Last week, several Arab states, including Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, put Qatar on notice. They removed their diplomats from Doha, closed airspace and ports to Qatari vessels, expelled Qatari nationals, and prohibited their own nationals from visiting the country. Among other key demands, Qatar’s Arab opponents want the emirate to stop backing Islamic extremists, Sunni and Shia, and shut down hostile press outlets, including Doha’s jewel, Al Jazeera.
Reports suggest the breaking point was Doha’s decision to send nearly $1 billion to rescue a hunting party held captive in Iraq—a ransom paid to Iran and to Sunni extremists, both of whom the Arab states consider threats to their national security. The ransom may be the proximate cause of the crisis, but tension has been brewing for some time.
The key players are the Emiratis and Saudis, the two major powers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Qatar is also a member. Bahrain is effectively a Saudi province and Egypt, while contemptuous of Qatar, is incapable of projecting much power without the financial support of its Emirati patrons. In 2014, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE removed their diplomats to protest Qatar’s interference in their internal affairs. That crisis was partly precipitated when Qatar backed Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government while the others supported General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup.
Regional experts explain that the conflict goes back further still: “2014 was just a culmination of problems that were brewing for 20 years,” says Mohammed al-Yahya, a Saudi analyst close to the government in Riyadh and a fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani [who ruled Qatar until 2013; his son rules now] overthrew his father in a coup in 1995. The Saudis disapproved. It’s not part of the culture of the GCC states to overthrow monarchs in coups like this. And Sheikh Hamad had a lot of animosity toward Saudi Arabia, Qatari posture shifted 180 degrees after the coup.”
Indeed, that was the central purpose of Al Jazeera—to serve as an instrument with which Hamad attacked his larger and richer Gulf neighbor. Internationally, the satellite network is known for its anti-American posture. After 9/11, it was virtually Osama bin Laden’s bulletin board, posting videos the al Qaeda leader sent to the network through couriers. During the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera openly sided with the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s forces as they targeted American troops and allies.
From Doha’s vantage point, though, beating up on the Americans was just another way to target Washington’s local client, Saudi Arabia. The Qataris have no real problem with the United States—they host Al Udeid, the biggest American military base in the Middle East and CENTCOM’s headquarters in the region. But that’s the Qatar way, play both sides—making nice with the Americans and the people who want to kill Americans, Sunnis as well as Shiites, is just another day at the office in Doha. Similarly, Qatar shares with Iran the world’s largest natural gas field, South Pars, the source of nearly all its revenue, so it’s cozy with Tehran even as its GCC allies see Iran as threat.
The hope, says al-Yahya, “was that things would be different under the new emir, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, whom Hamad appointed after he abdicated in 2013. But to Riyadh, these hopes turned out to be misplaced.”
Indeed, many assume that the father is still running the show. “Tamim is so weak,” said another Saudi analyst who requested anonymity. The same source explained that Qatar’s former prime minister, Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani, spent last week on Capitol Hill to lobby Congress after President Donald Trump identified Qatar as a source of terrorism in yet another ill-advised tweet. The Qataris have a powerful ally in the Pentagon—Al Udeid Air Base is a key installation from which the United States runs operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other regional hotspots. No one wants the Americans to leave Al Udeid—except the Emiratis.
There was a joking reference about moving the base in an email leaked last week from the Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba. It merely reinforced the message the Emiratis have been pushing in Washington for some time: move Al Udeid and show us the love, not the Qataris.
It’s perhaps useful to see the current crisis in a wider aperture, since it goes back way beyond the last 20 years. Many of the Gulf’s ruling families are from the same region on the Arabian Peninsula and have been bickering with or actively fighting each other for a very long time. Rival clans that became energy-rich monarchies are playing out their feuds on a very large stage now for several reasons. First, with the region embroiled in conflict from Libya to Syria to Yemen, the stakes are high. Second, both Qatar and the UAE exercise a considerable amount of influence in Washington, largely but not exclusively through the money they donate to think tanks. But most crucially, the president of the United States inserted himself in the middle of it.
Trump’s visit to Riyadh was a success, it was the aftermath that was a problem. While there, he enlisted the support of Arab and Muslim leaders in the fight against terrorism. From the perspective of the Saudis and others, Trump’s promise to forswear interference in their societies marked a welcome change from the last two administrations—and was likely read by them as a green light to sort out local affairs, starting with Qatar. His tweet two weeks after his visit confirmed that. “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!”
“Obama protected Doha,” the Saudi analyst explained. “He used them to keep the Saudis off balance, but now that he’s gone the Qataris lost their defender.” The point is not that Trump should likewise shield an adventurist Doha but that it’s probably not prudent to widen the natural rift in the GCC, an institution designed to project American power in the Persian Gulf. Further, when you have problems with an ally, scream at them in private, rather than chide them in front of the world.
If the Emiratis had a specific goal in mind, hosting a major U.S. base, the Saudis aimed to show the Americans that they can be helpful. “The Saudis wanted to get the GCC in line to take on Iran,” says Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They wanted to show the Trump administration that they are part of the solution, an American partner against all the destabilizing stuff in the region, whether that’s Iran or Sunni extremism.”
What the Saudis don’t need is an argument over who funds terror, says Lebanese political analyst Elie Fawaz. “Once they open that can of worms, they’ll get dragged into it. The pro-Iranian camp attacked them for backing terrorism to win support from the Obama administration, and now the Qataris will get into it.”
The reality is that there are plenty of problematic actors in the GCC, including the Emiratis, who do business with Iran and have sheltered figures from the Syrian regime that the Saudis and Qataris oppose. “The Arabs are divided,” says Fawaz, “but there isn’t much wisdom in opening up another front in a destabilized region.”
Mohamed al-Yahya, the analyst close to the Saudi government, agrees. “The Saudis want a unified GCC. The point is not to bring Qatar to its knees, but to get it back on track to join in pushing a unified GCC agenda. No one wants this to continue.”
Trump later walked back his tweet and in a phone call with the Qatari emir offered to mediate the crisis, even if it takes a White House meeting. What’s most important, however, is that the administration doesn’t let local players, whether that’s Qatar or the UAE or Saudi Arabia, set American priorities. Intra-Arab conflict should not distract the administration from keeping regional partners focused on the two key issues on the U.S. agenda— stopping Iran and crushing ISIS.