Not all incidents in international relations are cataclysmic or game-changing; most are simply another thread woven into the web of history. The blockade imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia – along with the UAE, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain – on 5 June, however, was. Cutting off all diplomatic ties with Qatar and subsequently causing a rift in the Gulf countries and the wider region came as a complete shock to most.
The reasons for the diplomatic crisis are varied and cannot be attributed to one cause. One reason mentioned is Qatar’s increasing friendliness and diplomatic ties with Iran, with which it shares part of its vast natural gas resources. Another reason is Qatar’s support for certain groups during the Arab Spring protests which took place in 2011, which Saudi Arabia believes threaten its stability.
The reason that Saudi Arabia propagates, however, is the accusation that Qatar has been and is funding terrorism throughout the region. From armed groups in the Levant and Libya to non-violent opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the country has allegedly been funding elements of terrorism and extremism for decades.
The main reason for the split in relations, however, is more likely the fact that Qatar has a reputation for going its own way. For decades, the small Gulf country has been using its vast wealth and influence to forge its own path with its own foreign policy based on its own interests, in total contradiction to the path set out by Saudi Arabia. Not only has its foreign policy diverted from that of its larger neighbour, but it has in fact jeopardised it, backing and funding elements which are opposed by Saudi Arabia.
One might wonder how such a small country jutting out of the Arabian peninsula has amassed so much wealth and influence, especially compared to the Saudi giant which looms over it next door. Qatar has attained the bulk of its wealth from its vast energy reserves, earning it the title of being the highest natural gas producer in the world in 2014. Add to that the success of its state airline, Qatar Airways, the popularity of its satellite channel Al Jazeera, and the fact that it owns numerous properties and landmarks in European capitals including approximately 14 per cent of London, and it is easy to see how influential Doha has become.
While Saudi Arabia backed the military coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi, Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood leader. While the Kingdom has adopted a policy of zero-tolerance towards Iran, Qatar has continued its economic and diplomatic relations with Tehran (understandably as they share ownership of the world’s largest natural gas field). In Libya, Saudi and its allies back army chief Khalifa Haftar in the east of the country, whereas Qatar supports opposition groups in the west. To put it simply, Qatar has made itself out to be a hindrance to the interests of its Gulf neighbour and its stability.
In the aftermath of the diplomatic shutdown, Saudi Arabia drew up 13 demands for Qatar in order for relations to be re-established. They were hugely exaggerated. Among them are those that are almost impossible to meet. Take, for example, the demand that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera and all of its stations. Famed for shocking its worldwide audience with its investigations and hard-hitting coverage on the leadership in the Middle East and the political scandals that have plagued them, Al Jazeera has been a pioneer in the region. However its foes believe it is not critical enough of its host government, Qatar.
Then comes the demands that all ties with Iran be severed and the Turkish base in Qatar be closed. This effectively forces Doha to pit itself against regional neighbours with which it has no choice but to do business.
Overall, the demands are absurd and, in the words of the Qatari foreign minister, they were “meant to be rejected”. There is no dignified way for Qatar to accept these demands, and there is no chance that a country accustomed to wielding such influence will give it up so easily, despite the economic pressure.
Lords of war
Despite Trump’s apparent support for Saudi’s stance with regards to the view that Qatar sponsors terrorism, his administration has had quite the opposite view, urging Saudi Arabia and the UAE to ease the blockade.
One would be naïve to think that the US supports one or the other, however. Though the US did honour the Saudis by striking up a multi-billion dollar arms deal with them and strengthening relations weakened by the Obama administration, it also signed a $12 billion deal for the supply of dozens of F-15 jets to the isolated Gulf nation last month.
The message is clear: the US is arming both sides of the conflict, as it has done countless times in so many regional crises. There are fears that Saudi Arabia will take military action against Qatar if the demands are not met, and that there will be a scene reminiscent of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait – a hegemonic giant bullying the vulnerable kid next door. The demands have not yet been met, the ten day limit that Saudi Arabia set is up, and the Qatari foreign minister has now rejected the demands and says the country does not fear military retaliation. If armed conflict does break out soon, then the US has ensured that both sides are armed to the teeth.
Whatever the outcome, three things are for certain: the crisis will not end quickly, Iran is the only regional benefactor as it watches its Arab foes bicker and Qatar draw itself even closer to it, and the US has set the stage for a fresh armed conflict ready to burst at any time – a new Gulf War.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.