Three big lessons of the Qatar crisis

Qatar’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exchange a memorandum of understanding in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday. (Naseem Zeitoon/Reuters)
Qatar’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exchange a memorandum of understanding in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday. (Naseem Zeitoon/Reuters)

While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is currently in the Gulf attempting to broker an end to the crisis between Qatar and four Arab countries, the conflict shows no signs of a resolution. The crisis broke on June 5, shortly following President Trump’s visit to the region. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain declared a blockade of Qatar with no evident immediate cause. The anti-Qatar quartet released an extreme list of 13 demands which seemed intended to be rejected.

After Qatar brushed aside the Quartet’s July 3 deadline, the list of 13 demands was whittled down to six. Secret agreements from the resolution of the last round of the crisis were leaked in an effort to increase pressure on Doha by demonstrating its failure to abide by previous agreements. Despite Tillerson’s active diplomacy, the spat seems no closer to resolution. What began with the expectation of Qatar’s rapid capitulation, with the threat of regime change or war raised by influential columnists, has instead settled down into a “long estrangement.”

Should this have been a surprise? Here are a few big things we have learned about the international relations of the Middle East from the crisis:

There are limits to Saudi-UAE leadership.

After hosting dozens of Arab and Muslim leaders for President Trump’s summit, Saudi Arabia and the UAE evidently expected a rapid victory over Qatar and widespread regional support. It has not worked out that way. The effort to demonstrate Saudi-UAE hegemony over the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab Middle East has instead demonstrated the continuing divisions of the regional order.

As with their disastrous war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE radically overstated their prospects for success and failed to have a plausible plan B in case things did not go to plan. The anti-Qatar quartet seems to have overestimated Qatari fears of isolation from the GCC and their own ability to inflict harm on their neighbor.

Economic boycott could only marginally harm one of the wealthiest countries in the world, while the U.S. military base provided an effective military deterrent. Military threats had little effect once the U.S. military made it clear that it had no interest in UAE suggestions that it move the U.S. air base from Qatar. The demand to close Al Jazeera attracted widespread global condemnation as an assault on media freedom, while four fiercely repressive and anti-democratic regimes had a difficult time mounting plausible criticisms of Qatar’s undemocratic system.

While the failure to coerce Qatar seems predictable, it is more remarkable that Saudi Arabia and the UAE failed to expand the anti-Qatar coalition beyond the four core members. Bahrain hardly has an independent foreign policy, since its brutal repression of protests in 2011, while Egypt views Qatar as part of its own domestic power struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood. Neither needed much enticement to join.

But no other country has wholeheartedly supported the campaign. The GCC itself has been divided, as Kuwait and Oman have sought to play mediating roles. North African states, and even heavily dependent Jordan, have hedged, struggling to stay neutral and wait out the crisis.

Meanwhile, the effort to isolate Qatar created openings for other regional power players. Most dramatically, Turkey sent military forces to Qatar to deter any invasion. This was a symbolic gesture, given the unlikelihood of an overt attack, but one which further fragmented established norms of Gulf security.

Iran has taken the opportunity to improve its relations with not only Qatar but also Oman and Kuwait. That Saudi Arabia and the UAE were willing to rip apart the GCC over their grievances with Qatar suggests that their fear of Iran is not quite so all consuming. The power struggles and political competition between the Sunni powers, as well as their continuing existential fears of popular uprisings and Islamist challengers, remain more urgently threatening than the more widely discussed conflict with Iran.

Nobody understands U.S. policy toward the crisis — and it matters.

The Trump administration has sent bewilderingly mixed messages on the crisis. Trump himself issued several strongly pro-Saudi/Emirati statements and tweets which have emboldened the quartet. But the Pentagon made clear that it has no intention of moving its military base from Qatar. Tillerson has focused on mediation and the need to de-escalate the crisis, ostentatiously signing an agreement with Qatar on terrorism financing which seemed to sideline the key demand of the anti-Qatar quartet. Nobody knows who really speaks for the United States, and all are actively working to mobilize their own allies within the Trump administration.

Many expected that Trump’s full-throated embrace of the Saudi-UAE worldview during his visit to Saudi Arabia would signal a return to close partnership between the United States and its traditional Gulf allies. But the resulting chaos and intra-alliance conflict suggests that the problems dividing the United States from its Gulf allies are more structural than personality-driven.

Like the Obama administration, the Trump administration is now experiencing a very similar alliance politics dynamic, as the Gulf regimes continue to pursue their own domestic and regional policy agendas with little deference to Washington’s priorities, such as the campaign against the Islamic State.

The battle over “terrorism” is really about proxy wars and regime security.

The Qatar crisis is an outgrowth of proxy wars that have consumed the region since the 2011 Arab uprisings. In those proxy wars, the Gulf states (much like Iran and Turkey) have routinely supported unsavory local armed proxies of varying ideologies and backgrounds in their pursuit of locally effective allies on the ground. From the very beginning of the Libyan war, Qatar and the UAE channeled money and guns to their preferred armed groups. That has had profoundly destructive effects on Libya’s post-Gaddafi trajectory and is a key reason for the failure to rebuild an effective Libyan state.

The contentious arguments over whether to include the Muslim Brotherhood in the definition of terrorism are similarly rooted in proxy wars and domestic regime security fears. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pushed for years to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, despite an expert consensus that it is not. The real issue is that Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood are on the other side in the struggle for regional influence. The polarization between Islamists and their opponents ultimately led to a UAE-Saudi-backed military coup in Egypt, a fate narrowly avoided after Ennahda voluntarily stepped down from power in Tunisia.

The evidence of Qatari involvement in funding and supporting Islamist militant groups in Syria is stronger. But other Gulf states and private networks have been equally irresponsible in their channeling of support to Islamist militant insurgent groups for the past half-decade. Saudi Arabia was heavily involved in the arming of Syrian rebels, while Kuwait was for years the epicenter of Gulf fundraising for Syrian insurgents. The sectarian and hard-line Islamist rhetoric in Qatari media, including Al Jazeera, was little different from the discourse widely circulating in other Gulf media and across its Salafi Islamist networks. In early 2015, Saudi Arabia joined Qatar and Turkey in backing Jaish al-Fatah, a hard-line Islamist militant coalition which included many of the figures and groups currently being condemned. The extremist and sectarian rhetoric which external forces brought to the Syrian insurgency was a problem extending far beyond Qatar.

What have we learned?

The Qatar crisis has proven that conflicts among the “Sunni” states continue to be as intense as their regional struggle with Iran and that regime security concerns continue to drive their policies. Regional powers miscalculate the likely outcome of their policies with impressive frequency, a cautionary note for those hoping for the region to ride out the current turbulence. This makes the mixed messages from the Trump administration especially dangerous at a critical time in the Middle East.

Marc Lynch is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Program and the co-director of the Blogs and Bullets project at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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