Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and a number of Islamic countries cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, imposed a blockade and issued a list of demands for the nation’s immediate compliance. Although it might appear like a Qatari crisis, or more specifically a crisis within the GCC, it has broader regional and international implications. Considering the actors involved, the schism quickly resulted in the emergence of two rival blocs clashing within the wider region’s geopolitics.
At a deeper level, these two competing visions concern stark disagreements over the regional order in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring. These differences are built upon electoral/majoritarian transformation or struggles for authoritarian survival of regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The power shift from traditional actors such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq to the Gulf region (which came to detest the revitalization of Turkey and Iran’s preeminence in regional dynamics) made this rivalry inevitable against an eroding regional order.
Regional order is what states, regional organizations and, to some extent, non-state actors make of it. The socialization of actors eventually evolves into a balance of power and functions with norms and patterns that can be called a regional order. The order that previously dominated the region met its demise with the Arab Spring. However, the structural changes that followed did not lead to the emergence of a replacement regional balance. Rather, it has caused sub-regional entities to emerge with shifting alliances. A regional order does not necessarily mean “orderly” or a peaceful structure but implies a certain degree of stability in the regional contagion.
The interactions of state and non-state actors do not allude to an inevitable end of the Westphalian nation-state or an ultimate non-order in MENA. After the Arab Spring, the regional powerhouses, (i.e. Saudi Arabia and Iran), did not have a political will of self-restraint, but rather have opted to manipulate regional dynamics for their respective causes. Their survivalist grip on power made regional policy an extension of domestic concerns. In such a political landscape, a regional issue can easily turn into an existential matter with spillover effects throughout the MENA region.
In reality, both regional and global actors muddled through a chaotic environment without coherent or consistent policies, which is unsurprising given how the new geopolitics has unfolded in the region. Yet in any case, regional actors still compete to ensure that regional geopolitics adheres to a trajectory that reflects their interests and values. The surge of Gulf countries and their new roles in the regional geopolitical landscape follows the same dictates in this trajectory. Their engagement with different priorities and vested interests does not call for a common ground, but a hegemonic struggle to impose their own preferences on others.
The Gulf Crisis became a nodal point for both Saudi Arabia-UAE and Qatar to reclaim regional roles and struggle for a regional order. The rivalry in which they are engaging is a historical contingency in the absence of regional order and their competing agendas within it. Their agency after the Gulf Crisis put them in a position to bear a decisive impact on the shape of still-evolving regional structures.
The young leadership in all three countries, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (33), Mohammed bin Zayed of UAE (58) and Tamim bin Hamad al Thani (38) acquired the opportunity to assume leadership roles in this process. This opportunity also alludes to a prospective role to lead the emergence, transformation and creation of a new sustainable regional order. However, the current struggle is not about norm making or institution building, but rather is for survival and hegemony. Given the unending stalemate in this rivalry, it has turned into an attritional confrontation that consumes the Gulf countries’ energies and remaining bits of trust towards each other. While the Saudi-UAE duo aspires for a regional hegemonic role, this role has now been directed towards an overreach to redesign the whole region by eliminating rivals, thwarting political transitions and establishing geopolitical primacy in MENA and the Horn of Africa.
In the course of the Arab Spring, Turkey’s support to popular uprisings meant direct support to the Muslim Brotherhood, driving a wedge with the Arab monarchies, namely Saudi Arabia, UAE, as well as Bahrain and Egypt. In the same period, Turkey and Qatar developed special relations in political and economic terms, even adding a security dimension by the establishment of a Turkish military base in Qatar. For Turkish leadership, the blockade against Qatar in June 2017 was seen as a final attempt by the Saudi-UAE alliance to act against Turkish interests in the Gulf and possibly beyond. In response, Turkey did not hesitate to extend strong support to Qatar by providing daily products and reinforcing its military presence in Qatar to help pro-Turkish Tamim.
Exemplifying the distaste of the Turkey-Qatar alliance in the eyes of their rival bloc was the Saudi-UAE ultimatum to remove a Turkish military base in Qatar, one element of their so-called ‘13 Demands’. Turkey is a part of the “triangle of evil” together with Iran and the Islamic State in the eyes of Mohammed bin Salman. This confrontational approach put Turkey in the rival camp of the Saudi-UAE led bloc. Turkey’s military presence in Somalia, and attempts to establish a naval base on the Suakin island of Sudan also added to the enmity as maneuvers of the rivalry centered around the Gulf Crisis. Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia and Iran aims, among other objectives, to preserve its interests in Syria vis-à-vis emerging pressure from rival actors.
The U.S. role rapidly evolved from that of power broker to one supportive of the Saudi-UAE bloc in the Gulf Crisis. This alliance was good enough to defend U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf, secure cash flow, protect Israeli interests and corner Iran in a post-nuclear agreement era. Saudi-UAE activism would suggest stability in some parts of the MENA, such as Libya, and provide the best support to sanctions and regime change in Iran. Saudi-UAE pays particular attention to accommodate Israeli interests in their regional endeavors. This attitude buys the duo additional confidence in Washington DC. In this regard, the Trump administration’s close ties to Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed are exemplary.
In any case, everything boils down to Iran and the overarching effort to stem its burgeoning influence in the Middle East. The Saudi-UAE line has vehemently opposed the Iranian claim to revive its imperial imagination from Syria and Iraq to Yemen, Bahrain and the Gulf states. What was once called a “Shia crescent” turned into a “Persian backyard” through the smart and unprecedented long-arm policy of expansion through proxies. Iran’s early fight after 2003 to deter a possible US regime change gradually turned into a hegemonic role in its zone of influence from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. Obama, in his own way, played into the Iranian game plan and further stirred the Saudi-Emirati cause to roll back and minimize Iranian influence with urgency. Hence, the Trumpian policy to weaken, mitigate and defuse the so-called “Iranian threat,” can only be understood in this context. Even the Gulf Crisis could be read as a way to minimize the possible Qatari attempts to stand together with Iran to defy the Saudi-led claim for the Gulf’s regional leadership. Given the current conditions, Iran’s room for playing for the intra-Gulf dynamics to divide an anti-Iranian coalition appears to be curtailed with Qatar isolated, Oman repatriated and Kuwait pacified. Iran stands with its ever-destructive power, yet again isolated, under maximum pressure and with a looming social upheaval at home.
Saudi-UAE regional power constellation has prioritized their regional role and international profile in their power projection over the course of the Gulf Crisis. They see themselves capable of changing the political landscape in the region (Libya), attracting regional allies (Israel), recruiting outside allies (Pakistan), balancing international intervention (Russia), pursuing out-of-area operations (Horn of Africa), and securing U.S. support behind their cause. This is a self-assigned attempt towards a regional hegemonic role with an international profile.
On the other side, Qatar survived the blockade, strengthened military capabilities, seemingly secured its economy, pursued a balanced regional and international diplomatic role, countered the UAE-Saudi narrative, engaged in rivalry in Africa by establishing a stronghold in Sahel and neutralized anti-Qatari propaganda in the U.S. Emir Tamim, viewed as the savior of the nation against a brutal blockade in the eyes of the Qataris, is more powerful than ever domestically due to a rise in nationalism.
The Gulf Crisis has characteristics of an enduring regional rivalry. In such rivalries, when the sides cannot win a rivalry in regional geopolitics, they can choose to carry their fight beyond. The shift of this clash to the Horn of Africa and Sahel are signals of this tendency. The rivalry has spread to MENA and beyond since the absence of victory results in the opening up of new frontiers. The search for a hegemonic role for the Saudi-UAE duo is an ambitious project. At the same time, these two nations cannot afford setbacks or failures. Their current activism from Yemen to Libya, or their emerging geopolitical profile from India to the Horn of Africa satisfies their concern of a domestic hold on power and future projections of influence. However, they have to handle the issue of sustainability in this endeavor as well. The overstretch in this rivalry is likely to decrease capability and activity on both sides in the region.
There is no losing side in the Gulf Crisis over the past two years among the parties to this rivalry. The persistence of the schism will depend on each respective actors’ ability to keep the momentum gained from geopolitical competition in the region and nearby geographies. The Saudi-UAE duo and Qatar, and their allies at large, may more intensely continue their rivalry beyond the Gulf, but may adapt a low key line the region. The rare diplomatic activity in the region may evolve to a level that manages stability amidst regional crises. The U.S. sanctions on Iran and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry will divert attention as well. Emerging GCC diplomatic activity, such as Qatar’s invitation to the Gulf Summit in Riyadh, is an exemplary development in this regard. Such a prospect would mean no end to Gulf crisis, but rather a new Cold War in a region that pits not only the Gulf states, but regional and global actors against one another.
Dr. Bulent Aras is a Visiting Researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Senior Scholar at Istanbul Policy Center.