Despite shrill rhetoric and a punishing embargo, rising tensions in the Persian Gulf do not threaten to pile another war onto a conflict-ridden Middle East. The dispute between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on one side and Qatar on the other is of long standing and — hyperbolic headlines aside — remains largely unchanged today.
What has changed is the opportunity the Saudis and Emiratis see, with a new friend in the White House, to remove an obstacle in their path toward tackling two more potent adversaries: Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Their threats and intimidation may bring an adjustment in Qatar’s behavior, but the two countries’ inherent weakness and the differences between them militate against further escalation.
Citing Qatar’s support of “terrorists” — a now commonly used label for one’s political opponents, in addition to jihadist groups — Qatar’s two partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council broke off diplomatic relations on June 5 and imposed a land and air blockade that left the small nation with only a single access route for essential supplies.
What had it done to provoke such ire?
Qatar has sought to parlay the financial muscle it derives from its enormous gas reserves into a diplomatic status otherwise undeserved by its size. The country’s foreign ministry is small, as I have discovered on my visits over the years, but surprisingly assertive. A decade ago, Qatar inserted itself as mediator into a number of conflicts, including the post-2006 rivalry between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, the Yemeni government’s multiple rounds of fighting against Houthi insurgents from 2003 to 2009, and Sudan’s unending internal wars. It seemed like not a week could pass without a set of meetings taking place in one of Doha’s glittering hotels, overtly or in secret, bringing together adversaries from Palestine, Afghanistan or Lebanon, who were happy to have the opportunity for some rest and relaxation far from the battlefield, even if they made little progress in negotiating peace.
Qatar was punching above its weight, but because it constituted no real threat to anyone, its larger, even richer and far more powerful neighbor to the west, Saudi Arabia, tolerated its upstart behavior, contenting itself with pursuing a dollar-driven foreign policy of its own that involved little diplomacy. The two have had a rocky relationship — a couple of coup attempts in Doha, occasional border skirmishes — but to Saudi Arabia, Qatar has been an irritant at most, a slightly errant G.C.C. ally, an annoying adolescent to be admonished, not flogged.
With the turmoil of the Arab Spring, everything changed. As autocrats fell like dominoes, the Saudi royal family, along with the Arab world’s other monarchies, realized they might be next. The counterrevolution was hatched in Riyadh. Its first and primary target: the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. Mr. Morsi was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that proved to be the sole cohesive, organized and disciplined political force capable of replacing the crumbling Arab regimes.
The Muslim Brotherhood received strong backing from Qatar, whose pre-2011 neutral-mediator stance gave way to enthusiastic support of a movement it saw as a winner. The country hosted the leader of Hamas, the movement’s Palestinian branch, who had been ejected from Damascus. Mr. Morsi’s ouster by the Saudi-backed Egyptian military under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013 reversed the Brotherhood’s political gains throughout the region.
The second principal beneficiary of the failed Arab uprisings, but one whose fortunes have continued to wax, is Iran. Having gained an important foothold in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s removal in 2003, Iran further extended its reach as Syria descended into chaos after 2011, coming to President Bashar al-Assad’s rescue.
Saudi Arabia has watched Iran’s ascendancy with growing alarm, accusing Tehran of nurturing hegemonic ambitions long bottled up by international sanctions, which were lifted after the 2015 nuclear deal. The Saudis now believe Iran is taking advantage of its new international standing and resulting access to business and investments by ramping up its military role and support in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
The arrival of President Trump in the White House and his appointment of senior officials who, along with many in the House and Senate, despise the nuclear deal and favor continued enmity with Iran now offer the Saudis the chance to confront Iran by proxy — the proxy being the United States military.
But there stands pesky little Qatar, unwilling to move out of the way. Never mind that Qatar has never contradicted Saudi policy on Iran, and indeed has stayed on the Saudis’ side in both Syria and Yemen — directly opposite Iran. Qatar, along with other small Gulf states, has maintained cordial relations with its Iranian neighbor. (Qatar in particular values good relations with Iran because the two countries share a giant offshore gas field in the Gulf.) And even if Doha sees Riyadh as a bully that, by dint of geography, it has no choice but to put up with and, if need be, appease, it still far prefers the Saudis to Iran.
The emir of Qatar need not worry too much that the current kerfuffle will get out of hand. His Gulf allies-turned-adversaries have diverging interests in their pursuit of his absolute compliance with their diktat.
In contrast to Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. is known much less for its anti-Iran stance than for its animus against the Muslim Brotherhood, which it sees as a domestic rival. It has jailed its members at home and fought them abroad: in Libya, in particular, but also in Yemen, where the U.A.E. has actively opposed the Brotherhood-affiliated Islah party, which is participating in the Emiratis’ and Saudis’ battle against the Houthis in support of the ousted Yemeni government. And in Tunisia, where the Emiratis are trying to break the fragile unity government that includes the moderate Islamist An-Nahda party.
In fact, the U.A.E. may be blocking Qataris from entering the Emirates under the blockade, but Iranians and their investments remain warmly welcome. Meanwhile, the Saudis are far more concerned about Iran’s growing role in the region, especially in Yemen, and unlike the U.A.E. are willing to work with Islah to defeat the Houthis and thereby push back Iran.
The Saudis and Emiratis each have their reasons for trying to press Qatar back in line, but their clashing priorities and alliances, and their inability to field their own militaries in yet another war, weaken the impact of their threats.
It is now up to the other small Gulf states like Kuwait or Oman to play a mediating role and help find a face-saving formula for both sides. The Saudis and Emiratis could lower their demands and pressure on Qatar, in exchange, for example, for Qatar toning down its public support of the Brotherhood. Incongruous as it may sound, even the Trump administration, in its confusion and contradictory responses, might be able to help diffuse the crisis.
Hopefully, this dispute will soon prove to have been little more than a tempest in a teapot. It’s just that the teapot happens to be the Gulf, an area whose very name (Arabian or Persian) is in dispute and where one false move, one miscommunication, one misread signal could set in motion unstoppable forces that would do a great deal more harm to Saudi-Emirati interests than Qatar could dream of doing on its own — should it even be so inclined.
Joost Hiltermann is the Middle East and North Africa program director for International Crisis Group.