North Africa, West Asia

Behind The Saudi-Qatari spat and the fragmentation of the GCC

The sanctions on Qatar aim to force the government of Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to alter its foreign policy – particularly regarding its warming relations with Iran.

Na’eem Jeenah Ebrahim Deen
19 June 2017

People buy food at a supermarket in Doha, capital of Qatar, on June 6, 2017. Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen joined Saudi Arabia and Egypt in severing relations with gas-rich Qatar, with Riyadh accusing Doha of supporting groups, including some backed by Iran. Picture by Nikku/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved. The 5th of June decision by Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and their allies and proxies – Egypt, Bahrain, the Maldives, Mauritania and rival governments in Libya and Yemen – to sever diplomatic and other links with Qatar can be read as payback for Qatar’s support of the wave of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010-2011. It represents, for KSA and UAE, another phase in their process since 2011 to reverse the changes brought about by the uprisings. These had seen the two countries deploy troops to successfully protect the Bahraini monarch, increase their aid to Morocco and Jordan –which were at the time experiencing large protests–, and financially and diplomatically support the Egyptian military’s ouster of president Mohammed Mursi in 2013.

The sanctions on Qatar aim to force the government of Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to alter its foreign policy – particularly regarding its warming relations with Iran, and to end its financial and political support for Islamist dissidents in the region such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

The Saudi-led move followed and was encouraged by US President Donald Trump’s visit to KSA in May, and his 21st of May speech in Riyadh where he supported stronger action against Iran, and spoke out against terrorism – including Hamas in his list of terrorist groups.

Saudi and Emirati claims

The main reason advanced by KSA and UAE for these harsh measures such as the land-sea-air embargo and travel prohibition for citizens of these countries, was a statement attributed to Al Thani, in which he allegedly praised Iran’s regional role and criticised states seeking to declare the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) a terrorist organisation. The 23rd of May statement, published on the website of the state-owned Qatari News Agency, is likely a hack, as the Qatari foreign ministry has claimed. No audio or video footage exists of the emir’s speech, purportedly presented at a graduation ceremony for National Guard officers at the Al Udeid base. Although the alleged statement may reflect the broad trajectory of Qatari foreign policy, Al Thani is unlikely to have expressed such sentiments publicly. Moreover, statements praising Hezbollah and criticising the US are at odds with Qatar’s policy and national interest, especially considering that Qatar supports forces opposing Hezbollah in Syria, while the US troops stationed at Al Udeid are critical to Qatar’s security.

Nevertheless, there are indications of warming relations between Qatar and Iran, as evidenced by Al Thani’s 27th of May congratulatory phone call to Iran’s re-elected president, Hassan Rouhani, during which he proposed enhancing Qatari-Iranian ties. Further, reports that Qatar paid a $1 billion ransom for Qatari royals kidnapped in Iraq, and that about $700 million ended up with Iran and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, also enraged the KSA and UAE. This is especially in a context where it was alleged that the funds secured Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammad bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, a meeting with the Iranian Quds Force’s Qassim Sulaimani in which enhanced intelligence cooperation was discussed, even though this is highly conspiratorial.

For KSA, these moves compromise its battle with Iran for regional hegemony, especially in a context where Iran is seen as consolidating control over Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. This has seen the monarch become extremely paranoid, adopting schizophrenic policy postures, especially in its willingness to partner with Yemen’s Islah party in Taiz, yet simultaneously pronounce against participatory Islamists in Egypt. Riyadh’s actions against Qatar fall into this milieu.

The UAE has conversely used the KSA’s action to pursue its agenda of trying to force Qatar to cease support for the MB and other such groups. It has pursued this objective throughout the region, through financing parties such as Nidaa Tounes in Tunisia, and militarily supporting the campaigns of Khalifa Haftar in Libya and Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Egypt. UAE officials have vocally criticised the role of participatory Islamists such as the MB and Hamas, and are reportedly financing the campaign of Mohammed Dahlan to succeed Abu Mazan as head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Palestinian Authority. Al Thani’s alleged statements merely provided a pretext for both these countries. This is especially true since Qatar’s support for civil society action during the 2011 uprisings is incompatible with Saudi and Emirati regional aims, upsets the regional balance, and could ultimately threaten their own monarchies.

The sanctions, however, did not happen entirely suddenly and without careful consideration. In 2014, the KSA and UAE, together with Bahrain, recalled their ambassadors from Doha in a successful attempt to weaken Qatari ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. The current sanctions follow a campaign by, mainly, the UAE to demonise Qatar, particularly in the USA where, in a mere two weeks, fourteen op-eds in US media attacked Qatar and called for the USA to downgrade relations with that country. The cutting of ties by Egypt, Yemen, the Maldives, Mauritania, the House of Representatives in eastern Libya, and the Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi government in Yemen was primarily in support of their Saudi and Emirati benefactors. There has been some suspicion in the region that KSA and UAE would act against Qatar, but the suddenness (and severity) took everyone by surprise. It is possible that the suddenness is related to a recently leaked email correspondence of UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, which reveal his country’s disdain for US-Qatari relations, anger at the US military base in Qatar, and envy about Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The emails hint at Otaiba’s role in the anti-Qatar campaign in Washington over the past few weeks.

To justify the action, the two countries have accused Qatar of threatening the region’s stability, through the coverage of its Al Jazeera media channel. Further, they accuse Doha of ‘adopting’ terrorist organisations – including the Islamic State group, and supporting opposition Shi'a groups in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia. Much of this is untrue, especially in regards to Qatari support for Shia dissident groupings in Eastern Saudi Arabia, and was likely a means of deflecting attention away from KSA’s inability to stifle the currently intensifying protests in the largely Shia populated cities of Qatif and Dammam. What is true, however, is that the UAE-KSA and Qatar also support different (even opposing) sides in Egypt, Libya and Syria, and both countries regard Qatar as an obstacle to their agenda for the region.

KSA Containment

Following the conclusion of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia has attempted to contain Iran’s growing influence in the region. Paranoia has also seen KSA accuse Tehran of supporting Yemen’s Houthi movement, a factor that saw it launch a large scale aerial and ground campaign in that country in March 2015. The kingdom has sought to enhance this containment strategy by advocating unity amongst ‘Sunni’ states, and by tolerating and sponsoring Islamists linked to the MB, such as Yemen’s Islah movement. The December 2015 formation of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) can be viewed in this context, especially since countries such as Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia, which are viewed as sympathetic toward and/or being constituted of participatory Islamists, were invited to join, while countries with a majority Shia population such as Iraq and Iran were excluded, even though Iraq was one of its four designated operational areas, and despite the fact that both Riyadh and Tehran have been involved in the fight against IS.

Trump’s singling out Iran as the greatest regional threat emboldened KSA, and especially its inexperienced deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. The Riyadh declaration, which KSA issued after Trump’s visit, vociferously admonished Iran’s regional role and advocated a coordinated containment strategy. However, Qatar was regarded as not being entirely compliant with KSA’s wish to isolate Iran.

UAE opportunism

The UAE has mainly focused on Qatari support for Islamists such as Hamas and the MB, which the UAE believes poses a greater threat to it than Iran. This conformed to Cairo’s position on the MB, and Egypt thus followed suit with the UAE, the major financial backer of the state and of the 2013 Egyptian coup.

Abu Dhabi also used the situation to reduce tension between forces it supports in Yemen and those supported by KSA. Pressure had been building since June 2016, when the UAE redeployed its frontline forces to southern Yemen, to consolidate the gains of the secessionist Southern Movement (Al-Hirak), in opposition to Saudi interests. Worsening the situation, in February 2017, forces loyal to the UAE prevented Hadi, heavily supported by KSA, from landing at Aden’s airport, leading to Riyadh’s having to act as a mediator in an attempt to enforce Hadi’s ‘prerogative’. There was likelihood of further deterioration as these same forces routed those of Hadi and consolidated control over the Aden airport. At the heart of these differences is UAE opposition to Saudi support for Yemen’s MB-aligned Islah movement.

The UAE thus expertly exploited the inexperience of Saudi Arabia’s thirty-one-year-old deputy crown prince to create a false consensus around Qatar. Significantly, the suspension of Qatari troops from Yemen as part of KSA-UAE sanctions will empower UAE-supported groups, at the expense of Saudi-supported Hadi. Although Qatar’s troop contingent was minimal (1000 troops), Doha and Riyadh have comparable interests in Yemen – which are not the same as the UAE’s.


In what is definitely a major diplomatic crisis for the Gulf, other countries are also becoming engaged. Apart from KSA and UAE allies that cut ties with Qatar, Jordan has also downgraded its links. Conversely, Iran and Turkey have rallied behind Qatar, offering to mediate the crisis, and resolving to assist Doha.

The USA, which has its largest military base in the Middle East stationed in the country, has issued contradictory messages. While president Trump expressed his support for the move on twitter, claiming responsibility for its success, the Pentagon expressed its gratitude for Doha’s continued support –US secretary of state Rex Tillerson even offered to mediate. It is thus likely that the US will attempt to ensure the smooth continuation of relations with both Doha and Riyadh. The Udeid base, which is the seat of America’s Central Command (CENTCOM), and home to over eleven thousand US troops, is unlikely to be disbanded, especially in light of the administration’s renewed focus on Islamist militancy. Further, it is likely that Trump’s defence secretary James Mattis and national security advisor Herbit McMaster will act to ensure policy continuity. This can already be observed from Trump’s now weakened tone on China and North Korea, which has retreated from its initial bellicose nature, to one favouring compromise and negotiation. Already two US naval war vessels have docked in Qatar, to continue joint training with the Qatari Royal Navy in an exercise that was likely planned prior to the embargo, while on the 14th of June Qatar concluded a twelve billion dollar deal with the US for the purchase of F15 aircraft. Significantly, in this regard James Mattis announced the deal, illustrating that the US defence department views Udeid as critical, and alluding to a continuation of US policy in the region.

Looking forward

As in 2014, Kuwait and Oman will attempt to mediate a resolution to the crisis. Neither has severed ties with Qatar, and Kuwait’s emir has been shuttling around the Gulf to seek agreement on a mediation process. Both states maintain good ties with Iran, and Oman was involved in preliminary negotiations for the nuclear deal in March 2013, helping to ensure face-to-face talks between Iranian and American officials prior to the commencement of public negotiations. However, resolving the dispute this time will be more challenging, especially since the demands on Qatar are multifaceted, and because the measures instituted are more wide-ranging than in 2014.

Qatar faces three possible options. First is the unlikely possibility of it aligning with Iran. Second, it could buckle under the pressure and give in to KSA-UAE demands, especially since it depends on Gulf transit routes for its food security, and because of its strong economic links with Saudi Arabia. Such a capitulation could mean that members of Hamas and the MB residing in Doha will be expelled (possibly to Turkey and Lebanon). Further, Qatari media activities will be severely curtailed, and the Al Jazeera network, in particular, will have its wings clipped and will begin resembling other Gulf media outlets. Qatar’s links with Iran will also have to be firmly cut. The third option is that Qatar remains defiant, and joins with Turkey to informally form a third (neutral) axis – which could include Oman and Kuwait.

With countries such as Turkey and Pakistan seeking to balance relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, albeit unconvincingly at times, this third axis is slowly emerging. Heavy-handed measures such as the current siege on Qatar are increasingly forcing smaller states to unhappily choose sides, accelerating the development of a third path, even if informally. Iran has offered to export food to Qatar from Iranian ports – which are around 200 nautical miles from Doha, and commenced food exports to Qatar to replace its reliance on Saudi Arabia. Turkey has instituted similar measures. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has defended Qatar, opposing the sanctions, and dispatching planeloads of food. Ankara also accelerated and adopted two parliamentary bills endorsing the deployment of troops to its base in Qatar and joint training and cooperation with Qatari military personnel. In addition, Qatari Naval vessels have been allowed to dock at Omani ports, while Kuwaiti diplomatic pronouncements implicitly allude to the Monarch’s support for Doha.

These have allowed Doha to weather the storm relatively intact. Doha’s stock market has stabilised, while the economic embargo has to date not led to severe food shortages. Although Eritrea and Djibouti recently downgraded ties with Doha, the diplomatic fallout has been contained, and to date global powers such as the US, France, Russia, and China continue to maintain the same levels of diplomatic representation as before. More significantly, states with large Muslim populations such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Nigeria, and even the kingdom of Morocco have remained neutral

It is, however, debatable whether these countries together are strong enough to form such a coalition in opposition to the KSA- and Iran-led axes.

The increasing tension also indicates a weakening of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which was established in 1981 to ensure unity and coordination among Gulf countries, as a response to the 1979 Iranian revolution. Although GCC countries have been coordinating on regional policing, established the Peninsula Shield Force military arm, and signed agreements on economic and taxation matters, the organisation has been increasingly fragmented by different stances of individual states. In 2013, for example, Oman was widely criticised for hosting secret negotiations between Iran and the USA, prior to the nuclear deal; in 2014, Oman and Kuwait refused to recall their ambassadors from Qatar; and in 2016, when KSA severed ties with Iran, Bahrain was the only GCC member to follow suit. No matter how the current crisis ends, the GCC will emerge weaker. If Qatar refuses to capitulate, that could spell the end of the council. This is especially since Oman is already regarded as an outlier, and because Kuwait has had to balance its relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, with which it shares a border.

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