Gulf Cleavage a Long Time in the Making

Passengers of flights cancelled due to the Gulf political rift wait in Hamad International Airport. Doha, Qatar, June 5, 2017 (Hadi Mizban/Associated Press)

A week after United States President Donald Trump returned to Washington from, in the words of a senior White House official, “uniting the entire Muslim World,” the Gulf region was thrown into disarray. On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with Egypt and Yemen, severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and closed shared land, sea, and air borders. Qatari citizens have been given two weeks to leave their residences in key states.

The list of demands on Qatar is long. Regional actors want the country to cease bankrolling extremist groups, eject regional mischief-makers from its territory, reign in clerics who defame other Gulf state leaders, and shutter Al Jazeera—Qatar’s flagship media empire.

These issues are not new. The region’s contrarian, Qatar has long formed different alliances to its neighbors. Doha’s relative foreign policy independence is attributable in part to its enormous wealth (Qatar has the fourth highest gross domestic product per capita in the world) sourced largely outside of the Saudi-led Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Over the last few years, Qatar has been accused of using its immense wealth to support extremist groups in the wider Middle East. A 2014 New York Times article detailed that “Qatar has provided at least some form of assistance — whether sanctuary, media, money or weapons — to the Taliban of Afghanistan, Hamas of Gaza, rebels from Syria, militias in Libya and allies of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region.”

For the Gulf states, the longer-standing dispute is with Al Jazeera, the Doha-based and state-supported media broadcaster that provides a platform for opposition voices. The subject of numerous official complaints, censures, and occasional closures since its first broadcast in 1996, Al Jazeera’s sympathetic coverage of the Arab Spring exacerbated tensions with neighbors eager to curtail the spread of uprisings to their own populations.

Why Now?

By US State Department estimates, at least some progress had been made on these points of friction over the last two years, so why have tensions escalated so quickly now?

The precipitating factor was comments allegedly made by the Gulf’s newest ruler, Tamim al Thani, emir of Qatar since 2013 (and, at age 37, also the youngest ruling monarch in the world). His comments were reportedly critical of Saudi Arabia’s support of Trump and more conciliatory towards Iran and Israel. Those statements are in dispute, but the leaders of the resulting action against them are not.

This appears to be primarily a Saudi-UAE led action. Low oil prices (a result of Saudi Arabia’s own “Walmart strategy” to bankrupt shale market competition) have combined with domestic demographic pressures, and the resurgence of regional power rival Iran to create enormous economic, political, and diplomatic pressure in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia in particular seemed to fall from US favor under the Obama administration. Following closely on the heels of the Iran nuclear deal, which saw a thawing of Washington-Tehran relations, a Republican-led Congress passed the so-called “9/11 bill,” which allowed American survivors to sue Saudi Arabia for the actions of its citizens in that 2001 terrorist attack (15 of the hijackers were Saudi citizens).

Trump’s recent visit reset the scale on US-Gulf relations. By all accounts, the Saudis put on a spectacular reception for the new president—the kind that Trump has been sorely missing in the US. Given the timing, Saudi Arabia and supporting states appear to be capitalizing on the opportunity to evoke the heavy terrorism theme of the Trump summit, in order to effect change in Qatar.

Though Qatar hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East, and is an important staging ground for air operations against the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the US president has abandoned any pretense of neutrality in the dispute between the Gulf neighbors. Of the isolation of Qatar, he tweeted that it was “good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

These comments provide Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain with broad cover to continue actions against Doha, even as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged states to consider the humanitarian effects of the blockade of Qatar, particularly during Ramadan. With the US out of the mediation game, and European Union states focused on high-drama elections, the way forward seems to be closer to home. Iran has offered to send food and Turkey has offered to send troops, but the best way to conclude the dispute will likely be through another member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The dispute in essence cleaves the GCC in two, with members Kuwait and Oman attempting to mediate between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE on one side and Qatar on the other. Thus far, Qatar has signaled its unwillingness to modify its policies to satisfy complaints. Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, announced “We are not ready to surrender, and will never be ready to surrender, the independence of our foreign policy.”

In the meantime, the conflict will play out and potentially escalate in cyberspace. Officials have traded barbs on Twitter, with the UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash writing that Doha has turned to “money, media, partisanship and extremism,” while the Qatari ambassador to Washington has taken his case directly to Trump, declaring that “We appeal to the US administration to rely on their own sources and not on countries with political agendas.” Left out of this discourse, however, are local populations. The UAE and Bahrain have criminalized the expression of sympathy for Qatar on social media with fines and prison time of up to 15 years. Until the dispute is resolved, it will be these regular citizens who will be most caught up in the feud; for now, there are few escapes whether by land, sea, air, or even cyberspace.

Dr. Jennifer S. Hunt is a lecturer in the National Security College, Australian National University, where she specializes in the intersection of defense, energy, and economic security policy. In 2011, she was a visiting scholar at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman.