In a sharp diplomatic move, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt cut their diplomatic relations with the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, closing their borders to Qatari planes and vessels and giving Qatari nationals in their countries two weeks to leave. The move is seen as aimed at pleasing Western governments who accuse Qatar’s government of sponsoring extremists and terrorist groups including ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
Before 2011, not many in the West took notice of Qatar – a tiny state with the world’s biggest per-capita-GDP. Since then though, the West has learned about Qatar backing up the rebel groups in Syria and Libya as well as providing troops to help suppress unrest in neighboring Bahrain. The contradiction was typical of a country that has been guided by an inconsistent and scattered foreign policy. Qatar is home to one of the biggest American military installations in the Middle East, a home base for the US operations in Iraq. However, while nurturing relations with Washington, Doha has also managed to build bridges with Tehran, develop ties with Hezbollah and Hamas and also attempted to improve its relations with Israel. However, this scattershot approach to foreign policy has not remained unnoticed: “Qatar can’t be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday,” John Kerry, then a US senator, said in 2009.
Qatar’s Gulf neighbors are even less pleased with its unconventional foreign conduct charted by Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1995. Al-Thani was perceived as a maverick who undermined Gulf unity and meddled in the affairs of neighboring countries. Gulf leaders were hoping that his 2013 abdication in favor of his 33-year-old son Tamim would improve the state of Qatar’s foreign policy especially after the then Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz summoned him to Riyadh and demanded pledges of loyalty. However, by 2014, the Saudis were so infuriated by Tamim’s continued foreign adventurism that they withdrew their diplomats from Doha. Although the diplomats eventually returned to their embassies, tensions were never really resolved – hence the recent developments.
The challenge for Western leaders is the fact that the tensions between Qatar and its neighbors reveal deeper contradictions among the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia has been, for example, also criticized for its support of extremist Islamic thought and hardliners in Syria and a leaked Hillary Clinton memo also names Riyadh as a sponsor of radical Sunni militias. A UK government report also identified Saudi Arabia as a key sponsor of groups involved in radicalizing young Britons.
This all leaves Western policymakers in a tricky situation because Qatar is a major investment destination for British, American and French energy companies who have ploughed billions into gas export facilities. Qatar itself is a major investor overseas who has pledged to invest 5 billion pounds in the UK in the run-up to Brexit. However, while Western countries cannot simply pick a side, Donald Trump will have to deal with a diplomatic crisis that he helped unleash by his visit to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip.
And although President Trump has already declared his support for the move to isolate Doha, openly accusing the emirate of backing extremists, he should also be well aware that the US would struggle to find a new home for its troops and planes if these were asked to move from the Qatar-based al-Udeid airbase, not to mention that this whole crisis, if left unchecked, threatens to reveal the murkier side of that relationship.
‘In Qatar v Saudi Arabia, the West Can’t Afford to Pick a Side’ – Expert Comment by Peter Salisbury – Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs.