What is new in the Gulf dispute with Qatar this time around is the collective punishment applied by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain when they decided to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha.
The drama with Qatar is long-winded and has been ongoing for about 20 years now. The country has been a continual source of disturbance and trouble, truly a noisy neighbor.
Before I sketch a picture of what is happening, I want to summarize the events in just one sentence: What is driving this latest incident is mostly Qatari in origin, and not necessarily a scheme directed against anyone outside the country. This time, the Qataris find themselves in a very embarrassing situation. The same goes for the new government that wants to assert itself using the language of the new generation.
I remember the very first dispute Qatar stirred up: the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Doha in 1990. I was with a large group of journalists standing at the door of the conference hall. When the door was opened, the Saudi delegation headed by King Fahd Bin Abdulaziz—may he rest in peace—walked out, with the King appearing visibly upset.
We immediately found out that Qatar’s former Emir, Sheikh Khalifa, insisted on discussing only the issue of disputed islands with Bahrain and rejected the King’s demand to dedicate the conference to discussing the four-month occupation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein.
The emir only agreed to this demand after other heads of Gulf delegations threatened to walk out of the conference. Six years later, Qatar dedicated its new channel, Al-Jazeera, to attack Saudi Arabia for years.
It supported the rhetoric of extremism and the marketing of Al-Qaeda’s leaders and ideas, including the call to expel the “polytheist American forces” from the land of the Arabian peninsula—that is, Saudi Arabia. A day after the American forces left Saudi Arabia, Qatar welcomed them, building two military bases for the US Army on its soil: the Al Udeid Air Base and the Al-Saliyah Army Base. Then it stopped talking about them.
Was this phase part of an attempt to build a leadership role for the country or was it just to seek status? Perhaps it was.
During the second decade, Qatar allied with Saudi Arabia’s rivals: Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Even after their horrible crimes—assassinating Rafik Hariri in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s occupation of West Beirut—the Qatari leadership continued to finance their activities. Later there was the alliance with Libya’s madman leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
All of this lasted until the Arab Spring erupted. Now as Qatar’s leadership has suddenly changed, the escalation has intensified to support domestic groups that threaten countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, as well as Sunnis and Shi’ites and leftists and religious groups.
In its attempt to hijack revolutions, Qatar suffered massive political and financial losses in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, as parties bankrolled did not manage to maintain their authority in these countries. This is why Qatar changed its policy and began to finance the civil and armed opposition. The most dangerous Qatari adventure is its persistence in funding the Muslim Brotherhood and their group against the new regime in Egypt. Even with three television channels, Qatar could not shake the Egyptian people’s support of army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s regime!
Qatar, which previously lost and squandered billions by supporting the Assad regime and Hezbollah against Saudi Arabia, is repeating the same scenario in Egypt, using money, advertising, international PR companies and lawyers, in order to support the Brotherhood, which is doomed to fail in Egypt because the military institution there is much stronger. Qatar is thus only capable of merely annoying the Egyptians. (One of them told me they consider what is currently happening to be like a chess game. I replied that it’s really more like a video game where you gain nothing and learn nothing.)
The question is, will the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini decisions distress Qatar? No, I don’t think so, because just like other oil-rich Gulf countries, it doesn’t count on tourism or trade.
Withdrawing ambassadors remains a political move that expresses a firm rejection any kind of chaos mongering and announces that the Qatari people are innocent of what their leadership is doing. The Gulf has long been known as a beacon of stability and development—it is others who are well known for stirring chaos.