The Saudi-Qatar Crisis Creates Collateral Damage in the Persian Gulf—and Beyond

The Saudi-Qatar Crisis Creates Collateral Damage in the Persian Gulf—and Beyond
The skyline of Doha’s West Bay neighborhood, Qatar, Jan. 6, 2011 (AP photo by Saurabh Das).

The standoff pitting Saudi Arabia and the UAE versus Qatar has brought new tensions to the Persian Gulf, and there’s no end in sight. Will the crisis be too much for the region? Find out more when you subscribe to World Politics Review (WPR).

In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s first official visit abroad to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, long-simmering tensions among America’s allies in the Persian Gulf boiled over. It all started the day after Trump left Riyadh. The Qatari news agency, QNA, reported that the country’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, had given a stunning commencement speech to a graduating class of National Guard members.

In the speech, the emir fulminated against Qatar’s neighbors, accusing them of engaging in a campaign to smear Qatar in front of Trump, in an effort to make the state appear to be a supporter of terrorism. But the emir not only rejected the accusation, he flipped it on his accusers, declaring that, “The real danger is in the course taken by ‘certain governments’ that created terrorism by adopting an extremist form of Islam”—a thinly veiled effort to paint Saudi Arabia, among others, as the cause of terrorism. The quotes, which also appeared on Qatari television as scrolled text below video of the emir, went on to say that the emir defended Qatar’s unconventional foreign policy, including its ties to Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and even Israel.

Reaction to news of the speech was immediate and predictably fiery. Within just 30 minutes of posting the report, the QNA website removed it. Qatar’s Foreign Ministry announced that the entire report was fraudulent, posted to the QNA website by hackers. But Qatar’s neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, rejected that claim and soon imposed a blockade of the peninsular nation.

The Gulf crisis pitting Qatar against Saudi Arabia and the UAE didn’t appear from out of the blue, however. Disagreements have divided Qatar from its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for many years. Arab regimes have long resented Qatar’s Al Jazeera television network, whose arrival sent shockwaves across a region that is used to placid, acquiescent state-owned media. Qatar’s support for the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt became another point of contention, and its support for other rebel groups in Libya and Syria made matters worse.

To learn more about the origins of the Gulf Crisis pitting Qatar against its GCC neighbors, read After Trump’s Visit, a Feud Breaks Out Among the Gulf States for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.


The Qatar Blockade Explained

A ransom payment for a kidnapped royal hunting party. Hacking claims and “fake news.” The rift between Qatar, the tiny Gulf state with a big foreign policy agenda, and its neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia, began with all the makings of a geopolitical soap opera, and the plot kept thickening. The Qatar blockade, imposed by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United Arab Emirates, has deep roots in disagreements over approaches to the region’s many challenges. Much of the coverage of the dispute has focused on Saudi and Emirati interests that Qatar has pointedly bucked for years, with its support for Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and its softer line on Iran. But lost in this circus is what Qatar wants, and how tensions with its much larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, escalated to this point. Qatar’s outsized ambition in the region has more to do with the desire to break out of Saudi Arabia’s shadow—and needle the Saudis a bit—through an independent foreign policy designed to make it everyone’s friend.

To learn more about the tensions that led to the Qatar blockade and Gulf crisis, read The Policies Fueling the Qatar-Saudi Rift Have Long Guided Qatari Diplomacy for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Is the Gulf Crisis Between Qatar and Its GCC Neighbors the End of Regional Cooperation?

The blockade of Qatar puts into question the viability of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as the split within the GCC that pits regional powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar has proven surprisingly durable. Kuwaiti efforts to mediate the dispute have failed, and the intra-Gulf rupture has spilled over to the region’s external relations, making it harder for security partners to insist on maintaining even and equal relations with all GCC members. Even so, in all its disparate levels of activity and dysfunction, the GCC may be severely impaired but it is not yet ready to be dispatched to the dustbin of history.

To learn more about how the Qatar blockade is damaging intra-regional relationships, read Is the Gulf Cooperation Council Dead? Will It Matter If It Is? for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.


The Gulf Crisis Has Damaged the GCC for the Foreseeable Future

At the same time, it is hard to imagine the GCC returning to the status quo ante anytime soon. Even if it were possible, the GCC has underperformed as a regional security organization. U.S. military officials have long despaired over the reluctance of the GCC members to integrate their security systems and operations. They are not ready to pool sovereignty for a shared strategic goal, or to formalize collective self-defense that would entail some legally binding obligations toward each other. Over the years, they have worked together on a few regional crises, but more often than not, it’s not the entire group of six GCC members that takes part. Quite simply, it looks like the largest, richest and most ambitious Gulf countries are as much part of the problem of regional insecurity as the solution. They cheered when the Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, but what is their contribution to the containment of Iran? Are they ready to deal with the consequences of a severe economic downturn in Iran caused by the reimposition of U.S. sanctions? And against this backdrop, the political and economic isolation of Qatar has sadly become normalized as a new fault line in inter-Arab affairs.

To learn more about how the Qatar blockade’s lasting impact on the GCC, read What Does Disarray in the Gulf Mean for the GCC? for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review. [marketing]ofie[/marketing]

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Editor’s Note: This article was first published in September 2018 and is regularly updated.