The decision by five Arab states to sever ties with Qatar marks another chapter in a multiyear saga of turbulent relations between Qatar and its neighbors. A split between Doha and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was brewing for years. At the heart of the problem lies an irreconcilable difference between these countries about how to interpret the events of the 2011 Arab Spring and, more important, how to react to them.
In contrast to its GCC neighbors, Qatar actively promoted regime change across the Arab world. The Qataris mobilized finances and offered favorable media coverage to many actors, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza, the Ennahda party in Tunisia and myriad militias in Libya and Syria.
In response, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia worked forcefully to block Qatar’s interests in the region, helping to depose Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, funding rival opposition factions in Syria and supporting the government of Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
Although the Saudis and Emiratis began to resist Qatar’s regional activities, Qatar’s rulers were no pushover. The emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, and his cousin, Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani, were seasoned operators on the international stage. For 20 years, they built “Brand Qatar” by forming a crosscutting swathe of alliances across the region, stretching from Mauritania to Afghanistan. And so the decision by Hamad to hand power to his son Tamim in August 2013 presented an opportunity for the Saudis and Emiratis to put pressure on the young monarch to force him into line.
In an environment increasingly hostile to Qatari foreign policy, Al Jazeera was hemorrhaging viewers regionally, and Qatari foreign policy increasingly struggled in Libya, Syria and Egypt in the face of GCC pressure.
So, the Emiratis, Saudis and Bahrainis urged Tamim to scale back Qatar’s regional activities. Following six months of failed negotiations, the three countries pulled their ambassadors from Doha in protest in early 2014.
With the help of Kuwait’s emir, Qatar agreed to acquiesce to each of the three countries in a series of bilateral negotiations, leading to a repair in relations by the GCC summit in December 2014. But it was not until December 2016, when Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz went to Doha, that the rift was publicly mended.
But for all the goodwill that was shown, the core problem that underlay the split had never healed. While the Qataris had toned down Al Jazeera and evicted a few Muslim Brotherhood members from Doha, their ambition to be a regional actor remained, as did their myriad of friendships with a host of political Islamists across the region — friendships that the UAE in particular found hard to accept.
In recent months, Qatar has once again drifted outside the GCC consensus. Particularly galling for the UAE and Saudi Arabia has been Qatar’s interaction with groups linked closely to the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda. Worse still to them are its business dealings with Iranian regional affiliates. In April, Qatar was involved in communications with the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham organization to guarantee population transfers in the country. Qatar appeared to have brokered the deal by communicating with Iran, which in return managed to secure the release of 26 Qataris royals kidnapped in Iraq in return for a princely sum to be paid to Iranian client militia Kataib Hezbollah.
Qatar also helped Hamas publicly rebrand itself— and the group launched its new policy objectives at a Doha hotel in May.
The United States has served as a key actor from which the Saudis can take their lead. As Riyadh has moved closer to the United States in recent days, helped with a promise of purchasing more American arms during President Trump’s visit in May, there is little doubt the Saudis felt emboldened to ratchet up the pressure against the Qataris.
The Emiratis also have found themselves in favor with the new Washington administration, whose strong dislike for both Iran and Islamists fits well with UAE policy priorities. Accordingly, there is a newfound confidence in Saudi Arabia and the UAE that strong measures to force the Qataris back into their box will find support in Washington.
Given that diplomatic attempts to isolate Qatar in 2014 seem to have had no long-term effect on Doha’s behavior, it is not surprising that the Saudis have decided to dramatically up the stakes this time around by closing off Qatar’s only land border and— along with the UAE and Egypt— blocking all air travel to the emirate, with Egypt denying Qatar Airways the use of its airspace.
The closure of land borders and the disruption to air traffic will have serious consequences for the Qatari economy and its society that will quickly prove prohibitively expensive, even for a rich state like Qatar. And so, serious concessions will have to be made if relations in the GCC are to normalize to the usual levels.
The Washington Post