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What’s Happening in the Persian Gulf

By Derek Davison

Early Monday morning, five Arab states—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen—along with the Maldives, broke all diplomatic and physical ties with the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. All six countries say they are withdrawing their diplomats from Qatar within 48 hours and expect Qatari diplomats to reciprocate within the same time frame, and other Qatari nationals in those countries have two weeks to leave. Those countries have also cut all land, sea, and air contact with Qatar—meaning, among other things, that Qatar’s land border with Saudi Arabia is now closed, airlines from those six countries will no longer fly into Qatar, and Qatar Airways flights have been barred from their airspace.
In its official statement explaining this move, Riyadh noted Qatar’s “grave violations” against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain:
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken this decisive decision as a result of grave violations being committed by the authorities in Doha over the past years in secret and public aiming at dividing internal Saudi ranks, instigating against the State, infringing on its sovereignty, adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region including the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, promoting the ethics and plans of these groups through its media permanently, supporting the activities of Iranian-backed terrorist groups in the governorate of Qatif of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom of Bahrain, financing, adopting and sheltering extremists who seek to undermine the stability and unity of the homeland at home and abroad, and using the media that seek to fuel the strife internally; and it was clear to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the support and backing from the authorities in Doha for coup Al-Houthi militias even after the announcement of the Coalition to Support the Legitimacy in Yemen. 
The Kingdom has also taken this decision in solidarity with the Kingdom of Bahrain being subjected to terrorist campaigns and operations supported by the authorities in Doha.
The statement offered no evidence in support of these charges, only one of which (Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood) is well documented. The charge that Doha has been aiding Houthi militants in Yemen is particularly interesting given that Qatari soldiers have been participating in, and reportedly suffering on behalf of, the Saudi-led, anti-Houthi military coalition. In response, Qatar’s governmentdeclared that there was “no legitimate justification” for this move and argued that it was an effort to “impose guardianship” on Qatar and thus was a “violation of its sovereignty.”
This is a fast-developing story, but certain core elements of it appear to have taken shape.
A History of Shaky Relations 
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had a love-hate relationship for over two decades—a fact acknowledged in Monday’s statement from Riyadh: “Since 1995, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its brothers have made strenuous and continued efforts to urge the authorities in Doha to abide by its commitments and agreements.” The Saudis didn’t select that date at random. In 1995, the former Emir of Qatar, Hamad b. Khalifa Al Thani, overthrew his father, Khalifa b. Hamad Al Thani, in a bloodless coup. Sheikh Hamad abdicated in 2013 in favor of his son, Tamim, who is the current Qatari ruler. Hamad’s decision to maintain friendly relations with Israel (Qatar broke off those relations over the 2009 Gaza War) was a source of tension with the Saudis. For several years the two countries also disputed the precise location of their land border, before finally reaching an agreement on its location in 2008. Monday’s events come out of this years-long tension.
The immediate cause of the diplomatic break can be traced back to the 2011 Arab Spring. Unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which quickly opposed any revolutionary movements that threatened established Arab autocracies, Qatar decided to bet on the revolutionaries and used some of its vast fossil-fuel wealth to support them. In particular, Sheikh Hamad decided to throw its weight behind Muslim Brotherhood movements in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere, building off of his long-standing support for Brotherhood branches around the Arab world, including Hamas. This represented a radical shift from Hamad’s previous “no problems” foreign policy, which presumably reflected Hamad’s desire to increase Qatar’s prominence on the geopolitical stage commensurate with its financial clout. Under Hamad, and then Tamim, Qatar has adopted a number of foreign policies that have at times, placed it at odds with its fellow Gulf states:
  • Qatar was an early supporter of Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising and the elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government that succeeded former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Doha pumped an estimated $10 billioninto Mohamed Morsi’s government and lined up deals to sell natural gas to Egypt and help rebuild the Suez Canal. In contrast, Riyadh, which historically loathes the Muslim Brotherhood, has poured at least $12 billion into Egyptian coffers since the military coup that overthrew Morsi and brought Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power in 2013. Qatar’s support for Morsi explains why the Saudis initiated this boycott and why Egypt joined it.
  • Qatar supported the now-defunct General National Congress in Libya. The Islamist GNC, based in Tripoli was one of two competing governments, alongside the House of Representatives based in Tobruk, that contested control of Libya after the Arab Spring-driven fall of Muammar Gaddafi. It has since been driven mostly out of the picture by the country’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord, also based in Tripoli. The UAE, in contrast, supported and continues to support the secularist Tobruk government (which has also announced that it has broken off ties with Qatar, but since it’s not a recognized government the impact of that decision is minimal). For a time the two Gulf states were effectively fighting a proxy war in Libya that helped destabilize that country and contributed to tensions in the Gulf.
  • Qatar has also played an active role supporting and arming Syrian rebel groups, including—allegedly—extremist groups like the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front (also known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) and even the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). It’s possible that this has contributed to inter-Gulf tensions. But as the Saudis have allegedly been supporting these same rebel groups it’s hard to see what the problem would have been. However, in April, Qatar was reportedly behind a negotiated settlement to evacuate four besieged Syrian towns, a deal Doha reportedly reached through negotiations with Iran. Qatar’s cordial relationship with Iran, in addition to its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, is one of Riyadh’s chief grievances.
  • Qatar has also long supported Hamas, whose biggest foreign patron has consistently been Iran. And with the Saudis coming together with Israel over their shared hostility toward Iran, Riyadh would certainly not have viewed that support for Hamas favorably.
There’s one other elephant in this room, which is Qatar’s support of the Al Jazeera network. The Saudis and Emiratis in particular have long criticized the news channel for promoting Muslim Brotherhood voices and for criticizing the policies of other Gulf states. After announcing the diplomatic cut off on Monday, Riyadh shut down Al Jazeera’s local offices.
This is not the first time these tensions have come to a boiling point. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE cut diplomatic ties with Qatar over Doha’s support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. They did not sever land, sea, and air contacts with Qatar, but it did take eight months for relations to finally be restored. More recently, the Saudis and Emiratis objected to alleged remarks given by Sheikh Tamim at a commencement ceremony, in which the Qatari Emir was said to have spoken favorably of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas while denigrating Saudi and American foreign policy. Although the Qatar News Agency reported this speech, the Qataris insist that QNA was hacked and that the speech never took place. Nonetheless, both Saudi and Emirati state media have reported on the speech and expressed anger over its contents, apparently refusing to believe Qatar’s hacking explanation.
The Washington Factor
Monday’s diplomatic crisis also has roots in President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh. During his trip, Trump fully embraced the Saudis’ anti-Iran, anti-political Islamist view of the region, and that support has emboldened the Saudis to take a harder line against Arab states that deviate from their foreign policy aims:
“You have a shift in the balance of power in the Gulf now because of the new presidency: Trump is strongly opposed to political Islam and Iran,” said Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global risk and resilience at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
“He is totally aligned with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, who also want no compromise with either Iran or the political Islam promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The Trump administration has had little to say about the dispute apart from calling for dialogue and offering to mediate between the Saudis and Qataris. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that this diplomatic rupture shouldn’t have “any significant impact” on U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, but it’s difficult to know how he can determine that at this point. The centerpiece of Trump’s Riyadh visit was supposed to be the creation of a broad coalition of Islamic states working together to combat extremism and terrorism. That coalition is already falling apart a scant two weeks after Trump’s trip. The U.S. military said Monday that it has no plans to change its posture in Qatar, where the al-Udeid air base is one of U.S. Central Command’s primary forward operating bases.

Additionally, it’s hard to avoid connecting Monday’s events with revelations over the weekend about the hacking of Yousef al-Otaiba’s personal email. Emails leaked to The Intercept and Huffington Post show that Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the U.S., who was once profiled by Huffington for his “extraordinary influence” in Washington, has been lobbying the Trump administration to break America’s long-standing alliance with Qatar. From Huffington’s report on the leak:
In private correspondence, Otaiba ? an extremely powerful figure in Washington, D.C., who is reportedly in “in almost constant phone and email contact,” with Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law ? is seen pushing for the U.S. to close down its military base in Qatar and otherwise poking at issues that could drive a wedge between the U.S. and that Arab nation. He also says that his country’s de facto ruler is supportive of a wave of anti-Qatar criticism in the U.S. that the Gulf state last month called a smear campaign and that has prompted behind-the-scenes alarm inside the U.S. government.
The leaked emails also suggest that Otaiba has had a close, ongoing relationship with the pro-Israel think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), including collaboration on anti-Qatar policymaking:
The emails detail the proposed agenda of an upcoming meeting between FDD and UAE government officials that is scheduled for June 11-14. Dubowitz and Hannah are listed as attending, as well as Jonathan Schanzer, FDD vice president for research. UAE officials requested for meetings include Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince who commands the armed forces.
The agenda includes extensive discussion between the two on Qatar. They are scheduled to discuss, for instance, “Al Jazeera as an instrument of regional instability.” (Al Jazeera is based in Qatar.)
On Monday afternoon, Buzzfeed’s Borzhou Daragahi tweeted that “two separate sources” had told him that Monday’s diplomatic moves were “driven by” that upcoming FDD/UAE conference. Given FDD’s staunchly pro-Israel orientation and Qatar’s ties to Hamas, this collaboration over mutual antipathy toward Doha is unsurprising.
What Happens Now
As noted above, the last time a diplomatic rupture with Qatar occurred it took eight months to repair relations. But this rupture seems more serious—for one thing, more countries are involved, and for another the countries in question have also cut off all physical contact with Qatar in addition to diplomatic contact. In the near term, it may be difficult for the Qataris to move around, to export their natural gas, and even to obtain food, since much of Qatar’s imported food comes overland via the Saudi border. Indeed, there are already stories of people making runs on Qatari grocery stores.
In the longer term, it will be difficult for the Saudis and others to completely isolate Qatar internationally. The Qataris have good relations with several international and regional powers, including the U.S., but also Russia, the European Union, and Turkey, with which it has a defense agreement. And if things really get rough, Doha has a diplomatic “nuclear option,” which is to place itself under Iranian protection. Tehran has already called for a peaceful resolution to the dispute and has offered to send food to Qatar if needed. Qatar’s enormous fossil fuel wealth is another factor that would make it hard to isolate the emirate for very long. It’s already not clear whether any other nations will join the six that have already severed ties with Qatar. It’s doubtful that even the two remaining Gulf Cooperation Council members, Kuwait and Oman, will join in.
The ultimate Saudi goal here is as yet unknown. Riyadh may want Qatar to sever its relations with Iran altogether and/or take tangible steps to divest itself of any ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. It may want Qatar to shut down Al Jazeera. Or it may want something more drastic. Last week, Salman al-Ansari, president of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee in Washington, seemed to warn Sheikh Tamim via Twitter that he could wind up like ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi over Qatar’s relations with Iran and the Saudis.

And, again, the official Saudi statement and its mention of “1995” as the year Riyadh’s troubles with Doha began was not random. The Saudis are quite clearly identifying Qatar’s current emir and his predecessor as the problem, and there’s an unsubtle message there for others in Qatar who might be interested in finding a solution. The Saudis allegedly attempted to interfere in Qatari dynastic politics once before. In 1996, there was an attempt to place Khalifa b. Hamad Al Thani back on the Qatari throne allegedly with some level of Saudi and Emirati support. It could be that Riyadh is attempting once more to engineer a political change in Doha.


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