Why are five of the largest Arab states ganging up on Qatar? And should we care? These are reasonable questions for the crisis-soaked news reader upon learning that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates have cut off ties—diplomatic as well all travel and trade—with this tiny constitutional monarchy.
A few things worth knowing about Qatar. It holds the world’s fourth-largest oil and natural gas reserves. It hosts the Middle East’s largest U.S. military base, including the headquarters of Central Command’s air combat center. A fairly cosmopolitan place, the nation was chosen—controversially—as the setting for the 2022 World Cup. As with the countries now opposing it, Qatar is led by Sunnis who are active in the fight against the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Yet they are also friendly with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and some of the most hardcore Islamist militias.
In short, like many of the problems that President Trump has confronted or aggravated, Qatar is a lot more complicated than anyone knew.
And, though tensions between Qatar and the other Arab countries have been simmering for nearly a decade, Trump—perhaps accidentally—triggered this new escalation.
Trump thought he would unify and strengthen the Sunni leaders when he spoke to them in Saudi Arabia last month. That visit, his first stop on his first trip abroad as president, was more enthusiastically greeted than his later stops in Europe. But Trump’s speech there, too, was a disaster, though of a different sort, heralding a new U.S. policy of taking the Sunni powers’ side in their sectarian wars against Shiite powers, especially Iran.
What Trump clearly did not foresee was that his speech would also deepen a wedge among the Sunnis—and, possibly, intensify the conflicts in the region.
The emir of Qatar—Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, whose family has ruled the country for almost two centuries—has tried to carve out a separate foreign policy in the past decade, courting one side in the region’s sectarian feuds, then the other side, depending on his own interests. He could do this because his country has enormous wealth for such a small population—its 2.2 million people, most of whom are foreign expats, enjoy the world’s highest per-capita income, dampening the political fissures that plague many of the region’s monarchies. During the Arab Spring, the emir supported the rebel protesters, using the state-owned TV network, Al-Jazeera, as a propaganda organ for their cause. He also moved closer to Iran, the Shiite neighbor just across the Persian Gulf.
Faysal Itani, an analyst at the Atlantic Council in Washington, says that the Qataris’ approach made sense.* “They made the best of their position and tried to carve out a special sphere to be relevant in the region’s politics.”
But in recent years, Qatar’s approach has gone awry. After the Arab Spring faded and the rebels were supplanted by jihadis, Qatar swung its media and money to support these new movements —which its fellow Sunni states loathed and feared. Similarly, as the Sunni–Shiite wars intensified, Qatar moved closer to the leading Shiite government in Iran. In his fellow Sunnis’ eyes, the emir’s strategy looked more and more like a ploy to bring down their regimes—and to expand his own power. In short, he started alienating everyone: the Sunnis by supporting Iran and its allies in the various militias; the Shiites by continuing to host the U.S. military and helping the Saudis in Yemen.
“The Qataris tried to be the Hong Kong of the region,” says Joyce Karam, Washington bureau chief of Al-Hayat, a major pan-Arab newspaper. “It isn’t working anymore.”
The tipping point came with Trump. President Obama kept lines open to all the powers in the region, including Iran, because he did not want to entangle the United States into the sectarian wars any more than it already was. He particularly steered clear of the brewing tensions between Qatar and the other Sunni powers, figuring it would be better to let them work out their own balancing act. Trump’s visit changed the calculus. His speech emboldened the main Sunni powers not only to step up their confrontation with Iran and its “proxies” but also to cut off Qatar.
Now Qatar is vulnerable. Though very wealthy and diplomatically nimble, Qatar relies on Saudi Arabia for 40 percent of its food. Hence the photos of long lines Monday in the grocery stores of the capital, Doha. More than half of the country’s workers come from other countries in the region—and as part of the sanctions, they have now been called home. Even Qatar’s foreign policy has been circumscribed; for instance, the cut-off of air routes prevents Qatar from flying humanitarian aid to Gaza. Saudi Arabia in particular is all but pushing Qatar’s military to take control. A Saudi newspaper headline says of Qatar on Monday: “5 Coups in 46 Years—and 6th Coup Not Far Away.”
An analysis in Jane’s 360, which specializes in defense and intelligence, predicts that the Qatar will have no choice but to give in and to sharply reduce its support for Islamist movements, especially in Syria. Whether it can part company with Iran is another question. Those relations have grown very close; the two countries even share a natural gas field.
Meanwhile, the fissure’s effect on the American-led anti-ISIS campaign is uncertain. As recently as last week, U.S. officials were singing Qatar’s praises for its role in combating terrorism. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday that he would try to mediate the new tensions between Qatar and the other powers—though, given the dearth of second- and third-tier officials in the State Department and an emptied diplomatic corps, it’s unclear how he might do this. It’s alarming enough that the rupture seems to have taken the Trump administration by surprise—perhaps another result of the president’s failure to nominate any under or assistant secretaries in the departments of state and defense.
Over the long haul, this rupture is likely to strain relations within and between the Arab countries. Then again, pan-Arabism unity has long been a bit of a fantasy. It’s possible that this new twist could have some productive consequences. If Qatar ends its support for Islamist fighters, that could speed up the war against ISIS and other extremists in the region. But if, at the same time, Qatar—whether through accession or coup—folds itself completely into the Sunni camp, this will further harden the sectarian divide. For all its flippancy and risk-taking, Qatar’s foreign policy did provide some gray zones and safe harbors in this conflict; it defused some crises, helped free hostages, offered a figment of a third way. Those things are now likely to be shut down and closed off. War will come closer to subsuming the entire region.