Saudi-Iran Rivalry Likely to Hamper any Qatar Solution

A customs worker resting at a check point at the closed border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. June 15, 2017 (Valeriy Melnikov/Sputnik/Associated Press)

The isolation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and several allies cited Doha’s closeness to Iran among their motivations. The grievances reportedly include Qatar paying a $1 billion ransom to Iranian security officials following the kidnapping of Qataris in Iraq and Syria.

The diplomatic withdrawal and blockade of Qatar occurred two weeks after United States President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh, during which he spoke extensively of the need to combat Islamic extremism and also accused Iran of playing a major role in destabilizing the Middle East. The Qatar affair has thus added further fuel to the fire of the Saudi Arabia-Iran competition for regional influence and increases the incentive to find a meaningful deescalation of their rivalry.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been growing since the fall of Iraq in 2003, which upset the delicate regional power balance, placing the two countries in more direct competition. The July 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran in turn exacerbated these tensions. Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia view the normalization of Iran as a threat, particularly as the lifting of economic sanctions means it can now sell oil freely on the international market, utilize the international banking system for financial transactions, and ultimately act as a typical member of the global economic system.

Prior to the Qatar affair, Saudi-Iranian tensions had already manifested in a number of proxy wars, with the most serious of these being in Syria and Yemen—two of the most intractable conflicts the world is currently facing. Multiple peace processes aiming to resolve these have failed as Riyadh, Tehran, and other governments continue to push for their own, often-conflicting interests.

As Brookings Institute scholar F. Gregory Gause explains, political vacuums in fragile states have allowed the two powers to exert their influence on citizens whose political loyalties supersede those to their own states. Qatar is far from a fragile state; in fact, it has one of the world’s highest per capita levels of income. Yet its willingness to use its largely natural gas-derived wealth to pursue an assertive foreign policy—including, according to the Saudi allegations, funding terrorist organizations who are working to destabilize neighboring countries—means that Saudi Arabia and Iran may be willing to escalate Cold War-like tactics of containing Qatar or attempting to bring it under their respective commands.

The recent demands issued by the Saudi-led coalition include Doha curbing diplomatic ties with Iran, closing Qatari offices in Iran, expelling members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and severing joint military cooperation. Iran, meanwhile, has come to the rescue of the blockaded Qatar by providing food and water supplies, possibly increasing the sense of loyalty to the country among Qatari citizens. There is certainly a possibility that Doha could choose to ignore these and other demands and strengthen ties with Iran, thus changing the regional balance of power once more.

It seems unlikely that the Qatari front of the Saudi-Iran contest will end in full-scale conflict, as it has in Syria and Yemen. However, Qatar’s willingness and financial ability to forge an independent path from Saudi Arabia and their Gulf Cooperation Council peers will continue to make it a contested site. Qatar and Iran, moreover, have strong areas of mutual economic interest that bind them together, including their co-ownership of the massive North Field/South Spar natural gas reservoir.

Qatar’s largely gas-derived wealth in turn frees it of some of its allegiances to Saudi Arabia, which works to sway other smaller states via its influence on crude oil markets through the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Riyadh has in the past, also used OPEC as a tool of controlling Iran, including increasing its supply of oil to lower global prices, with the express desire of curbing Tehran’s revenues, as was the case in the 1980s context of the Iran-Iraq war.

It doesn’t help the cause of regional stability that Saudi Arabia and Iran lack any other sense of economic complementarity that might otherwise render the cost of direct or indirect confrontation too high. According to the World Bank, Iran’s share of total Saudi trade is a minuscule 0.1%, for example.

It is clear that Saudi Arabia and its allies would prefer a weak Iran over a powerful one. While the move to ostracize Qatar was at least partially designed to achieve that aim, there is a chance that it may backfire. Regardless, progress on this and a range of other areas of present and future Middle Eastern conflict, whether hot or cold, will be temporary at best so long as the wider Saudi-Iran rivalry continues to rage.

Farah El Barnachawy is a United Nations Coordination and Programme Analyst in Bahrain.