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The gulf in the Gulf is profound. It is not a family squabble or a tiff among royals, though at times it may look that way to outsiders. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are quarreling about profoundly important questions: leadership in the Arab world and beyond, how Muslims should govern, and the relationship of the Gulf to political Islam, extremists, Iran, and the West.
Saudi Arabia views itself as the natural leader in the Gulf: its population and energy resources make it first among equals. It is governed as an absolute monarchy, albeit one that in the past included a good deal of consultation, at least within the royal family. Those days are gone. The King and Crown Prince have concentrated power and wealth as never before, in part to enable urgently needed modernization. Their Vision 2030 is driven almost entirely from the top, while some of those who try to promote reform at the grassroots are jailed and even, in Jamal Khashoggi’s case, killed. Today’s monarchy dreads the return to prominence of religious conservatives and has tried to break the Wahhabi link to terrorism. Riyadh is belligerent towards political Islam in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, which it regards as terrorist, and towards Iran, which it sees as bent on promoting trouble throughout the region. The Kingdom tries to protect its relationship with the West, especially its access to arms.
Differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have existed for decades. Doha prides itself on being distinctive and independent, especially in foreign policy. Also a monarchy, in practice it continues a tradition of broader consultation within the less than 10 per cent of its population that is Qatari. It has a constitution that provides for a parliament, but no national elections have been held and no political organizations are permitted. Al Jazeera, its nominally independent global news operation, says little about domestic politics. Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, is keen on modernization and has its own Vision 2030. Also Wahhabi in religious orientation, Qatar has kept conservatism at bay while viewing political Islam, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as an inevitable feature of any non-autocratic Muslim state. Qatar shares the world’s largest gas field with Iran and maintains good relations with Tehran while also trying to protect its relationship with the West, especially by hosting the largest American air base in the Middle East at Al Udeid and cooperating in countering terrorism.
The rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia burst into an open split within the Gulf Cooperation Council in June 2017. In response to an apparently fake statement attributed to Qatar’s Emir, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed an embargo in order, the “Quartet” claimed, to get Qatar to fulfill promises it made in 2014. The current version of the Quartet’s demands is formulated as six “principles,” with many subsidiary demands, few of which get more than cursory comment in Qatar. Qataris either believe the original 2014 agreement has been fulfilled or is irrelevant. The only demand they are prepared to grudgingly yield a bit on is the editorial policy of Al Jazeera, which some think could be adjusted to meet Saudi and Emirati claims that it promotes dissent and revolution within Qatar’s neighbors.
The Quartet’s embargo and the Qatari response would be nothing more than a tempest in a Gulf teapot were it confined to an exchange of diplomatic blows. But, for several reasons, it is bigger than that.
The belligerents have extended their conflict to third countries. In Libya, the UAE and Egypt are backing General Khalifa Haftar, including his assault on Tripoli, while Qatar backs the UN-constituted government. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE back the UN-approved government while the Qataris, who originally joined that team, are alleged to have switched sides to back the Houthis. The Qataris and Saudis backed different Syrian rebels, to the disadvantage of them all. The Gulf monarchies are waging war by attacking not each other’s territories but each other’s proxies in third countries.
There is a commercial and social aspect of the conflict that cannot be ignored. The embargo has broken many trade and investment ties between the Quartet countries and Qatar, whose citizens residing in the Quartet countries have lost their property and have been forced out. Qatar has responded by increasing its ties to Turkey and Iran while continuing gas exports to the UAE and the Far East. The message the Qataris are trying to send is that Doha is a reliable energy supplier and will not be cowed by hostile neighbors in the Gulf but instead will rely on their traditional adversaries if need be. This enrages the Saudis, who have a traditionally contentious relationship not only with Iran but also with Turkey.
The disruption of commercial and social ties has a counterpart in Qatari identity. Qataris in the past regarded themselves as Khaleeji (Gulfies), a supranational identity that emphasized their shared culture and history with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This sense is evaporating in favor of a Qatari identity distinct from that of the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.
Both in Saudi Arabia and in Qatar the Gulf crisis has proven a boon to the monarchies. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatari Emir Tamim have never been more popular. Both enjoy an almost cultish following, especially among their younger subjects. This will make it more difficult to heal the rift when the time comes. Even absolute monarchs enjoy popular acclamation and hesitate to buck public opinion, especially when it comes to making peace with an adversary.
The Gulf crisis initially caused real concern in the United States. While President Trump helped to trigger the crisis while on a visit to Riyadh when he criticized Doha for supporting terrorism, then Secretary of State Tillerson and then Secretary of Defense Mattis were concerned that the Saudis might invade Qatar and try to install their own preference as Emir, thus endangering the Americans at Al Udeid and putting their future presence there at risk. Washington appointed retired General Anthony Zinni to support a Kuwaiti mediation effort, but that failed and Zinni resigned.
Washington and other Western capitals have learned to live with situation. The United States encourages continuation of GCC military cooperation but has learned to deal separately with the Quartet and Qatar on most issues. The gulf in the Gulf may be profound, but both sides need the West and are prepared to enhance their separate relationships with Washington, including spending minor fortunes on lobbying there and investing heavily in American companies as part of their mutual one-upmanship. The Americans have learned to live with the non-hurting stalemate that prevails, as it provides them with leverage over both Riyadh and Qatar and so far has interfered little with Washington’s priorities, including the war on the Islamic State and “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
Professor Daniel Serwer: Director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also affiliated as a Scholar with the Middle East Institute.