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Historical Assessment of the Current Gulf Crisis

This paper studies the ongoing crisis between Qatar and the Arab quartet—Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt—from several perspectives to better analyze potential solutions. Widespread conflict in the region along with Arab Spring uprisings and dictators’ attempt to limit the effect of these events have complicated Qatar’s relations with the blockading countries. Such frictions are central to understanding the ongoing Gulf Crisis. Politicians have failed to ameliorate conditions because most political parties have only crafted unrealistic plans. It would be foolish to assume that the current dispute is a new one. Rather, it is primarily the accumulation of old disputes and problems. Despite conventional wisdom that disputes in the Gulf have been resolved, it is evident that such problems between Gulf states have not been properly addressed, solved, nor forgotten.


Media pundits and analysts have approached the Gulf crisis between Qatar and the Arab quartet—Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt—in several different ways. Certain outsiders have intervened on behalf of one of the parties involved in the crisis, and often with narrow and incomplete understanding of the Gulf dispute. Others have avoided picking sides and have encouraged a greater commitment to diplomacy and negotiations, ultimately seeing the positives, while neglecting the negative aspects of both sides of the Gulf Crisis. The third approach, which I will be taking, is academic and studies all aspects of the dispute in its current status, taking history into consideration. The ideas and conclusions I present in this paper are not final, and I invite others to further my analysis.


This analysis begins with crucial groundwork to understand this crisis: (1) terrorism and its origins in the contemporary history of Arab society and the Middle East and (2) the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement. These subjects will lead to a discussion of current events, which will conclude this paper. The current confusion in the Gulf requires analysis to understand its causes. An era of paradoxes and inconsistencies in the region has given rise to violent political forces and dictatorships creating a dark situation of confusion and strife.


The Gulf Crisis is a chronic symptom of a larger issue: Arab divisions over modernity that threatens Arab states’ pasts, presents, and futures. Many Arabs want to modernize in the face of realities surrounding all requirements for development while also often reacting irrationally to any political change without considering the implications of their actions.


Terrorism, its Concept and Development


The emergence of modern state in the Gulf was followed by several regional events like Afghan-Soviet war and the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which fueled extremist in the Gulf region. Later, this ideology became widely known as terrorism, in which non-state actors use violence to pursue political agendas. In the second half of the 1970s, former President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said that there was a plan to shake the Soviet Union from its foible. When asked what he meant by “foible”, he replied, “Islamic republics.” No one took this statement seriously. However, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the truth of his statement began to hold weight. President Ronald Reagan began receiving representatives of the Afghan resistance in the 1980s and famously stated: “They remind me of the U.S. Founding Fathers [1].” In coordination with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Washington strongly supported the resistance to the Kremlin in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Mujahidin poured into Afghanistan from Egypt, the Gulf states, and other Middle Eastern countries. Supported by governments [2] and civil institutions, these Arab fighters who went to Afghanistan championed the Afghan people, their “brothers in Islam.” The Mujahidin also received financial support [3], particularly [4] from Arab nations and even their intelligence agencies [5] entered the race to fund and assist them [6]. This political strategy intended to use “Jihad ideology” to attract and dominate young people. Later, when the U.S. became involved in this “Jihad,” they had an exit plan. However, other states entered the Afghan war without such a strategy.


After September 11, 2001, Washington’s policies toward extremist groups in Middle Eastern countries and elsewhere (Afghanistan, Africa, Bosnia, Herzegovina, etc.) underwent a drastic change. Suddenly the strategy shifted their focus toward “counterterrorism,” a monster that took different forms based on the perspectives of various people, groups, and countries.


Additionally, past and current actions, strategies, initiatives, and policies by the Islamic Republic of Iran have contributed to the growth of terrorism, the radicalization of people, and so-called “Political Islam.” The Iranian regime has adopted a sectarian Shiite ideology that aims to expand its influence and leverage [7]. This has fueled resentment among sectarian Sunnis who wish to counter Iranian expansion. The situation has continued to deteriorate because some Arab countries had the wealth and will to fund these groups which claimed to be “charitable associations” and used faith and religious sentiments to find support and sympathy. By doing so, the lines between “charitable work,” “Jihad”, and “terrorism” have dissolved [8]. Therefore, many Gulf nationals detained at Guantánamo unsurprisingly say they were in Afghanistan for “charitable work.”


A lottery Ticket without an Insurance Policy: Intervention in the Arab Spring


When revolutions shook the Arab world in 2011, the Gulf states were not unaffected by the developments, nor did they refrain from seeking to influence such rapid political and social changes unfolding across the region. The Gulf states provided moral, financial, military, and intelligence assistance to parties affected by the Arab Spring while in other countries they supported the counter-revolution movements. This is not an analysis of what is right or wrong, but rather a take on how interventions took place. Some methods were employed through the backing of American interests. But all plans, regardless of interest, occurred without clear exit strategies, as was the case in Afghanistan. However, the current crisis differs from that in Afghanistan because now Gulf states disagree over which parties to support. Moreover, some GCC states even used their support for specific factions against other Council members. Such divergent attitudes and policies toward the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 created substantial controversy that has left an enormous impact on the GCC, and it was later exacerbated by other factors related to old disputes and recently revived. This was especially the case with regards to the disputes about the MB in the Arab Spring.


The Muslim Brotherhood and the Gulf Region


It is important to understand the history of the MB movement in order to understand the Gulf’s responses to the issue today. The MB is a political movement with an Islamic cover that was established and developed in Egypt during the monarchy era after the revolution of 1919. At the time, Egypt was rife with national movements, some modern and others traditional. Hassan al-Banna, the founder and first mentor of the movement, started his work at the end of the 1920s. He was influenced by several movements, including King Abdelaziz bin Saud’s consolidation campaign [9] of the Arabian Peninsula plus some European fascist movements.


The movement was formed around general ideas and principles that sought a return to the Islamic Caliphate [10]. MB ideology developed further during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and found its way to other Arab countries, where it expanded and established branches. During its development, the group retained goals such as the establishment of the caliphate and the return of “The Golden Age” of the Muslims. The MB also benefited from economic and social developments in Egypt and other Arab countries, using them to thrive and expand.


MB ideology which aimed to “change the reality” merged with Jamal Abdul-Nasser’s revolution in 1952 that ousted Egypt’s monarchy. Some leaders among Nasser’s Revolutionary Command Council were either former or current MB members. The MB’s ambition helped it attain power, and MBs profited off this ambition and subsequent successes. Unlike the rest of Egypt’s parties which Nasser initially dissolved following his ascendancy to power, the Arab nationalist leader permitted the MB to remain in the country’s political arena [11]. However, the MB later clashed with Nasser and the president’s comrades in the Islamic movement’s “first catastrophe”[12]. Because of the clash with Nasser, many of them immigrated to the Gulf states or were forced to leave Egypt at a time when Gulf states began receiving the first payments of their oil revenues and using them to achieve greater economic development. During this time, Gulf states needed skilled manpower to expand the education sector [13]. Hence, many of the MB members were employed in this sector. Consequently, the Gulf society embraced MB ideology. The MB’s ideology of politicized Islam mixed with the more traditional and popular Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, and MB members aimed to stand up to Nasser’s ideologies, namely “socialism” and his call to “overthrow the Arab monarchies.” In general, MB members avoided publicly advocating for their movement and ideology, preferring to keep a low profile in host countries. This arrangement was an asset to both the MBs and the Gulf states’ rulers, and it continued as such until the late 1970s. Furthermore, poor students from Gulf states—under British rule at the time—who went to Egypt to study were influenced by the MB movement there. These factors encouraged them to embrace the MB’s “return to Islam” and see the movement as a haven for their aspiration for self-determination. Upon their return to Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE, they established civil societies that initially carried the name of Irshad (which means guidance in Arabic) then they strategically changed their name to Islah(which means reform).[14] After that, the Gulf became a fertile sub-region for the mobilization of supporters.


Yet these associations had unstable relations with the local authorities. Eventually, a branch in the UAE called Social Guidance and Reform Society was dissolved in 1994. [15] Meanwhile, the ones in Bahrain and Kuwait continue to operate to this day. The situation in Saudi Arabia was different because the MB did not engage in the Kingdom’s politics. Some of the members turned to preaching Salafism, which is a mixture between the MB’s ideology and local religious ideas. Similarly, in Kuwait, some Arab Salafists immigrated and encouraged their followers to work in politics directly.


In addition, the MB’s local supporters dominated the education sector in Gulf countries, which produced a mixture of ideology from the MB doctrine with tribal, traditional, Bedouin, and charitable ideas. This ideology gained traction for three main reasons: First, a lack of awareness of the bad conditions for Muslims in many areas of the world. Second, young people’s eagerness to engage in an organization that they believed valued them. Third, people’s misguided education, along with many other factors. In short, there were many factors that gave the MB movement and its affiliated groups a place among societies in the Gulf, and this happened with the approval of different rulers of Gulf states, who decided to get along with the movement for decades and use its followers for specific purposes.


These groups have mostly respected local civil peace in all Gulf states, except for the MB’s failed coup attempt in Oman in 1994, which Egyptian intelligence authorities revealed to Omani authorities. [16] It should also be noted here that the US[17] and UK[18] do not recognize the MB as a terrorist organization, although officials in Washington and London have considered it via technical political committees[19]. This contrasts with some Arab countries that listed the movement as a terrorist group, even though MB-affiliated groups continue to operate in Bahrain (Islamic Minbar) and Kuwait (Hadas).


Additionally, what outrages Gulf states most about the MB is its amicable relations with Islamic Revolution in 1979[20]. At the same time, Qatar’s relations with Iran and its ties with MB offshoots across the Arab world, which made Doha unique within the GCC, were causes for several disputes between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These disputes were also linked to files related to Qatar’s independent foreign policy and the Al Thani family’s plans to modernize Qatar’s state, economy, and society.


The Two Crises of 2014 and 2017


The Saudi-Qatari dispute cannot be characterized as “modern” as some border clashes [21] between the two Gulf states occurred in the 1990s [22]. There were also Qatari-Emirati disputes, some due to the Emirates’ discontentment with certain transfers of power in Qatar [23] as some Gulf rulers saw that such developments in Doha encouraged unconventional practices in governance throughout the GCC. The sequence of ruling system in Qatar (a normal part of traditional society in Gulf states before the transition to the modern state system) was subject to disagreement. Finally, Bahrain and Qatar also had a previous dispute over the Hawar Islands [24], in addition to historical differences between the two royal families.


However, it was assumed that economic growth and wealth along with a new generation of leaders would nullify the old disputes. Also, the economic growth and new leadership happened while there were new threats emerging in the region. Consequently, it was expected that the new generation of rulers would build an alliance based on common interests and neglect past divisions.


Although this was the case, one major reason this unification did not occur was the individualistic and domestic nature of rulers’ personal aspirations. For instance, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani wanted Qatar to play a more influential regional role, and he used the new abundance of wealth to fund his plans to introduce Qatar to modernity and then introduce modernity to the neighboring countries. He planned for “fiery development”. To achieve that, Qatar presented several important development projects that were particularly efficient in the educational and cultural sectors and had a positive impact on all Qatari social classes. Sheikh Hamad then made Al-Jazeera a platform for what is now called “offshore democracy.” Within Qatar’s own borders, however, the Emir did not adopt this policy. Therefore, the policy appeared to hold double standards. At the same time, Doha’s foreign policy succeeded in presenting Qatar to the world as democratic and modern. The emirate’s high income and huge investment in the international market helped Qatar’s image regionally and globally. While Qatar’s popularity boomed, its neighbors were silent, or more likely waiting for the storm to calm down. Eventually they ran out of patience, and there was no place for dialogue and diplomacy, which had not been used at all before the eruption of the current crisis.


At the start of this diplomatic row, declining oil prices and mounting pressure from wars across the greater Middle East had turned the Gulf region into “Prisoners of Geography.” The first crisis occurred in 2013 and 2014, with Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain on the other. The three countries withdrew their ambassadors from Doha and accused Doha of not abiding by GCC principles. The main dispute was related to Al Jazeera and Qatar’s relation with the MB. A compromise was reached and the dispute was solved by signing a document, which was recently made available to the public and revealed that there was some consensus among all parties. However, the 2017 crisis is slightly different. The situation has changed as Egypt joined the three Gulf states against Qatar. During this crisis, Qatari officials have stated that they do not see in Doha’s policies any discrepancy with the core issues of internal Gulf states; in fact, they view their policies as harmonized with the consensus among GCC members. They believe that their country’s relations with the world, including regional states such as Iran and Turkey, are a part of Qatar’s sovereignty that should not be disputed by anyone, and they act accordingly. Doha argues that their policies support the people who revolted against their oppressive dictators, as well as the Muslim MB, which Doha argues many Gulf states have used at some point in time. [25]


On the other side, the Arab quartet considers the current era a time for unity in order to confront the major risks facing the region. They have reached the consensus that Doha’s foreign policy is detrimental to the common security of the Gulf, the most notable policy being the Egypt-Qatar disagreement after the arrival of President Sisi to power. Also, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia view the strengthening of the Egyptian state as not only important for Egyptian security, but also for the collective Arab states’ security. Therefore, the weakness of Egypt is the weakness of the Arabs, while the region is currently facing major challenges. Along with this dispute, there are several other claims. One is Doha’s sheltering of other Gulf states’ opposition figures. Another is a common view among officials in the GCC that Al Jazeera is directly impacting their national security. Moreover, officials in the Arab quartet accuse Doha of not valuing or taking their concerns seriously. Yet we should notice that these cases were not considered pivotal to the national security of these countries until the American administration explicitly changed its position on those files.


Expected Scenarios


If the crisis continues, everyone will lose. The GCC is under tremendous pressure, and if the diplomatic row continues without mediation, the whole region will be impacted. The establishment of the GCC was a political response to major regional and geopolitical issues. Some of the more notable crises that influenced its creation were Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and the British departure from the Gulf in the 1970s. Thus, small- and medium-sized Gulf countries resorted to establishing a formal organization to ensure cooperation in the security, defense, and stability of the region. Even when major regional powers took part of the crisis or tried to mediate between the Gulf states to find a solution for their disputes, they obviously had their own agendas, and ignoring this reality will have detrimental results. Thus, the continuation of this crisis threatens not only the durability of the GCC, but the possibility for lasting peace and peaceful conflict resolution in the region.


Therefore, I believe that first and foremost there must be a way to resolve the dispute among these Gulf states internally and peacefully. Secondly, there must be a serious consideration for a form of popular participation in the decision-making process in Gulf States because any political movement, no matter its ideological motive, only flourishes in the case of a political vacuum. In the last five decades, Gulf societies have experienced political, cultural, and social developments that make it necessary to find ways for Gulf societies to participate in decisions through modern institutions in which the people have representation. If today’s most pressing concern is religiously ideologized political groups, tomorrow we might face different groups with different ideologies and motives. In addition to that, there is a need to develop a “new Islamic doctrinal system” that would set a dividing line between religion and politics to protect religion from political exploitation.


Dr. Mohammad Al-Rumaihi





[1] “Ronald Reagan: Remarks at the Annual Dinner of the Conservative Political Action Conference .” The American Presidency Project. March 1, 1985. Accessed December 18, 2017. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=38274.

[2] Gause III, Gregory. “Saudi Arabia and the War on Terrorism” in Adam Garfinkle (ed.), A Practical Guide to Winning the War on Terrorism, Hoover Institution Press, 2004. Pages 92-93

[3] US Department of Treasury “ Treasury Department Statement Regarding the Designation of the Global Relief Foundation”. October 18, 2002. Accesses December 18, 2017. https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/po3553.aspx

[4] Roe, Sam, Laurie Cohen and Stephen Franklin. “How Saudi Wealth Feueled Holy War.” Chicago Tribune. February 22. 2004. Accessed December 18, 2017. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-0402220496feb22-story.html

[5] Risen, James and Miller Judish. “A Nation Challeneged: The Spies; Pakistani Intelligence Had Ties To Al Qaeda, U.S. Officials Say”. The New York Times. October 29, 2001. Accesses December 18, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/29/world/nation-challenged-spies-pakistani-intelligence-had-ties-al-qaeda-us-officials.html

[6] Ehrenfeld, Rachel. “Drug trafficking, kidnapping fund al Qaeda.” CNN. May 4, 2011. Accesses on December 18, 2017.http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/05/03/ehrenfeld.al.qaeda.funding/index.html

[7] Middle East Policy Council. “Regional Sectarianism and Iran’s Existential Choice”. Accessed December 18, 2017. http://www.mepc.org/commentary/regional-sectarianism-and-irans-existential-choice

[8] Levitt, Matthew. “Charitable Organizations and Terrorist Financing”. The Washington Institute. March 19, 2004. Accessed December 18, 2017. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/charitable-organizations-and-terrorist-financing-a-war-on-terror-status-che

[9] Sadeq, Adli. “Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood: a relationship to be restored”. Middle East Monitor. July 23, 2015. Accessed December 18, 2017. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20150723-saudi-arabia-and-the-muslim-brotherhood-a-relationship-to-be-restored/

[10] Saleh, Mouna. “Hassan al-Banna: A Starting Point for Contemporary Islamic Fundamentalism.” International Relations Students. Jan 18, 2016. Accessed December 18, 2017. http://www.e-ir.info/2016/01/18/hassan-al-banna-a-starting-point-for-contemporary-islamic-fundamentalism/

[11] “The Muslim-brotherhood and the Political Benefits of Patience”. The Path to the Presidency. Accesses December 18, 2017.https://pathtothepresidency.wordpress.com/nasser/

[12] Fayed, Ammar. “Is the Crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood Pushing the Group Toward Violence”. Brookings. March 23, 2016. Accessed December 18, 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/research/is-the-crackdown-on-the-muslim-brotherhood-pushing-the-group-toward-violence/

“Profile: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood”. Aljazeera. February 6, 2011. Accessed December 18, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/2011/02/201126101349142168.html

[13] “UAE and the Muslim Brotherhood: A Story of Rivalry and Hatred”. Fanack. July 16, 2017. Accessed December 18, 2017.https://fanack.com/united-arab-emirates/history-past-to-present/uae-muslim-brotherhood/

[14] Freer, Courtney. “The Muslim Brotherhood and the GCC: It’s Complicated”. Middle East Eye. July 3, 2017. Accessed December 18, 2017. http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/muslim-brotherhood-and-gcc-it-s-complicated-510074443

[15] “UAE Lists Muslim Brotherhood as Terrorist Group”. Reuters. November 15, 2014. Accessed December 18, 2017.https://www.reuters.com/article/us-emirates-politics-brotherhood/uae-lists-muslim-brotherhood-as-terrorist-group-idUSKCN0IZ0OM20141115

[16] “Oman Jails 31 for Plotting Coup”. BBC. May 2, 2005. Accesses December 18, 2017. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4505075.stm

[17] Baker, Peter. “White House Weighs Terrorist Designation for Muslim Brotherhood”. The New York Times. February 7, 2017. Accessed December 18, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/world/middleeast/muslim-brotherhood-terrorism-trump.html

[18] Hearst, David. “Muslim Brotherhood a ‘Firewall’ against extremism, Says UK”. Middle East Eye. March 5, 2017. Accessed December 18, 2017. http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/muslim-brotherhood-rite-passage-firewall-violence-uk-government-1812060488

[19] “Political Islam, and the Muslim Brotherhood Review”, Page 33. UK House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Committee. November 1, 2016. Accessed December 18, 2017. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmfaff/118/118.pdf

“Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Organization Act of 2014”. United Stated Congress. July 24, 2014. Accessed December 18, 2017. https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/5194/text

[20] Salama, Mohammed. “The Muslim Brotherhood and their relationship with Iran”. International Affairs Forum. Accessed December 18, 2017. www.ia-forum.org/Content/ViewInternalDocument.cfm?ContentID=8287

[21] “Mystery of Qatar’s battle over border”. The Independent. October 1, 1992. Accessed December 18, 2017.http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/mystery-of-qatars-battle-over-border-1554898.html

[22] Border disputes took place in 1992 and were part of a series of limited clashes that happened between Gulf countries in the last quarter of the 20th century. However, all disputes were solved diplomatically

[23] Ulrichsen, Coates Kristian. “Qatar and the Arab Spring: Policy Drivers and Regional Implications”. September 24, 2014. Accessed December 18, 2017. http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/09/24/qatar-and-arab-spring-policy-drivers-and-regional-implications-pub-56723

[24] “Bahrain Re-opens Border Dispute with Qatar.” Aljazeera. November 5, 2017. Accessed December 18, 2017.http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/bahrain-opens-border-dispute-qatar-171105062102281.html

[25] Stephens, Michael. “Why Key Arab Countries have Cut Ties with Qatar – and What Trump had to Do with it.” The Washington Post. June 7, 2017. Accessed December 18, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/06/07/what-you-should-know-about-qatar-now/?utm_term=.f6c3b3eaacc9

Dr. Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. He holds a Ph.D. from Durham University and has published more than 20 books about the social and political changes in the Arab Gulf states. He has been an Editor-in-Chief for prominent newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states and was Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature 1998-2002.

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