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 the Persian Gulf 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 Islamist 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 Hifter in Libya.
A new Qatari emir, a difficult start
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, Tamim lacked the experience of his father and uncle to handle the challenges. Al Jazeera was hemorrhaging viewers regionally, and Qatari foreign policy increasingly struggled in Libya, Syria and Egypt in the face of GCC pressure.
Sensing their opportunity, 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 Abdul Aziz came to Doha, that the rift was publicly mended.
Qatari ambitions remained
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 Islamist 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.
The Trump factor
Qatar also helped Hamas publicly rebrand itself— and the group launched its new policy objectives at a Doha hotel in May. Islamist rebranding has been a favored tactic Qatar uses with Syrian opposition groups, particularly the Islamist Ahrar al Sham, and, unsuccessfully, with the leader of the now defunct al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. This attempt to legitimize Islamist groups is an issue the Emiratis in particular find difficult to accept.
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 Sunni 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.
Qatar’s support for Hamas seems to have been a card the gulf states have played effectively to curry favor with U.S. decision-makers amid the warming relations between the gulf and the Israelis. The UAE and Saudi Arabia appear to be preempting U.S. policy by sounding notes that will find favor with pro-Israel, anti-Iran, and anti-Islamist legislators in Congress, albeit for reasons much more applicable to intra-GCC politics than the regional strategic goals of the United States.
Upping the stakes
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 of mutually suspicious friendship.
Michael Stephens is a research fellow in the Middle East Department and head of the Qatar operations of the British-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies.