The Qatari crisis has turned the idea of a unified GCC, or Persian Gulf region on its head. The myth of Gulf Arab, and Sunni unity, has been shattered, if it ever existed. Regional fragmentation, and lack of consensus are part of the new narrative of the Gulf region. The Qatar crisis, has forced Qatari dynamism, and with no end in sight, will see additional and innovative new elements being brought into existing political, security, and economic structures of the Gulf region.
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By Christian Kurzydlowski
What was an initial diplomatic spat between Qatar and its geographic neighbours, ballooned into a crisis. The Gulf Cooperation Council’s (Hereafter GCC) June 2017 blockade, or boycott, of Qatar marked a turning point in the regional policy of the Persian Gulf The GCC’s actions were initiated at the behest of Saudi Arabia, with Qatar being accused of supporting terrorism, and of its growing ties with Iran. Yet this belies a deeper cauldron of external tension and potential for internal dissent in the region. Regime survival remains a top priority of the absolute monarchs ruling in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar’s refusal to meet the demands placed upon it is as much about national pride as it is survival.
How is the blockade, or boycott against Qatar playing out? What are the implications for both Qatar and the region? Could this crisis be the forefront of an increased multipronged Qatari global footprint? Perhaps, most poignantly, what is the Qatari endgame and how has the country adapted to the new normal?
It is helpful to look first at the evolution of Qatari regional and foreign policy, starting from 1971. Independence broadened the scope of pre-existing regional and tribal politics into the domain of international politics. Qatar’s ruling family, the Al Thani, moved to Doha from Fuwairat in 1847. The ruling sheikh at the time was Mohammad bin Thani. Mohammad bin Thani’s move was largely a response to Al-Khalifah (the Bahraini ruling family) pressure from neighbouring Bahrain . Successive Al Thani sheikhs however had numerous issues within the Al Thani clan, many of who were defiant of their ruling sheikhs.
A prominent example is the June 1995 deposing of the first emir of independent Qatar, Khalifah ibn Hamad Al Thani, by his son, Hamad. Emir Hamad was reportedly unhappy with his father’s conservative approach to developing the nation, and was supported by younger Al Thani members as well as the US, due to his stated intention of liberalizing Qatari society and politics.
Emir Hamad’s coup and the increasing reliance on American support can be seen as a turning point in both American foreign policy, and Qatari regional, and foreign policy. Implicit American backing for Qatar can be seen as the best guarantor of the nation’s independence, and perhaps of continued Al Thani rule. This is becoming increasingly poignant in light of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud’s (hereafter MBS) assertive policies to exercise regional leadership.
The current crisis permutated from proxy wars (Libya, Syria, and Yemen) from 2011. This was an attempt by Gulf state actors to pursue local allies and influence. This has had a devastating and destabilizing effect on all countries where Gulf funded militias operate. Here the accusation of Qatar funding so-called terrorist groups has some merit. In Syria, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia funded the Jaysh al-Fatel (Army of Conquest). Qatar attempted to pivot accusations of financing terrorism by signing a 2017 agreement with the United States to curtail terrorist financing. Thus undermining one of the key accusations levelled against it. Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, deemed a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, resulted in a joint Saudi-Emirati supported military coup in Egypt, accentuating regional cleavages.
Due to most of its traditional trade route across the Persian Gulf being shut down, Qatar has been forced to adapt. Leveraging the $320,000,000,000 assets under management in the sovereign wealth fund of the Qatar Investment Authority, the country is seeking to raise investment in the United States to $45 billion by 2021. To this end, Qatar has undertaken a massive public relations campaign aimed at countering “Saudi propaganda”, which has been helped by the actions of MBS. Mounting criticism of the Saudi Crown Prince, especially over the continuing Saudi engagement in Yemen, and the death of dissident Jamal Khashoggi has polarized much of western opinion against the Saudis. Increased assertion, and aggression, both domestically and externally, has been a hallmark of a Saudi-led regional foreign policy aimed against Islamist and revolutionary movements. By contrast, this has allowed Qatar to be seen as being friendly to currents within the wider Arab world wanting change.
Qatar’s limitations due to economic sanctions are forcing a scale back of foreign involvement. However the country has used both its financial leverage, as well as liquefied natural gas reserves to increase its own resilience, and attain a positive trade balance. India has become an increasingly important partner for Doha, importing food products. Iran has opened up its port infrastructure to Qatar. A similar situation exists with Oman, which saw a surge in trade with Qatar, especially as the country depends on Omani ports in light of the blockade. Qatar’s deep financial resource reserves are critical in its political and economic re-alignment. As a result, it should be lauded for its efforts in diversification.
Qatar has skilfully managed to re-align and adapt to the existing reality, but also to create a narrative by which it is seen as the underdog, and a victim of Saudi-led and inspired aggression, therefore eliciting sympathy. The Qatari crisis has turned the idea of a unified GCC, or Persian Gulf region on its head. The myth of Gulf Arab, and Sunni unity, has been shattered, if it ever existed. Regional fragmentation, and lack of consensus are part of the new narrative of the Gulf region. The Qatar crisis, has forced Qatari dynamism, and with no end in sight, will see additional and innovative new elements being brought into existing political, security, and economic structures of the Gulf region.
Christian Kurzydlowski has a PhD in history from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Having previously done a Masters of Arts at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. He is passionate about interpreting current affairs through historical knowledge, to create scenarios for potential future trends. After a decade of globetrotting, he is back in his hometown of Toronto, Canada.
- David Commins, The Gulf States: A Modern History, (I.B. Tauris, London, 2012), p.105
- Ibid. p.283.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.