For its third year, the blockade of Qatar –which Doha has labeled the Gulf Crisis — sputters on without resolution. Various attempts to mediate the crisis that began on June 5th 2017 have proven futile. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has begun to resemble a zombie, neither dead nor alive. Washington’s attention oscillates between hostilities with Iran and abandonment of the entire region. The GCC states have suffered a double whammy of low oil prices driven even further into the sub-basement by a pandemic that has tanked the global economy. Despite all of these challenges, however, the blockade persists, disappointing those of us who believed that a “black swan” event would bring the feuding parties to their senses.
2017: The Crisis Unfolds
The Gulf crisis took Qataris and the Washington-based national security establishment by surprise. One of the first events at the onset of the crisis was the release on May 28th of a Qatar News Agency post quoting the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid Al-Thani as cautioning against confrontation with Iran and praising the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran’s Shi’a ally in Lebanon.
Without warning or consultation with the United States or any other ally, Bahrain broke diplomatic relations with Qatar early June 5th. They were followed at almost precisely ten-minute intervals by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Libya’s Hafter, the Maldives, and Yemen. Over the next few hours, these countries severed all transportation links and closed their airspace to Qatar Airways and any other flights enroute to Qatar. Banks in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain severed transactions with their Qatari correspondents. Within a few more hours, the neighboring states began the deportation of Qatari citizens, literally tearing children from the arms of their mothers with Qatari nationality. They even deported a herd of camels apparently carrying Qatari registration. On June 6th, President Trump tweeted a congratulations message to the neighbors and attacked Qatar as a major sponsor of terrorism.
By the end of that week, Washington punditry had concluded that Qatar would fold and give in to its neighbors’ demands – although no one knew exactly what they were. It did not quite work out that way. Someone apparently forgot to tell President Trump (or he did not pay attention to his briefings) that Qatar hosted the most important US military facilities including Al-Udeid Air Base and the forward headquarters of Central Command. Secretaries of State Tillerson and Mattis intervened to demonstrate solidarity with Qatar, an action that probably cost Tillerson his job, and warn off the neighbors from any “kinetic” action. Turkey quickly deployed a small force to Qatar as a tripwire against any attack. Piling on, Iran made ominous noises about its rights in the gas field it shares with Qatar. If the neighbors had any ideas about an invasion, they quietly shelved them.
Within a few weeks, evidence emerged of how the blockading powers had planned and executed a campaign to essentially reduce Qatar to feudal vassalage, as had happened to Bahrain a few years earlier. Investigators discovered that the Qatar News Agency had been hacked and the Emir’s comments fabricated. Secretary of State Tillerson demanded that the blockading countries clarify their demands of Qatar. Unprepared for any American pushback, they fumbled, and on June 23rd produced a 13-point ultimatum that made the 1914 Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia look like a peace offering. At about this point, President Trump decided he wanted no further role in this drama and bailed on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
After the initial shock, Qatar surprised observers by moving effectively and quickly to rearrange its logistics, financial, and transportation links. Oman’s Sohar replaced Dubai’s Jebel Ali as the trans-shipment hub for Qatar, tearing a huge hole into the latter’s economy. Turkey, Iran, and other regional countries stepped in to restock Qatari supermarkets. Qatari entrepreneurs imported thousands of milk cows to set up dairy farms and others turned to hydroponic farming. Qatar Airways and other carriers rerouted all their flights to and from Qatar over Iranian airspace. Within a few weeks, the country’s economy stabilized.
Of equal importance, Qatar’s population – especially outraged at the division of families – rallied around the Emir and the government. To Qatar’s delight (and surprise), even the country’s established expatriates joined in the patriotic fervor. Within a few months, a different Qatar emerged, one with a much stronger sense of national identity and even an almost jingoistic defiance of their blockading neighbors and greater self-confidence. Since the crisis, the kafala system has been overhauled and measures have been put in place to give permanent status to long-term residents. Though much remains to be done, especially in terms of implementation, Qatar’s reforms have put their regional opponents on the defensive.
To counter the quartet’s allegations of financing terrorism, Qatar also moved quickly to cement stronger security ties with the United States, especially with regard to counterterrorism. It signed a counter-money laundering agreement that essentially opened its books to the US Treasury. Doha has initiated semi-annual security consultations with the United States and has picked up a larger share of the costs at Al-Udeid Air Base. Finally, Qatar decided to compete with its rivals in big-ticket defense purchases from the United States, a tactic that always finds favor with the current White House. For good measure it has also signed outsize defense procurement contracts with European countries, while its neighbors already procure more military hardware than any other country in the world and thus did not have much room to expand.
Mediation Efforts and the “New Normal”
Kuwait, the driving force behind the establishment of the GCC, moved first and fast to mediate the crisis. Its initial efforts with Saudi Arabia were rebuffed. Over the following three years, Kuwait has remained determined to resolve the crisis, which it fears will undermine the reason for existence of the GCC, an organization it conceived after the outbreak of the Iran–Iraq War in 1980. Numerous Kuwaiti efforts at direct mediation or through the offices of the GCC have gone for naught. Kuwait’s attempt to broker a personal call between the Emir Sheikh Tamim and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman blew up in personal recriminations between the two.
Since 2018, Saudi Arabia has occasionally signaled of its desire to call off the blockade but did not act when the moment called. Abu Dhabi has remained unrelenting in its rivalry with Doha. Few doubt that the origins of the crisis lie deep in the centuries-old feuds between the ruling houses of the four principal protagonists. The same neighbors who imposed the blockade had facilitated an attempted coup in 1996, long before Al Jazeera became a household name. The United States has made several abortive attempts to resolve the disputes including the naming of special emissaries. It soon became clear the US had little interest in devoting the diplomatic capital needed to resolve the crisis beyond securing its immediate military and security interests. Other major powers such as Russia, China, India, and sundry Europeans have accommodated themselves to the new normal.
The “new normal” does not appear inherently stable. Saudi Arabia and the UAE at first announced a new axis within the GCC trying to force others to join in following their lead. However, their attempts to muscle Oman into falling in line with their policies have failed, and now Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are feuding over the future of Yemen. All the Gulf capitals have evinced varying degrees of anxiety over a bifurcated American policy that appears hell-bent on provoking Iran into an armed confrontation while signaling to the GCC states that the US has no interest in defending them against Iran. To add to their anxiety, the Trump administration continues to signal that it wants out of the region, no matter what.
Many, myself included, believed that the crisis would drag on until some threatening external development – a Black Swan – would shock the protagonists into finding a face-saving way of calling off the feud. It is difficult to imagine any one Black Swan scarier than this flock of Black Swans threatening the interests of all the protagonists: the pandemic that has brought down the world economy and driven oil prices so low that national budgets are in grave peril for the first time in two generations.
There is minimal likelihood that prices will ever reach previous levels given that the US technology has made it completely oil and gas self-sufficient and even a competitor that can step in whenever prices begin to rise. At the same time, the GCC states have not demonstrated that they can meaningfully diversify their economies away from almost complete dependence on hydrocarbons. In fact, they should worry a lot about their relevance and importance to the US and to the world.
If the next US administration walks back Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), lowers tensions with Iran, and decides that continued withdrawal from the region would satisfy a war-weary American electorate, they will be left up the well-known creek without a paddle. If there were ever a time for the feuding parties to kiss and make up, this would be it. Instead, ancient family feuds prevail over self-interest.
Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.