by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.
In the Persian Gulf, Bahrain, the Emirates, and Kuwait rarely stray from Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence. Qatar, however, has long pursued its own foreign policy in a region dominated by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, angering its powerful neighbor on the Arabian Peninsula.
On June 4, Bahrain, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and their ally Egypt severed relations with Qatar over its support for Islamists, namely politicians and militants affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Emirates even forced its three airlines — Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Flydubai — to cut their routes to Doha; and Saudi Arabia has not only banned Qatari airplanes from landing on its territory but also closed its border with Qatar. Qatari shoppers worry that their country, which imports most of its food, could face a crippling shortage because of the Saudi-led blockade.
CNNMoney observed that, whatever the immediate difficulties of the diplomatic impasse, the Qataris have access to more than enough money to sustain their lifestyles. In fact, Qatar’s riches contributed to its complex rivalry with its on-and-off allies in Riyadh, who tended to have different goals for the Arab and Muslim worlds. Qatar has used its largesse to back subsets of rebels in Libya and Syria, complicating Emirati and Saudi efforts to coordinate their foreign policy in the Middle East’s complex civil wars. Qatar’s flexible alliances have seen it deploy soldiers to participate in the anti-Iranian, Saudi-led coalition in Yemen while continuing relations with Iran. The US considers (or considered?) Qatar one of its closest allies in the Middle East, yet Doha hosts the most Taliban officials outside Afghanistan and Pakistan. Israeli officials and Palestinian militants opposed to one another maintain offices in the Qatari capital. Qatar’s overlapping alliances have angered what should be its traditional friends.The biggest disagreement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia stems from their opposing opinions of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the former views as an ideological proxy, the latter as an ideological threat. Egypt, whose current dictatorship overthrew the government of a Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in a 2013 coup d’état, has rejected Qatar for similar reasons. A rogue Libyan government, aligned with Egypt, and the Yemeni government, dependent on Saudi support, have done the same. Sudan, a country long maligned by the international community, has gone as far as offering to mediate between the Qataris and the Saudis even though Qatar still helps Sudan resolve its own political dilemmas. Now, the Arab world faces one of the biggest threats to its unity.
The rift between Qatar and other regional powers could hinder the American-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS), Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. Qatar houses the largest US military base in the Middle East. All involved in the ongoing row (except the rogue Libyan government) are US-allies, and most participate in Inherent Resolve. The dispute may threaten US national interests further afield, hurting the petroleum industry. Foreign Policy asked whether this crisis could spark the next regional war, which the Americans would likely prefer to avoid.
The Egyptian–Saudi initiative might have backfired, for the Qataris may now find themselves dependent on the Iranians for food. The Iranians, in turn, will reap the financial benefits of closer relations with Qatar. Though US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted that the Qatari–Saudi dispute will affect American policy toward neither Iran nor IS, President of the United States Donald Trump appears to have taken credit for a spat that can only hurt American foreign policy. The US will likely prove little help in countering the Saudi narrative that Qatar has evolved into a rogue state.
During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 6. Juni 2017
The Qataris may need to turn to Kuwait and Oman, two countries that, unlike Sudan, have the authority, leverage, and neutrality to overcome this impasse. Both partake in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an intergovernmental organization whose other members comprise Bahrain, the Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Through the GCC, they could repair relations in the region. The Kuwaitis have already scheduled meetings with the Saudis, and the Omani foreign minister has visited Doha. Turkey too may try to help. The Maldives, meanwhile, fell into the Saudi orbit by cutting ties with Qatar.
Little should separate Qatar from the other countries in the GCC. All of them are Arab monarchies, and all except Oman have Sunni governments. However, Saudi Arabia, with the support of the Arab world’s largest country, has chosen to assert its dominance over its smaller neighbor. Though the Qataris possess significant resources, theirs barely compare to the Saudis’. In addition to petroleum, Saudi Arabia can claim leadership of the Muslim world because it controls Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities. Qatar, however, just has money, oil, and the results of a perhaps-too-flexible foreign policy. Nevertheless, the two countries would prove more powerful together than apart.
Saudi Arabia has divided the Arab and Muslim worlds and weakened its leadership as Iran, its archfoe, entrenches itself in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Qatar, which could have proved a critical supporter in Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iranian maneuvers, may become a decisive player in Iran’s sphere of influence.
Update on 09.07.2017 – Turkey’s relation with Qatar
Last Wednesday, Turkey brought forward troop deployment to Qatar and pledged to provide crucial food and water supplies. The two countries shared similar positions on the Egyptian Crisis and the Syrian Civil War, jointly contributed to the formation of the Syrian opposition’s civilian wing, the Syrian National Council and its military wing, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The result was Turkey and Qatar being held responsible for the political costs of the bankrupt policy in Syria.
Regarding Egypt, Mohamed Morsi had excellent relations with Turkey and Qatar, while Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power with support from Saudi Arabia and remains dependent on Emirati and Saudi financial aid. In its attempt to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s open target is Qatar, while Turkey is the undisclosed target. (Fehim Tastekin, “Turkey, Qatar strengthen economic ties“, al-Monitor, 09.505.2014; Aron Lund, “Are Saudi Arabia and Turkey About to Intervene in Syria?“, Carnegie Middle East Center, 24.04.2015).
If you are a small state like Qatar you have an interest in hosting several allies on your territory because it provides you with an indirect security guarantee from your ally. Moreover, it increases the costs for the aggressor of any potential attack. — Jean-Marc Rickli, a professor at King’s College London teaching at Qatar National Defence College cited in Tom Finn, “Turkey to set up Qatar military base to face ‘common enemies’“, Reuters, 16.12.2015.
Turkey has previously signed military agreements with a number of Asian and African countries for cooperation in military training and the defense industry. However, none of those countries or Turkey requested an article enabling the deployment of the Turkish Armed Forces to be included in those agreements. This new aspect of the military accord between Turkey and Qatar therefore raised questions. Osman Korutürk, a parliamentarian for the Republican Peoples Party speculated if the purpose of the deployment is to give military training to the Syrian opposition forces in Qatar.
According to Michael Stephens, a RUSI Research Fellow for Middle East Studies, at this time the Qatar Armed Forces extensively trained in Qatar groups such as Ahrar al-Sham (an Islamist rebel group which cooperated with the al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, and which was also supported by Saudi Arabia). This military agreement might imply greater coordination in terms of training groups like Ahrar al-Sham. (Mushin Karagülle, “Motivation behind recent military agreement with Qatar remains a mystery“, Today’s Zaman, 09.05.2015). Hacked emails from Hillary Clinton fingered that Qatar (but also Saudi Arabia) provides “clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region“.