Why Now? Understanding Qatar’s Diplomatic Crisis
Qatar has always been a bit different. It’s a Gulf State, which is to say that it is majority Sunni, extravagantly rich, and supported almost entirely by a booming oil and natural gas industry. On the other hand, it has clashed with the rest of the Gulf States time and time again. During the Arab Spring, it was the only Gulf state to support the protests that sprang up across the regions. In Egypt and Tunisia, it supported the Muslim Brotherhood, which all the other Gulf States had designated a terrorist group. In Syria, it broke ranks and supported an assortment of rebel groups that even Saudi Arabia wouldn’t touch. The Saudis punished these deviations from its foreign policy orthodoxy by first withdrawing their ambassador in 2014, and then withdrawing their ambassador and declaring an embargo this June. These clashes are less about who supports terrorists or not and more about whether or not Qatar will have an independent foreign policy or be just another Saudi satellite.
For the past century and a half or so, Qatar didn’t really have a foreign policy of its own. It was a British protectorate until 1971, and, after Britain pulled out, Qatar was practically destined to become a Saudi satellite. With less land, a smaller population, and a smaller, less developed oil and natural gas industry, there was no way Qatar could resist. And though Qatar is rich, its fortunes are mostly new money—it’s the Gatsby of the region if you will. Most alarmingly from the Qatari point of view, 40 percent of the food, water, and other consumer products Qataris depend on comes through their border with Saudi Arabia. This puts their resource supplies at the mercy of Saudi Arabia.
Qatar’s dependence on other nations is made worse by its reliance on Iran, Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical and religious arch-nemesis. Unlike Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, other Saudi satellites on the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar depends on Iran’s goodwill as much as it depends on Saudi Arabia’s. The natural gas deposits that power Qatar’s export industry are either shared with or right along their border with Iran, and the majority of Qatari trade passes through the Straits of Hormuz, which Iran controls. Qatar’s interests are wedged between the interests of these two powers; should they anger the Saudis, the Saudis can severely damage their economy; if they anger the Iranians, the Iranians can cripple it. If the Saudis and Iranians agreed with one another, this wouldn’t be a problem. However, they don’t. In fact, they disagree on just about everything, and especially religion. Trapped between two mortal enemies, Qatar’s foreign policy is the world’s most dangerous tightrope act.
This tightrope act all began in 1995, under the reign of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa. Before that point, Qatar had no real foreign policy of its own. It was a client state to first the British Empire and then to Saudi Arabia, who had entire control over their foreign policy and substantial influence over their domestic policy. Hamad, inspired by the international coalition that formed after Kuwait was attacked, set out to craft a new foreign policy. His goal was to make Qatar the Switzerland of the Arabian Peninsula. That is, he wanted Qatar to act as a neutral country that trades with everyone and is so known for its neutrality that it is called to arbitrate disputes. Whether by creating commercial ties, strategic ties, or some combination of the two, he intended to intertwine the interests of other nations so closely with the prosperity and continued existence of Qatar that they would stand up for it when it was in need.
Qatar’s didn’t have a particularly hard time doing that, at the start. It was, and is, economically and strategically important enough to attract a substantial amount of interest from around the world. After Russia and Iran, they have the largest natural gas reserves in the world and are the leading exporter of liquid natural gas. More importantly, they are the largest producer of natural gas that is currently on good terms with the West, selling large amounts of gas to countries from the United Kingdom to Japan. Besides these economic ties, Qatar also has great strategic importance to both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Its position allows it to threaten Iran’s oil fields or Saudi Arabia’s internal stability, depending on who it allies with, giving them both a substantial interest in ensuring the other doesn’t make Qatar a client state.
Throughout the 90’s and the 00’s, Qatar’s policy built on those natural advantages while doing their best to seem impartial. Qatar never made a strong commitment to anyone, always hedging their bets with overtures to their erstwhile ally’s competitors. Following Saudi Arabia’s lead during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they allowed U.S. forces to use the country as a staging point but coordinated natural gas production with Iran as well. That same year, Qatar coaxed U.S. Central Air Command over to a billion-dollar compound they had built for that purpose in 1996, but in 2010, they coordinated with officers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to arrange military drills. They joined the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIS while continuing to either fund ISIS directly or routing money to its affiliates. By 2010, the Qatari government had essentially achieved their goal: Qatar traded with just about every nation, was needed by several others, and, as a bonus, Qatar controlled a somewhat respected news outlet in the form of Al-Jazeera, which it could use to influence other nations.
After spending sixteen years establishing themselves as the neutral power of the Middle East, Qatar abruptly changed their policy. During the Arab Spring, Qatar threw its weight behind the protesters, who later become rebels. From sending arms and funding to Libyan militias to dedicating countless hours of Al-Jazeera airtime to interviewing protesters, militia leaders, and rebel commanders, they used every means possible to provide comfort and aid to groups that sought to overthrow their own governments. It seemed as if they had committed themselves to backing challenges to the status quo, wherever and whenever they might emerge. Further worsening this image problem, they embraced the Muslim Brotherhood, ignoring the fact that almost every other Gulf State regarded it as a terrorist group. When the various protest movements failed or the governments they founded dissolved, Qatar was left with no new allies and quite a few bitter neighbors.Foreshadowing of the current crisis, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE recalled their ambassadors for eight months. The ambassadors eventually returned after Qatar bowed out and agreed to stop supporting the rebels—especially the Muslim Brotherhood— and pledged to cooperate more closely with Saudi Arabia.
Even though that crisis was resolved peacefully, the damage was done. Once a nation stops being neutral, it can’t turn around a decide it wants to be neutral again. From the Arab Spring on, every action Qatar took was scrutinized for hostile intent, rather than being shrugged off as a reliably unreliable nation hedging its bets. Another conflict was more or less inevitable, at that point, barring a sudden willingness from the Qatari government to abandon two decades of independent foreign policy. To the Saudis, “cooperating more closely” meant doing as they did on the world stage; any independent action, or even Qatar’s previous hedging of bets, would seem a violation of that promise and a cause for further conflict.
About a month and a half ago, after about a year and a half of Qatar following Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, this “alliance” collapsed. On June 5, the Saudis instigated another diplomatic crisis, demanding even closer cooperation and that Qatar cut ties with the “terrorist groups” it still funds. According to their initial statement, they wanted to force Qatar to cut its ties with “terrorist groups” once and for all; according to their 12 demands, they want Qatar to effectively go back to being a client state. Despite whatever claims to the contrary the Saudis might make, there is no other way to interpret demand 11, the demand for monthly compliance audits for the next ten years. Demand 12 makes this even clearer by referencing the “2014 agreement,” which essentially amounted to following Saudi Arabian policy, or else.
No one really knows for certain why the Saudis chose to act now. While pundits have speculated that it might have something to do with a deal Qatar struck with Iran, or perhaps with their continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a simpler interpretation would be that it’s just power politics. Crown Prince bin Salman, now in charge of the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia, decided that Qatar, as a result of its failed gamble during the Arab Spring and the accusations of funding ISIS, was losing its previous standing. Without the international web of support and connections, it would be easy to bully it back into submission. This decision was almost certainly influenced by Trump’s apparently unreserved support for Saudi Arabia, which likely was interpreted as giving them free rein.
Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia and its lackeys, Prince Salman miscalculated. Despite the Gulf States and Egypt’s taking the most aggressive stance short of war, they still haven’t broken Qatar. Food and other aid contributions have poured in from countries as disparate as Turkey and Iran while both Russia and the U.S. State Department, though not the White House, have called for a de-escalation of the situation. Saudi Arabia looks like an unjustified bully, while Qatar gets to sweep its many sins under the carpet and play the victim. The “Switzerland defense,” though weakened, is working, creating the tense stalemate that is still going on today. The world is coming to Qatar’s side, just as planned.