The normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in early 2021 saw a blockade that had lasted three and a half years, with every manner of bluster and threat, end with something of a whimper. Reflecting the Gulf states’ dependency on the United States as regional referee, the blockade ended in the dying days of the far-right American regime of Donald Trump, in whose basket its architects had placed their eggs. As it happened, regime change in the United States prompted a policy change in Riyadh. But the underly- ing tensions that led to the Gulf dispute, the particularly escalatory role of the United Arab Emirates, and the problematic power brokerage of the United States are by no means over: it would be premature to suggest that the bilateral easing of ties between Riyadh and Doha means that the gulf in the Gulf Cooperation Council has
It is worth revising the history of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the relations between its member states. At the end of the Second World War, only two of the council’s six member states – Saudi Arabia and Oman – were independent states; the latter, moreover, was to all practical purposes a protectorate of Britain, the dominant empire of the day, who also had suzerainty over many other sheikhs in the Arabian Peninsula. British contraction during the Cold War, exacerbated by their humiliation at Suez in 1956 and their failed counterinsurgency in South Yemen during the 1960s, offered the Arab sheikhs a narrow window of opportunity to assert a new and more independent regional order. In particular the sagacious ruler of Abu Dhabi, Zayed bin Sultan of the Nahyan family, had by the late 1960s started a series of initiatives to prepare for the impending departure of Britain. He succeeded in attracting several sheikhdoms to what in 1971 became the United Arab Emirates; however, Qatar’s Thani family and Bahrain’s Khalifa family remained cordially separate from both the Nahyan initiative and the neighbouring Saudi family. One by one, a series of threats – some imagined or exaggerated, but most real to at least some extent – confronted the newly independent sheikhdoms. These ranged from communism in Aden and Zufar to the Persian expansiveness of the Iranian monarchy to the particularly revolutionary form of Shia clerical republicanism that took power in Tehran. The latter proved the most worrying to the Gulf regimes, match as it did the Persian militarism of the Iranian monarchy with a particularly republican brand of Shiism. It is no coincidence that the Gulf Cooperation Council, a political-economic bloc, was founded in the early years of the war between Iraq and Iran, which entered the Gulf states’ own backyard.
The 1980s Gulf war dramatically escalated the stakes for the Gulf powers, and when in 1982 Iran – having just expelled Iraqi invaders from its territory – refused a Saudi reconciliation offer and instead invaded Iraq, Riyadh and other Gulf powers were convinced that Iran intended to encroach on their territory. When in 1990 it was Iraq that instead briefly annexed Kuwait, it represented a prime opportunity for the United States, which has had close links to Riyadh in particular, to shoulder its way into the region as the direct protector of the various Gulf states in the second Gulf war. The United States’ invasion of Iraq a decade later – against the pleas of the Gulf states, who correctly expected Iran to capitalize, but who were powerless even to prevent American troops using bases in their countries – only increased their
dependence on Washington as a bulwark against Iran. As a result, Washington has benefited from disagreements within the Gulf council,
whose members therefore try to compete for the support of the major player in the region. These disagreements, stemming from historical disputes between the sheikhs that often predated their independence, had hitherto usually contained within the Gulf Cooperation Council. The American military foothold in the region, however, saw a subtle jockeying amid the Emirates for greater influence with the United States; in the Qatari case, this usually involved mediation initiatives in a number of regional conflicts including Afghanistan and Yemen, where its policy often differed from that of the Saudis. But this was not always to the United States’ liking; during their conquest and occupation of Iraq, for instance, the Americans became increasingly irate with the critical tenor of Qatari media, which they blamed for inciting anti-Americanism. By contrast, Saudi Arabia – worried that it needed
American protection against an ascendant Iran – had lapsed into sullen acceptance, while the United Arab Emirates became increasingly strident supporters of the Americans under the leadership of their crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed.
Islamists, uprisings, and other differences
Still, up to 2010, the scale of Qatar’s differences with its neighbours differed little
from other intra-Gulf disagreements during the 2000s. What alarmed the other Gulf states in the 2010s was the enthusiastic support that Qatari media offered to the regional revolts, particularly their Islamist segments; in Libya, Doha was a particularly early and influential cheerleader of the war against its former collaborator, Muammar Qaddafi. The Emirates also entered the fray, but largely in order to undercut the Qataris and in particular any semblance of political Islam, to which bin Zayed was extremely hostile.
We have mentioned the state-centred responses by the Gulf governments to their environment since independence, but their response with regards to non-state actors is similarly important and cuts to the heart of the Gulf dispute. Historically the Gulf states had supported some brand of political Islam or other during the Cold War; Saudi Arabia’s Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz and Abu Dhabi’s Zayed bin Sultan had been particularly enthusiastic supporters, and when such middle-class Islamist movements as the Ikhwanul-Muslimin (Muslim Brethren) were persecuted in such homelands as Egypt and Syria they found a more welcoming environment in the Gulf, enjoying considerable societal influence among the growing population, native and expatriate, that accompanied the oil boom.
The 1979 Iranian revolt saw the first difference between the Gulf rulers and such Islamists; where the sheikhs were alarmed, many Islamists welcomed the downfall of the shah and saw in Iran a Shia version of what could be accomplished, with necessary adjustments, in Sunni states. It is important to note that most Sunni Islamists remained sympathetic to such “Islamic states” as Saudi Arabia and reserved ire only for such openly secularist regimes as Tunisia or Syria. But a gulf began to emerge, if slowly, in the 1990s over the deployment of American troops in the Arabian Peninsula – which provoked not only the particularly sharp revolt of Usama bin-Ladin but also criticism by loyalist Islamists. Increasingly hemmed in over the next decade by the various forces described above, Riyadh was in no mood to take chances with the Islamists come the 2010s revolts in North Africa and the Levant.
Whereas Qatar flung itself enthusiastically into the Islamist camp, with increasing support from Turkey, the Emirates took the opposite line. Bin Zayed, who virulently opposed any form of political Islam not under the court’s strict control, drew the much larger and more potent Saudis into his camp by playing on their fear of Iranian encirclement. In its diplomatic initiatives, Qatar had often hobnobbed with Tehran, and this link was brandished by Abu Dhabi to prove that not only Qatar, but the Islamists they supported, favoured Iran. It was a ludicrous claim – the bitter Syrian war actually pitted Iran against such Islamists – but it was persuasive to a Riyadh whose insecurity was stoked further by American diplomacy with Iran to the extreme point of pathology.
Whereas state suppression of political Islam was easy enough in a compact little area like the United Arab Emirates, it carried far more risk in a Saudi Arabia whose self-legitimation rested on a consciously polished image as a bastion of Islam and custodian of its sacred sites. One necessary ingredient for such a crackdown was the ascent to power of bin Zayed’s clumsy and inexperienced Saudi protégé, Mohammad bin Salman, whose concentration of power within the Saudi family enabled him to take such a risky step with some relish, crushing dissent with brute force. Another ingredient was at least superficial Emirati support to Saudi initiatives – notably the Bahrain crackdown of 2011 and the Yemen war four years later, although on the latter point Abu Dhabi increasingly pursued a divergent course. A third ingredient was heavy armament by massive purchases of military equipment, much of it tested in Yemen.
The fourth ingredient, which perhaps emboldened Abu Dhabi and Riyadh more than any other, was the election of Donald Trump to power in the United States. Whereas his predecessor Barack Obama had been seen by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia as too amenable, respectively, to Qatar and Iran, the inexperienced Trump was far more responsive to the type of politics in which bins Salman and Zayed specialized – leavened with business jargon, vague platitudes about societal reform underpinned by autocratic repression, financial incentives, talk of radical Islam. It was no coincidence that only weeks after having gained Trump’s personal confidence on his May 2017 trip to Saudi Arabia did Riyadh and Abu Dhabi mount their blockade on Qatar.
A blockade: starting with a bang, ending with a whimper
The blockade began with great vim and vigour – there was talk of an impending overthrow, flirtations with rival branches of Qatar’s ruling Thani family, and even threats of turning Qatar into an isolated island. But like most of bin Salman’s projects, the fallout was much greater. In the first place, its logic was garbled; as Ali Shehabi, one of its loudest cheerleaders, only recently admitted, it compensated for its ambitions with incoherent overreach in its claims, tying Qatar to any number of “terrorist” outfits to an extent that was both unprovable and came across as desperate. It caused considerable discomfort among peoples who had long coexisted beyond state lines, and when Riyadh attempted to make an example of dissidents – such as the sweeping arrests of such popular preachers as Salman Odah and murder of the respected establishmentarian figure Jamal Khashoggi – the problems only became compounded, with its soft power among Muslims and its reliability to the West becoming compromised.
Similarly, in spite of their initial encouragement the United States were ultimately in no mood to cut off Qatar, which housed their bases and had proven itself a valuable mediator in various conflicts. Lastly, the Gulf Cooperation Council suffered an unparallelled split over the issue; only Bahrain, practically a client state of Riyadh, lent support. Attempts by Bahrain and the Emirates to salvage support in the West by establishing ties to Israel has similarly caused similar societal discomfort and failed to yield the immediate returns it had expected; the United States and Israel have long been happy to promise great benefits for Arab suitors, such as Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, that never come. And bin Salman, in a rare display of restraint, has not yet dared to follow suit in recognition of Israel.
Nor were Riyadh and Abu Dhabi otherwise in concert. Notwithstanding the personal bonhomie between their crown princes, the Emiratis’ purpose – antipathy to political Islam – only partially overlapped with that of the Saudis, whose main aim was to bar off any conciliation with Iran. Bin Salman had not entered the process with any serious forethought. Saudi grievances with Qatar are not without basis – for instance, Qatari mediation with the Yemeni Houthis had given them a lifeline in 2007 – but can easily be applied elsewhere – Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Bahrain’s lifeline to Yemeni dictator Ali Saleh in 2011 had enabled him to help the Houthis take over. Yemen, in fact, provided a key point where the nominal alliance between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates diverged, with Riyadh supporting Abdrabbuh Hadi’s nominal government while Abu Dhabi backed a southern separatist cause that repeatedly attacked Hadi.
It has thus long been clear that the blockade had backfired. The Saudis had long been seeking a face-saving way out; with Trump on the way out and an openly critical Democratic regime on the way into power at the United States, the matter took on some insurgency, as Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan quickly began making outreaches to Doha. The decision of the peninsular heavyweight to abandon the blockade forced the Emirates and Bahrain to grudgingly follow suit, but their own qualms with Qatar remain unresolved. The gulf in the Gulf remains to be fully bridged.