and security policy, and in 2013 President Obama issued a presidential determination making it possible, for the first time, for the US to sell arms to the GCC as a bloc.
In December 2014, the GCC Summit – held in Doha shortly after the resolution of the first round of the Qatar diplomatic row – laid out plans to create a GCC police force (‘GCC-Pol) to be based in Abu Dhabi, a joint naval force to operate from Bahrain, and a joint military command. None of these plans had come to fruition before 2017 but every GCC state except Oman committed troops to the Saudi-led coalition that launched military operations in Yemen in April 2015. This included Qatar, whose armed forces incurred casualties defending the Saudi border from attacks by Houthi militants operating from Yemen, but were unceremoniously expelled from the Saudi-led coalition in the wake of the June 2017 blockade.
The war in Yemen grinds on, seemingly without any military or political resolution in sight, although it has evolved primarily into a fight led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and has resulted in an unofficial carve-up of Yemen into Saudi and Emirati spheres of influence, not necessarily fully compatible with one another. As with the Yemen war there is a sense that Saudi and Emirati decision-makers triggered the blockade of Qatar without having a clear idea of a Plan B if the initial ‘shock and awe’ failed to yield a decisive outcome. Although President Donald Trump has long since abandoned his initial support for the blockade and has swung round to support a resolution of the Gulf crisis, the White House is discovering that it does not have the leverage over its partners in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to get them to even sit at the table with Doha. Having pushed heavily for a diplomatic process that would have culminated in a GCC-US meeting at Camp David in May, the plan felt apart when Mohammed bin Salman told Trump that the Qatar issue would be resolved within the GCC and Mohammed bin Zayed cancelled his visit to the White House altogether.
A year in and the crisis is stuck, with little prospect of a breakthrough if none of the parties are willing to consider how and where they might make concessions to result in a compromise agreement. The impasse in the Gulf has become the first international crisis of the era of ‘alternative facts’ in which the distinction between real and fake news has become more blurred than ever before. A stream of allegations – derived, ironically, from a hacked email account – has documented how intermediaries associated with Saudi and Emirati interests seemingly targeted the incoming Trump administration as it took office in early-2017. The political naivete of some of the neophyte advisers to the president fed a perception that the administration could be nudged to pursue policies favorable to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and detrimental to Qatar, with the president’s tweet praising the blockade the day after it was imposed a case in point. The challenge now for US policymakers is that having facilitated, however unwittingly, some of the forces that culminated in the attempt to isolate Qatar, they are finding it far harder to row them back.
President Trump may have flipped back in support of the US-Qatar strategic partnership but his sudden hostility in June 2017 shocked officials in Doha and other Gulf capitals who had come to view the US partnership as a bedrock of their defense and security arrangements. The president’s (temporary) willingness to throw Qatar under the bus, coupled with other aspects of his mercurial style of decision-making, have raised questions about the reliability of the United States as a long-term partner. Trump’s unpredictability has highlighted the utility of diversifying security and defense relationships and ensuring that states are no longer over-dependent on any one partner. Although the UAE began to broaden its defense relationships in the 2000s, the events of the past year are likely to accelerate and expand this process moving beyond Western participants to encompass Turkey and Russia as well.
For over a century, Gulf security has been underwritten by Britain until 1971 and the United States since the 1980s, with a ‘lost decade’ in the 1970s serving as a reminder of the perils facing small states lacking powerful external security guarantors while trying to survive in a volatile, conflict-prone region. Indeed, it was the events of that dangerous decade that had prompted the Gulf States to come together and create the GCC in 1981 after several previous attempts had faltered. The value of Western security and political partnerships became clear in 1990 when President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker denounced the Iraqi invasion and mobilized an international coalition to liberate Kuwait. This makes the widespread view that it was not the US, but Turkey who stepped in to prevent any prospect of Saudis and Emiratis launching military action against Qatar in June 2017, a major departure from the regional norm.
Thickening strategic relationships with Turkey and European states such as Britain, which is expanding its military presence in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman are one manifestation of these changing dynamics, as is the expansion of Russia’s presence in the region. It will not have been lost on observers of Gulf politics that Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone with Emir Tamim of Qatar on the same day last June that Donald Trump’s presidential tweet pitched the basis of the US-Qatari relationship into doubt. Russian commercial and security interests in the Gulf have grown considerably in recent years, despite international sanctions on Russian entities and individuals close to President Putin. This would certainly align with Russia’s apparent objective of weakening Western political and security partnerships if the hitherto rock-solid web of US partnerships in the Gulf weakened or fragmented. While the Gulf crisis does not signify the end of US interests in the region, moving forward there will be a greater proliferation of participants and agendas coexisting and inevitably competing in a more crowded and potentially more antagonistic arena.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Ph.D., Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
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