Qatar crisis: Between insecurity and instability
Former Emir Hamad was intent on pursuing a foreign policy independent of his Gulf neighbours
Dubai: The recent Qatar boycott by several Arab states is the culmination of a long strategic misalignment between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain.
A beginning of distrust
In 1995, Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani deposed his father, the Emir of Qatar. The ambitions of Shaikh Hamad were very clear. He viewed Qatar under the reign of his father as a Saudi client state and aspired to be more than a vassal. His wife, a daughter of a jailed-then-exiled activist, had progressive ideas of her own as well. As part of a grand settlement bargain between her father and Shaikh Hamad’s father, they were married. Together they planned to build a global, dynamic and influential Qatar. How to achieve that influence was open to interpretation.
A year later, the father made a failed attempt to return to power, an attempt supported by key regional powers. Following that, Shaikh Hamad’s plans for Qatar’s foreign policy went into overdrive. Not only was he intent on an independent one, he now believed his two closest neighbours and the quintessential Arab state viewed him as illegitimate … a usurper.
Shaikh Hamad turned Qatar into a friend to all. In the same year that he invited then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the opening of the Doha 2006 Asian Games, Qatar exchanged trade offices with Israel. It hosted secular Arabs such as Azmi Bshara and radical clerics such as Yousuf Al Qaradawi. Qatar also became a dynamic broker of peace deals; these include Yemen (2008), Lebanon (2008), Sudan (2010), Palestine (2012) and Libya (2015).
It also vigorously pursued a more conventional soft power strategy of cultural institution making. These include Qatar Foundation (1995), Al Jazeera Satellite Channel (1996), Virginia Commonwealth University (1998), Texas A & M (2003), Aspire — a sports academy (2004), Carnegie Mellon University (2004), Georgetown (2005), Asian Games (2006), Museum of Islamic Art (2008), Doha Tribeca Film Festival (2009), Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (2010), Doha Film Institute (2010), and Qatar National Library (2012).
Following a referendum on turning Qatar into a constitutional monarchy, Shaikh Hamad made multiple declarations of instituting a legislative council, the last made in 2011 with the aim for elections to be held in 2013.
The pillars of Qatar
Fundamentally, there were four key institutions in Qatar: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Qatar Foundation, Qatar Petroleum, and Qatar Investment Authority. The first and second, respectively, executed its foreign and soft power policies, the third funded those policies and the fourth, after paying the state budget, invested the remaining surplus abroad — occasionally in trophy assets.
The successful management and deployment of this quaternity was meant to achieve two things. First, ensure that Qatar internationally mattered and was reputable globally so that the failed restoration as in 1996 or any attempt at regime change for that matter could never happen again. Second, provide Qatar with the ability to shape developments in the region and beyond. Both goals manifested in the same policies, they are respectively the defensive and offensive versions of each other.
During this period, tensions with Saudi and Egypt continued to increase. This goes back to the 1993 Oslo Accords. Considered at the time a landmark success towards peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours and normalisation of relations, a major part of its outcomes was to gradually integrate Israel into the Arab world. The first step was the Middle East North Africa (Mena) Economic Summits.
Four of those took place in Casablanca (1994), Amman (1995), Cairo (1996) and Doha (1997). By the Doha summit, Israel’s Likud party, which had come to office a year earlier, had restarted building colonies in East Jerusalem as well as refused to withdraw from the West Bank. At the time of Likud’s electoral win, Hosni Mubarak had refused to call off the Cairo summit citing it premature. However, by the Doha summit, with facts on the ground, the boycotters of the summit increased including Egypt itself. Many countries eventually boycotted the Doha summit including key countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and the UAE. Shaikh Hamad considered this a snub, specifically from Egypt, meant to prevent Qatar from emerging as an independent regional actor.
The Arab Spring
Then came the Arab Spring. And there, the ambitions skyrocketed from a dynamic and global small state adept at inserting itself in various theatres to become the Brussels of the league of Muslim Brotherhood states.
From Tunisia to Syria, from Yemen to Libya and, of course, Egypt, Qatar demonstrated a clear preference for political Islamists. This wasn’t hard to understand since they had at different and long periods hosted various Arab Islamists in Doha. Also, its key strategic partner at this, Turkey, was too large and intimidating for emerging Islamist governments; Qatar was less scary and more generous. This was the opportunity of an era. And so ambitions went from incremental to exponential.
While other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE appeared more conservative in their outlook in that they preferred order to change, Qatar was very comfortable with this change. It perceived its cost of failure low and domestic policy resilient and population extraordinarily welfared; it has approximately half the GDP of the UAE but less than a third of its population. These ambitions seemed not only to be realised but also unstoppable — until July 3, 2013. With the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi, the senior Muslim Brotherhood leader, things started going bad and it seemed that Saudi Arabia, together with Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, were starting to reassert themselves. Qatar had lost the first round of the Arab Spring.
Change of face
Interestingly, Shaikh Hamad abdicated in favour of his son Shaikh Tamim a week before that. Shaikh Tamim was supposed to be somewhat of a new direction. No one expected him to make a complete U-turn in foreign policy, but it was meant to soften. Also, he seemed more interested in the domestic policies of Qatar than his father had ever been. Specifically, he spent time strengthening the official bureaucracy such as ministries long sidelined at the cost of the foundations and other parallel organisations. He also accelerated infrastructure development such as roads, a metro system and the airport.
Also, following the signed Gulf agreement in November 2013 — which stipulated that all members should not back “anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC whether as groups or individuals or via direct security work or through political influence, and not to support hostile media” — things seemed to improve.
This all gave the impression that Shaikh Tamim was a more traditional Gulf leader than his father, intent primarily on maintaining a generous welfare state, amicable relationships with his neighbours and the world, and a public commitment towards diversifying the economy. Alas, it didn’t last.
In 11th-13th century Japan, emperors took to abdicating in favour of their next in line. Most would retire to a Buddhist monastery, but some — tired of the intense and frequent pomp and ceremony — would maintain effective power and rule from behind the throne. While many wondered if this was the case in Qatar, it is unclear if this is what actually happened but it is clear that between father and son, the foreign policy hadn’t fundamentally changed.
Unchanged foreign policy
In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar citing the latter’s lack of upholding of its November 2013 obligation. Following a GCC-wide (except Oman) meeting of rulers in November 2014, the crisis was resolved and the envoys returned. Today, almost three years later, the three states (now with others) view Qatar in breach of the 2013 agreement and its foreign policy at odds with theirs.
There seems to be an ambition today in King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz’s Saudi Arabia — especially with Wednesday’s appointment of Mohammad Bin Salman as Crown Prince that confirms the trajectory of the Kingdom’s next era — aided by strong relationships with Egypt and the UAE, a somewhat domestically occupied Turkey, a favourable US administration, and a more stabilised and better managed Egypt to work towards reconstituting a regional order. It would be politically conservative, economically liberal and socially centrist. To achieve this, it requires an alignment within its own institutions such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League. It is one thing for countries to pursue independent foreign policies such that Algeria and Oman do, it is quite another, in the case of Qatar, for that policy to be the domestic policy of other states.
The current political showdown is crucial for the boycotting states and existential for Qatar. The boycotters want to demonstrate determination, tenacity, and unity. Qatar wants to demonstrate resilience. It is unclear how far they are willing to go but they seem extremely determined and patient. It is clear this will not be resolved in the same way the 2014 diplomatic crisis was: Kuwaiti mediation, nose kissing, and generic document signing.
The crisis continues to deepen, with the boycotters announcing a list of terrorist-designated individuals, that includes many Qatari citizens and Qatar-affiliated individuals. The crisis also continues to internationalise with Turkey accelerating its troops deployment bill to its Qatar base and Iran voicing support to Qatar.
For the above and what follows, I remain pessimistic about a grand understanding between Qatar and its boycotters. Its acquiescing to their demands would be tantamount to a massive admission of defeat and a reversal of Shaikh Hamad’s policies of over two decades. It is one thing to wait out a lost round — like the Qataris did after the fall of Mursi and the Arab-wide Muslim Brotherhood’s fall from fashion — it is another to admit defeat and join the team. In short, it is not interested in creating an order because its maverick independence benefits from chaos — and that mindset requires a low threshold for success. Saudi Arabia needs to create an order and convince Qatar to join it. All Qatar has to do is survive that effort.
Since the Arab Spring, and specifically Syria, the region underwent a renewed bout of schism. Part of that meant that Turkey and Qatar’s rapprochement with Syria and Iran fell apart. Over the last six years, the camps could be defined as: Muslim Brotherhood (Qatar, Turkey & co), Shiite (Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, Iraqi militias & co), and Conservative (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Morocco, Bahrain & co) with the rest considered individually non-aligned. With Syria effectively resolved as a battleground (the anti-Al Assad forces no longer expected to win), the crisis may re-trigger a late 2000s alliance between Iran and Muslim Brotherhood targeted against the conservative forces. The most memorable manifestation of this was the January 2009 Gaza Emergency Summit that Qatar called for in response to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead over the new year. The summit was controversial for not achieving two-thirds quorum as per the Arab League bylaws. It was boycotted by many Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi, the UAE, Bahrain and the Palestinian National Authority. Its key attendants included Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, and Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Çiçek. Other attendants included Palestinian groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the PFLP. This was a broad nominally Islamist and politically activist coalition aimed primarily at challenging the regional hegemony of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The re-emergence of this coalition would take the region back to that face off.
And so this is Qatar’s calculus:
Trump is temporary, Saudi 2030 is bound to disappoint, Yemen is Saudi Arabia and UAE’s Vietnam, Abdul Fattah Al Sissi can’t keep a lid on Egypt, the Libyan agreement won’t last, Erdogan will re-emerge, Iran will outflank Saudi Arabia, and most importantly we can wait this out and Gaza-FY ourselves and Israeli-FY them. In essence, they believe the current conditions won’t last and this regional order is doomed and much more significant instability is on its way back and until then they have more capacity for strategic patience than the growing league of boycotters. To call it cynical is an understatement.
But what if the league indeed continues to grow and, where it does not, it predetermines that it will have limited engagement? In essence, when possible, where Qatar goes, the boycotters don’t. Would the world choose those countries or Qatar?
The tragedy of Qatar’s perspective is that there is room for her among Saudi Arabia and others. Saudi Arabia and the UAE both recognise the dynamism of Qatar and its agility and capability, they wouldn’t resort to such measures if it wasn’t so effective. However, its brilliant tactics continue to lack a cohesive strategy. What does Qatar want the region to look like? Islamist, liberal, radical, tolerant, socialist, capitalist, at war, at peace? What does success for Qatar look like? A region reigned by Islamist parties — that are 1-2 degrees of separation from Daesh and Al Qaida — with Qatar as the benign Islamist monarchy? What is the finish line? Is there one where Qatar feels secure and reconciles itself with the world. At what point does it find equilibrium with the world? That remains unclear. What is clear is that Qatar wants influence and security and indeed, as a fully sovereign state, should have both; no one should argue for it to revert to clientele days.
But there is room for influence among allies, neighbours and a regional framework. Canada and New Zealand are sovereign states, but they respectively recognise the primacy of America and Australia on key issues. This is how the UAE reimagined its relationship with Saudi Arabia over the last six years. The UAE remains a sovereign state but it has opted to recognise Saudi Arabia as a regional leader. It has chosen to invest in an order that doesn’t put it on the top but because a small share in a big and sustainable pie beats a big share in small and tenuous one.
Gulf countries have not done nearly enough of a job at diversifying their economies, developing their societies or evolving their polities and time isn’t on their side — oil and gas will be dethroned from their position in the energy pecking order in our lifetime and they remain disproportionately dependent on them. After 22 years, Qatar must find a way to turn a new page with its neighbours to invent the future. Over the last seven years, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have fought their history and reimagined their relationship, Qatar can too. Continuing to pursue political gymnastics that win no medals will only waste precious time.
— Mishaal Al Gergawi is founder and managing director of the Delma Institute, an interdisciplinary research house