How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Considering the religious, cultural, and historical commonalities among the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, the relations among their governments can be remarkably fraught. The latest spat centers around a military graduation ceremony attended by the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, on May 23. Later that day, the state-run Qatar News Agency (QNA) reported that Tamim made a speech at the ceremony, in which he mentioned tensions between Qatar and the United States, questioned how long U.S. President Donald Trump would remain in power, argued that Hamas was the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, reaffirmed Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and noted Qatar’s good relations with Israel. A few hours later, QNA’s Twitter account published three tweets announcing the discovery of a plot by Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to discredit Qatar. Qatar, QNA said, was withdrawing its ambassadors from those states.
Qatari officials denied that QNA’s reports were true. Tamim had not even spoken at the graduation ceremony, they argued: their country’s news agency had been the victim of a carefully orchestrated hack.
Doha’s denials did not dent the regional furor that ensued. Nor did the results of an FBI investigation that, two weeks later, found that Russian hackers were responsible. Over a dozen editorials and articles appeared in Saudi and Emirati newspapers chiding Qatar as to its errant policies, all of which run counter to Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s own preferences. Qatar’s nearest neighbors—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE—were joined by Egypt in breaking off diplomatic relations with Doha and asking Qataris to return home within two weeks. The countries also enforced an air, sea, and land blockade on Qatar—a biting punishment, since Qatar is highly dependent on its land border with Saudi Arabia and on Dubai’s Jebel Ali port for imports, especially those of fresh food and construction materials.
Although the other Gulf monarchies did not appear to believe Doha’s claims about QNA’s hacking, there is no footage of Tamim speaking at the military ceremony, and Tamim does not typically speak at such events. And while it’s conceivable that Tamim would give some off-the-cuff remarks about Qatar’s highly public support for Hamas, it seems unlikely that he would talk about Qatar’s relations with Israel or openly admit that Qatar had poor relations with the United States, given the costs of doing so.
Regardless of whether he really made them, however, many of Tamim’s reported comments are believable, since they are not so far removed from Qatar’s foreign policy. The problem is that Qatar was supposed to have left those policies behind in 2014, during the last spat among the Gulf states. Because Tamim appeared to have expressed what officials in Doha may have been thinking in private, the long-standing dispute between Qatar and its neighbors has resurfaced.
The roots of the current dispute go back at least three decades, to the years after 1971, when Qatar gained independence from the United Kingdom. Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, the grandfather of the country’s current emir, took power within six months of independence. He modernized Qatar’s economy, increased pensions, and boosted employment for locals. In the realm of foreign policy, he assiduously followed Saudi Arabia’s lead. That fit into a long-standing pattern: Saudi Arabia had historically considered Qatar, which today is home to only around 300,000 Qataris, a dependent and subordinate.
Saudi Arabia’s rulers were disabused of this notion in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Khalifa bin Hamad’s son Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani ascended to power. The young Hamad rejected Saudi Arabia’s domineering role, seeking instead to forge an independent foreign policy under which Qatar would diversify its connections with other states. By improving Qatar’s ties with Iran and opening relations with Israel against Riyadh’s objections, Hamad precipitated an era of poor relations between Qatar and its larger neighbor, which saw, among other disputes, a series of border skirmishes in the early 1990s. When Hamad finally took power from his father in a peaceful coup in 1995, Saudi Arabia allegedly backed a countercoup to restore Khalifa. It failed.
In 1996, Qatar founded the news channel Al Jazeera. The outlet smashed existing taboos, interviewing dissidents and criticizing regional elites. Saudi Arabia was a particular target in the 1990s and the first decade of this century. As citizens across the Middle East and North Africa watched Al Jazeera in the tens of millions, their rulers fumed: in 1999, the Algerian government shut off power in parts of the capital, Algiers, to keep people from watching the channel’s interviews with an exiled diplomat.
By 2002, Saudi Arabia had had enough. That year, it withdrew its ambassador from Qatar to force the country back in line. Saudi diplomats returned in 2008, under the condition that Qatar limit Al Jazeera’s coverage of Saudi Arabia. But this minor concession aside, Hamad had shown that his country could do as it pleased.
With the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2010, Qatari foreign policy underwent a transformation. No longer would Doha seek a role as a kind of neutral arbiter with links on most sides of the Middle East’s various disputes. Instead, it would pick favorites and intervene on their behalf.
Qatar’s elites wanted to back the popular uprisings against the entrenched autocracies of Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia. But Doha’s Foreign Ministry was young, inexperienced, and dominated by its foreign minister, more prone to personalized than to institutionalized decision-making. So Qatar’s elite turned to an ad hoc array of Arab exiles who had moved to Doha over the decades, many of whom were on the Islamist spectrum, as intermediaries. (Qatar’s interlocutor in Libya, the cleric Ali al-Salabi, is one example.)
Qatari officials had no qualms supporting a group such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha considered most members of that organization to be moderate and reasonable. Moreover, the Brotherhood was a large panregional group, and at the outset of the Arab Spring, it seemed that its time had arrived: supporting elements of the Brotherhood seemed a savvy choice. At the same time, Qatar appeared to develop relations with more extreme groups, such as Hamas, the Palestinian group, and Jabhat al-Nusra, once an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Qatar’s reluctance to discuss these relations openly deeply harmed its reputation. (The most compelling explanation of Qatar’s building of relations with Hamas and Jabhat al-Nusra is that Doha sought to moderate those groups: in May 2017, Qatar persuaded Hamas to soften its stance on peace with Israel, and in July 2016, Qatar likely played a role persuading Jabhat al-Nusra to end its formal affiliation with al Qaeda.)
Officials in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have long been concerned about the rise of political Islam, fearing that empowering such groups would undermine their own security and that of their allies. The Arab Spring only heightened their worries.
So when Hamad bin Khalifa stepped down in 2013 in favor of his son Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Saudi Arabia and the UAE saw another chance to pressure Qatar to change. In early 2014, they withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, as did Bahrain. Across the Gulf, media outlets sympathetic to the Saudis called for further escalations, from closing Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia to blocking Qatar Airways from flying through Saudi airspace.
By November of that year, Qatar had acquiesced to a range of demands, including that it curb its support for the Muslim Brotherhood; several high-level members of the group left Doha. But a fundamental change in Qatar’s broader foreign policy was not forthcoming, since Qatar did not want to give up the contacts it had invested in for decades. Nor could the country’s new emir tolerate being humiliated into abandoning long-standing positions so soon after taking power.
Although Qatar’s provision of troops and military equipment to the 2015 Saudi- and Emirati-led war in Yemen seemed to herald a new modus vivendi, it was in fact a kind of window-dressing: Doha’s contributions were negligible.
It is not clear why the Gulf monarchies so rapidly turned up the pressure this time. Was their reaction a product of recent developments or a response to Qatar’s perceived failure to uphold its end of the bargain of 2014? In either case, the last straw could have been Qatar’s willingness to pay a huge ransom to an Iraqi Shiite militia, in April, to secure the return of 26 Qataris, including a number of the al-Thani family, who had been captured while falcon hunting in southern Iraq 16 months earlier. (The complex deal that brought their release also involved vast hostage transfers in Syria.) Although some reports suggest that much of the money remains with the Iraqi government in Baghdad, as far as some Saudi and Emirati observers were concerned, the deal was further proof of Qatar’s willingness to conspire with the enemy.
It is also worth noting that the dispute flared up soon after Trump’s first foreign trip. Unlike any new president before him, Trump made Saudi Arabia his first stop. The Gulf monarchies, after their difficult relationship with the administration of Barack Obama, could not have received a better visit. Trump’s presence represented an astonishing vote of confidence, and his speech to Arab leaders in Riyadh was supportive in the extreme. Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt emboldened.
Qatar, meanwhile, is known in Washington political circles less as a reliable partner than as the home of Al Jazeera (which is often critical of U.S. policy), a sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood (which many U.S. observers oppose), and an antagonist of the U.S.-backed government of Egyptian President Abel Fattah el-Sisi.
Since the early 1990s, however, the country has hosted U.S. forces in ever-larger numbers, and it has bought increasing amounts of U.S. military equipment. U.S. Central Command’s Al-Udeid military base, southwest of Doha, is a core part of Washington’s worldwide military infrastructure. Because of the size and importance of the U.S. base in Qatar, it would be nearly impossible to move it in any sensible time frame. But that does not preclude other interventions on the part of the United States. On June 6, Trump tweeted his support for the pressure on Qatar; a day later, he called for calm and dialogue.
So far, Qatar has proved resilient. Its credit rating has been downgraded by two rating agencies, but it remains financially strong. Oman’s ports of Sohar and Salalah are acting as way stations for goods bound for Qatar, relieving some of the pressure. Turkey and Iran have supplied the country with hundreds of tons of fruit, vegetables, and dairy products per day. And Qatar’s liquefied natural gas is critical to states across the world, from the United Kingdom to China, India, Japan, and South Korea: a healthy set of allies should the situation escalate further.
But Saudi Arabia and the UAE are riding high, confident as regional powers and in their relations with the United States. To be sure, this dispute is not cost-free for the two countries: they are losing trade, and they have damaged their own reputations by sacrificing international business contracts to local political squabbles. But Qatar is hurting more. And crucially, it is hemmed in by time. At some point, the state’s plan to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup will come under threat if Qatar cannot import the materials to finish preparing for it.
Qatar cannot change its location; it must find a way to come to an accommodation with its three closest neighbors. Doha must compromise. But neither can Qatar’s neighbors so publicly pressure Doha into changing its policies. It’s possible that the other Gulf states will demand that Qatar close Al Jazeera as a condition of reconciliation. But that would be an onerous demand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE can push Doha only so far if relations are to ever return to normal. They need to allow Qatar an honorable way to de-escalate, just as Qatar needs to convince its former allies that this time, it has actually taken their message on board.