Qatar’s efforts to find a way to live in harmony with Iran was the drop that overflowed the pot of Persian Gulf geopolitics. The Gulf monarchies have rejected any rapprochement between Qatar and Iran. That is why they have imposed a blockade against Qatar.
On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and a handful of other States (such as the Maldives) terminated diplomatic relations with Qatar, gave its citizens hours to leave. The Saudis closed its border with Qatar, its only land border, isolating it. The trigger for the diplomatic crisis that has shaken the Gulf countries is the conciliatory tone of the Emir of Qatar’s statements towards Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. Although Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani denied making such statements.
The resulting diplomatic crisis has worsened over the course of the past month. It even affected camels, as the Saudis expelled ‘Qatari’ dromedaries as well as its human citizens across the border. The big question is whether the blockade shall lead to a military invasion or prompt a coup in Doha in favor of a monarch more willing to accommodate the Saudis – and the others by extension. In fact, Qatar has few reasons to comply because the Saudis have made a gross miscalculation.
What’s most remarkable about this latest Middle Eastern crisis is that it affects the rich, Sunni – Wahhabi in fact – and absolute monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. The result is that Qatar, the world’s largest producer of natural gas, has been isolated. Egypt has also joined the diplomatic boycott. But, if anything, its reasons for doing so are the clearest from the geopolitical perspective.
Qatar was admittedly an essential financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, which gained power in Egypt, headed by President Mohammed Morsi until the virtual military coup that brought Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power in July 2013. Apart from having relatively friendly ties to Iran, compared to most of its neighbors, at the end of 2014, Qatar signed a defense agreement with Turkey, a NATO power, even though the United States accused the Emirate of having funded Hamas – considered a terrorist organization in Washington – for many years. Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government of Abd -al-Rabbo Mansour Hadi have also accused Qatar, accusing it of supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Saudis have issued belligerent statements, which suggests the possibility of the Kingdom deploying troops to march on Doha – as they did in Bahrain in 2011. Riyadh reminded Doha that Qatar was a part of the first and second Saudi states (in 1818 and 1891, respectively) and that it could end up that way again. Given depressed oil prices and Qatar’s massive natural gas reserves, the Saudis could appreciate the chance to diversify their hydrocarbon resources.
While seven States are involved in the ‘embargo against Qatar, the main force behind it is Saudi Arabia. No doubt the empowerment that the Kingdom received after President Donald Trump’s visit and unprecedented endorsement last May, emboldened the Saudi royals to launch their diplomatic offensive against Qatar. Trump delivered a strongly anti-Iranian speech during his visit to Riyadh. Defense minister, and now Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman certainly welcomed the U.S. president’s perspective, pushing for the isolation of Qatar. Trump appeared satisfied, but he must have forgotten that Qatar hosts an important U.S. military base on its soil, crucial to its attacks against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – as does Turkey.
While, the Gulf monarchies accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism, in fact their main goal is to force Qatar to stop supporting the ‘politics’ they don’t like. In other words, Qatar itself, rather than its alleged support for terrorism, poses the threat to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. The Saudi led coalition has issued 13 conditions that Qatar must fulfil to restore relations. Ostensibly, one of the main conditions is that Qatar must stop supporting ‘terrorism’. By that, they imply Qatar must stop backing Hamas, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah and the groups that have challenged the Gulf monarchies. Another key condition is that Qatar shut down its al-Jazeera channel. Qatar has refused and it will likely resist far longer than the July 3 deadline the Saudi-led coalition has imposed.
Qatar has managed to secure trade channels and neither the military nor the coup options are likely. Trump’s lack of geopolitical depth notwithstanding, Qatar is indispensable for the United States. The White House was too quick to back the Saudis’ decision, potentially exposing an internal rift between U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump’s inner family circle, led by Jared Kuchner. In other words, U.S. diplomats will encourage Trump to mediate between Qatar and Saudi Arabia rather than encourage the rift. Indeed, the United States and Qatar signed a preliminary deal for the sale of some $12 billion worth of weapons to Doha barely a week after the Saudis launched the diplomatic offensive. Apart from Washington, Iran and Turkey have also come in Qatar’s aid.
They have established sea and air bridges to supply Qatar the imports it would otherwise get through the land border with Saudi Arabia. Therefore, Qatar has little incentives to capitulate. Doha knows it’s indispensable for the United States. Doha and Riyadh also know that the U.S. Congress would likely veto the $130 billion arms deal that trump signed during his visit to the Kingdom, should the latter escalate the blockade to a military operation. In a previous decade, a rift in the Persian Gulf would have sent oil prices soaring. The Gulf monarchies have used oil for geopolitical leverage, but if anything at all the Qatar crisis has shown that this no longer works. Qatar, within the OPEC realm, is a minor player, producing only 650,000 barrels per day. Thus, the Saudis have no incentive in upholding the blockader. OPEC’s problem now is not even in the Gulf. It’s in Texas, where shale production, which has reached well over four million barrels per day with the potential to double in the next year or so as technology makes it cheaper to extract. The one resource of concern is natural gas.
Qatar is the world’s top producer and it supplies many U.S. allies.
Thus, Washington must evaluate the crisis well beyond Trump’s premature and inopportune enthusiasm.
As for the ‘coup’ option, Qatar has a history of abrupt – if peaceful – changes of leadership, but there are few chances of this happening now. The ruling Al Thani family has hitherto been relatively inactive in Gulf politics, but this event gives it the ascendancy over Qatar as a ruling family, a dynasty still in place to this day. In Qatar, the Al Thani has held absolute power since Qatar declared independence from a federation of States that evolved into the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971. The emir, is the head of state, and he leads Qatar with the help of his family. From 1995 to 2013, Qatar was ruled by Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who took over the country by overthrowing his father Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, while he was vacationing in Switzerland.
Emir Hamad has pushed Qatar in a modern socio-political path by Gulf – and certainly by Wahhabi – standards.
He has encouraged women’s rights and political reforms. Hamad has built a more liberal society than have his Gulf counterparts, even giving his country a new constitution. After gradually preparing his succession for two years, Hamad ben Khalifa Al Thani, of fragile health, abdicated on 25 June 2013 in favor of his son Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.He became the youngest head of state of the Arab world at the age of 33. Perhaps, the Saudi monarch decision to appoint 31-year old Mohammad bin-Salman as Crown Prince reflects this.Indeed, it’s more likely that the Qatar blockade will bring changes to Saudi Arabia than Qatar.
While Saudi Arabia remains the symbol of the status quo in the Arab world, the Qataris have pursued and embraced change – within limits. All the Gulf monarchies have sought ways to preserve their wealth, power and influence. The UAE has encouraged tourism to complement oil. Qatar has used tourism to complement natural gas as well as portraying itself as a monarchy open to political changes, even if mostly beyond its borders. Qatar has sponsored regime change in Libya as it has in Syria, often taking the side of the ‘masses’. Saudi Arabia believes that the best way to ensure its survival is by changing nothing and by ensuring the historic relationship between the al-Saud and the Wahhabi ‘ulama’ (clerics) continues. But, the new and ambitious Saudi Crown Prince, who has impressed Trump, might be the one who could use the situation to stir things up in the Kingdom.