Marcus Gutierrez, World Editor, Hamilton College ’18:
Qatar is a small Persian Gulf state on the Arabian Peninsula that, despite its relative obscurity to the average person, wields disproportionate influence in the global community. This influence results from Qatar’s geopolitical position in the Middle East, its waterway access to the Persian Gulf, and its large natural gas and petroleum reserves, which provide the state with enormous wealth and power.
Further, Qatar is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a trade bloc that also consists of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain. Like many states, Qatar seeks to utilize the leverage it possesses to coerce member states to serve its own national interests. In recent years, Qatar’s increasingly close ties with Iran and its meddling into regional affairs has drawn the ire of its larger neighbor Saudi Arabia, which routinely seeks to entrench itself as the sole Muslim hegemon in the region.
On June 5, 2017, the governments of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, and the Maldives all separately announced they’d cut diplomatic ties with Qatar; four of these states were fellow members of the GCC. As stipulations, this severance withdrew ambassadors, closed embassies, restricting airspace, and imposed severe trade and travel bans. By June 10, 2017, Comoros, Mauritania, Senegal, and the unrecognized Tobruk government of Libya joined the coalition against Qatar to apply further pressure on the small nation. This coalition of states have since accused Qatar of aiding and abetting regional Islamic terrorist groups, interfering with the internal affairs of other regional states, continuing support of its Al Jazeera media network, and maintaining relations with Iran and Turkey.
Since the diplomatic crisis began, the Saudi-led coalition has presented 13 demands to the Qatari government.
What has the list of demands revealed about the true nature of the blockade?
The GCC has mistakenly revealed the true motivations behind the blockade. For almost the entirety of the diplomatic crisis, Saudi Arabia and its collaborators have spread rhetoric worldwide (and to the West especially) that their quarantine of Qatar has been a Muslim-led, anti-Islamist terrorism effort. In reality, the Saudi-led ostracization of Qatar is far more calculated and geopolitically conscious in nature, as evidenced by 9 of the 13 demands, which do not pertain to Qatar’s alleged connection to terrorism.
On its own and as a small state, Qatar could never wield military and economic power required to control the region. However, if Qatar were to invite greater powers like Iran or Turkey into regional affairs, they’d challenge Saudi supremacy. As a large state actor that practices the rival Islamic denomination, Shiite Iran poses the most direct challenge to Sunni Saudi hegemony in the region. The rivalry between these two states has expressed itself in opposing reactions to conflicts in Syria and Iraq, varied foreign policy influence from the United States, and an ongoing proxy war in Yemen. Against the wishes of its Saudi neighbors, Qatar has maintained a friendly relationship with Tehran, even aiding in their extraction of natural gas from a large deposit in the Persian Gulf.
A Turkish military presence in Qatar has begun as recently as 2015, when Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad announced the planned construction of a Turkish military base. Both governments have explained this action as a combined effort to overcome Qatar’s “strategic isolation in the region” and confront “common enemies.” Qatar has utilized this hosting of allied military bases to deter aggressors and therefore increase their own national security.
Saudi Arabia’s anxiety over Qatar is not only over the external threat of state alliances but also the internal threat that the Al Jazeera media group presents. Al-Jazeera is a Qatari news conglomerate that offers some of the most free press and journalism in the entire region. Al Jazeera’s ambitious journalism, popularity, and lack of censorship threatens to expose authoritarian and semi-authoritarian populations in the Middle East to views that are critical of their ruling regimes. Considering the role that social media played during the Arab Spring in 2010, it is no surprise that repressive governments would limit the populist agitation of their subjects and citizens.
As the situation currently stands, the United States is in a difficult bind. Just 20 miles southwest of the capital city of Doha, Qatar hosts Al-Udeid Air Base, the largest American military base in the Middle East, complete with 11,000 military personel and over 100 aircrafts. Al-Udeid serves as forward headquarters of the United States Central Command and is an essential military facility in the war against ISIS and terrorism in the region. The United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has recognized the delicacy of this situation in the Middle East, especially since both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are key regional allies. In fact, the United States and Qatar have recently coordinated a joint naval exercise and completed a military deal that will send $15 billion worth of American F-15 jets to Qatar. It would be unreasonable to believe that the United States would continue this ongoing relationship with Qatar if the GCC’s accusations held any water.
Unfortunately, Qatar’s significance as an ally is not valued universally in the American government. In boasting his recent visit to the Middle East as an diplomatic success, President Trump has openly supported the Saudi-led coalition, claiming that his calls to unite Arab and Islamic leaders against Islamist extremists had been a driving force in the coalition state’s decisions. What the GCC and its collaborators have done is enact a clever ruse, feigning the appearance of a Muslim coalition against Islamic terrorism while whipping Qatar back into geopolitical subordination.
The irony of Saudi Arabia leading the coalition:
From the perspective of the western world, it is painfully ironic that Saudi Arabia would spearhead an anti-terror purge in the region. In respect to the worldwide “blaze” that is Islamic extremist terrorism, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia acts as “both arsonists and firefighters.” Saudi Arabia has produced and/or financed some of of the most dangerous and prominent terror organizations in modern history. Furthermore, the state of Saudi Arabia has been key in globally exporting a controversial form of Islam known as Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative and orthodox version of Islam that is popular in Saudi Arabia.
Over the last few years, Saudi Arabia’s charitable donations to radical mosques and schools has risen into the billions of dollars and, through this spending, Saudi Arabia continues to sponsor the spread of Wahhabism and the subsequent radicalization that accompanies it. Wahhabism has been criticized for inspiring groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other Sunni extremists, for nurturing such groups through its complex networks of mosques and imams throughout the world, most recently in the United Kingdom
Where the situation stands now:
Qatar, its businesses, and its citizens are currently suffering at the hands of neighbors who seek to secure themselves and their regimes by rendering Qatar politically impotent. Even under immense political pressure, Qatar has rejected the demands of Saudi Arabia and the GCC–and its ostracization continues today.
In the face of adversity and embargos, Qatar has received relief from Iran in the form of diplomatic and economic support; Iranian President Rouhani even denounced the “siege” on Qatar on June 25, 2017. Iran has followed up its verbal commitment to Qatar by sending tons of foodstuffs daily and opening up Iranian airspace to Qatari aircraft. Iran and Qatar have since fully reinstated their diplomatic relationships with one another, and Turkey has rejected demands to shut down its military base in Qatar as well.
The ongoing Qatari diplomatic crisis further complicates a region already plagued by instability and division. By leading the ostracization of Qatar, Saudi Arabia has created a conduit for Turkish and Iranian influence to solidify in the Persian Gulf, deepening the schism between various Sunni and Shia sects prevailing in the Middle East. To make matters worse, rather than promoting Arab unity and fighting radical terrorism on a cohesive front, the GCC is paralyzed by infighting and now its very survival is in question.