Robin Lamb was formerly British Ambassador to Bahrain and now the executive director of LBBC. He is also a member of the Council of the RSAA. Here, he looks at the background to the current dispute between Qatar and its neighbouring Arab states.
On 5 June 2017, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE broke off diplomatic relations and cut transport links with Qatar over its alleged support for Islamic terrorism. The Yemeni government and the authorities holding power in eastern Libya followed suit. Other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Kuwait and Oman have not and Kuwait has continued attempts to mediate between Qatar and its neighbours which it was pursuing before 5 June. On 8 June, Qatar’s opponents proscribed 59 people and 12 entities from Bahrain, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The proximate cause of the split was the Qatari media’s publication of remarks attributed to the Amir, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and an accommodation with Iran. The Qataris claimed their media had been hacked but their neighbours ignored the claim and accused Qatar of going back on an agreement which had resolved a similar dispute in 2014. On that occasion, they had recalled Ambassadors from Doha in protest at Qatari policy but had not broken relations or imposed sanctions. This time, they have also been incensed by reports that Qatar paid a ransom of $1 billion (sic) to secure the release of a Qatari hunting party, including members of the Al Thani ruling family, taken hostage in Iraq – and that a substantial share of the ransom went to Iranian-backed militias.
Iran has expressed support for Qatar and Turkey’s parliament passed a bill allowing it to accelerate the stationing of troops in Qatar under an agreement concluded in 2014. President Trump immediately claimed action against Qatar showed that his visit to Saudi Arabia in May had strengthened Saudi determination to act against support and financing for terrorism. He has also used his Twitter account to offer himself as a mediator (the position of the major US base at Al Udaid in Qatar has not come into question). Other countries in the region have declared or are considering their positions – which will reflect their existing alignments with Saudi Arabia or Qatar.
The dispute stems from Qatar’s long-term refusal to follow the Saudi lead in the GCC (formed in 1981) which Saudi Arabia, as the largest, richest and most powerful member, regards as its due – particularly in its confrontation with Iran (which Qatar needs to avoid antagonising because they share a major offshore gas field). Other GCC states (particularly Bahrain, which is economically dependent on Saudi Arabia) have been careful not to antagonise Riyadh. Qatar has been the most independent-minded and keen to develop international links to strengthen its regional autonomy. With massive natural gas reserves and a population of only 200,000 nationals, it has the world’s highest per capita GDP at about $75,000 (the UK’s equivalent figure is $44,000).
Their wealth may have encouraged Qatar’s leaders to believe they could ignore Saudi sensitivities with impunity. This tendency became apparent soon after Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani overthrew his father to become Amir in 1995. The following year, he established the Al Jazeera satellite TV station on the ashes of a failed BBC attempt to do the same. He encouraged it to follow an independent editorial line which allowed it to broadcast reports and give air time to individuals critical of the Saudis and other Arab states (but not to challenge Qatar itself which Amnesty criticises for restricting political rights, discrimination against women and abuse of migrant workers). Other media supported by Qatar, including the online news organisation Middle East Eye (based in London), have been of similar character to Al Jazeera and caused similar offence to other Arab countries.
Qatar’s policy and media gained further profile with the Arab Spring in 2011. It held the rotating Chairmanship of the Arab League at the time and mobilised the League in support of international action against the Qadhafi regime in Libya. But it gave particular and continuing support to the Islamist elements of the Libyan opposition and to the Muslim Brotherhood government which rode to power in Egypt on the back of the Arab Spring. Its subsequent criticism of President Morsi’s overthrow and the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood that followed set it at odds with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both were adamant critics of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in Egypt and elsewhere and have been strong supporters of President Sisi.
The Amir handed on power to his son Tamim in 2013 but Qatar’s foreign and media policy continued to back independent and pro-Muslim Brotherhood lines. An intellectual basis for its policy appeared in February 2015, when Tamim published an op ed in the New York Times: he urged then President Obama to recognise that the Middle East’s problems arose from a pervasive loss of hope among the people of the region which could not be restored by power politics. Although not explicit in the article, Qatari policy suggests that Hamad and Tamim see the Muslim Brotherhood, its ilk and their policies as moderate and most likely to restore hope to the people of the region. Their view is not shared by their neighbours who see the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas as the roots of Islamic terrorism, are dealing with extremists at home, are horrified by the excesses of the Islamic State (or Da’esh), are at loggerheads with Shia Iran over security in the Gulf and are anxious about a ‘Shia crescent’ encompassing Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Qatar now has a choice. Saudi and allied demands include the muzzling, if not closure, of Al Jazeera and abandonment of support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and their fellow travellers (including even some identified with Al Qaeda). This would involve Qatar surrendering the key elements of its autonomy in foreign policy and undermining its pursuit of international influence.
But Qatar depends on its land border with Saudi Arabia, now closed, for a substantial proportion of its imports of foods and other materials. Iran has offered to help but to accept would be to further inflame Saudi hostility. Qatar Airways is excluded from Saudi airspace and now has to overfly Iran but as long as Bahrain does not close its airspace (which completely encloses Qatar’s) to the Qatari airline, air traffic can continue (Bahrain and the UAE, but not Saudi Arabia, are signatories to an international convention guaranteeing overflight rights). The situation is not one that will help Qatar’s ambition of becoming a global aviation hub and it will hold up Qatari construction projects, including for the World Cup in 2022.
Qatar also has to consider the risks of its neighbours supporting internal subversion or even some military exchange. Qatari history is replete with palace coups and there are dissident members of the Al Thani who might welcome the opportunity to control the country’s spectacular wealth. Qatar has come briefly to blows in the past with Bahrain (in 1986) and Saudi Arabia (1992) over territorial disputes. As unlikely a prospect as a military solution may be, the Saudis and their allies have taken such a strong line on this occasion that it will be difficult for them to retreat to an insubstantial arrangement such as the one they reached with Qatar in 2014.