by Giorgio Cafiero
Fortunately the Qatar crisis has thus far not escalated into a military confrontation. Nonetheless, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) diplomatic row has escalated into a harsh war of narratives between Qatar and the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ)—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This clash has played out in Western capitals with a host of public-relations firms, think tanks, and press outlets championing either Qatar or the ATQ’s narrative.
Despite its strenuous efforts, the quartet has failed to successfully sell its anti-Qatar narrative to the diplomatic and defense establishment in Washington, although President Donald Trump and other current and former officials have expressed varying degrees of support for the ATQ. To the contrary, the Saudi/UAE-led blockade of Qatar has arguably given Doha a valuable tool in Washington that it lacked prior to June 5, 2017: the victimhood card.
Before the Gulf dispute erupted, Qatar’s image in the US suffered from a host of issues. Voices in Washington criticized the emirate for its record of labor rights violations, alleged bribery to secure the 2022 FIFA World Cup bid, and Doha’s questionable ties with nefarious Islamist actors in the Muslim world. Yet most of these criticisms also extended to other GCC states including those in the ATQ that supported hardline Salafist fighters in Syria and whose economic development has relied on exploited foreign laborers.
The American Left in particular has had a rather negative perception of Qatar as a Western lackey that hosts the main US military installation in the Persian Gulf with a legal code based on an anti-LGBT sharia (Islamic) law. Anti-war voices in the US pointed to Qatar’s coordination with US military campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya as a sign of Doha’s support of American hegemony and militarism in the Middle East.
US officials have had their own concerns about Qatari foreign policy and Doha’s ties with certain Islamist actors. But after the GCC’s diplomatic row broke out, the establishment in Washington found the ATQ’s blockade of Qatar to be too harsh, strategically flawed, and unjustified. As a geographically small country blockaded by its larger neighbors that shared Qatar’s only land border, Doha gained sympathy as an “underdog” from unexpected quarters. Qatar has used its ability to portray itself as the victim of the ATQ’s “bullying” to garner support in the US and other Western countries. Beyond Washington, leaders in other Western capitals such as Berlin, London, and Paris have also called for a lifting or easing of the blockade and have strongly affirmed their countries’ commitment to remaining Qatar’s allies.
For all the economic costs (to the tune of tens of billions of dollars) and sacrifices they have made to resist pressure to capitulate to the Saudi/UAE-led bloc’s demands, the Qataris have proven that they can chart their own course independently of the quartet. Yet a challenge for Qatar will be to take actions that back up its narrative about being different from other GCC states as a more modernized country. Doha has used the Gulf crisis as an opportunity to communicate to Western audiences that Qatar is unique in the GCC as a more tolerant, forward-thinking, and inclusive country committed to promoting democracy and human rights in the Arab world. Indeed, Qatar has argued that these attributes have made it the victim of the ATQ’s actions.
Qatar is keen to escape the negative perceptions that segments of Western societies had of the emirate prior to the Gulf dispute. Regarding the rights of Qatar’s foreign population, including the low-paid workers mainly from Asia, Doha has passed landmark legislation to abolish the Kafala system and received cautious praise from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for doing so (albeit with the caveat that implementation remains to be seen). Emir Tamim has also vowed to run elections to the country’s legislative body in 2019, which may serve to weaken the argument that Qatar hypocritically promotes democracy abroad while denying its own citizens the right to vote their lawmakers into power.
In response to the ATQ’s efforts to isolate the emirate, Doha has also turned to bodies of international law on disputes stemming from the GCC crisis. In this way, Doha seeks to portray itself as a responsible member of the international community determined to strengthen institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and various human rights organizations.
In the final analysis, although the future of the Gulf crisis is uncertain, Qatar has successfully gained sympathy by effectively using a narrative of victimhood. Although many in America criticized the emirate on a host of issues, the general perception of Qatar in Washington was that it was just “another Gulf state” guilty of the same objectionable policies and practices of other GCC states. The current dispute, however, has driven a wedge into the GCC, making it essentially irrelevant. Washington must thus come to terms with a new reality in which its closest Arab Persian Gulf allies are no longer cooperating with one another.
The war of narratives between Qatar and the quartet will continue in Washington and other Western capitals, with Doha continuing to portray itself as a country that has unjustly suffered for its independent reaction to the Arab world’s uprisings of 2011. Of all the ATQ’s miscalculations vis-à-vis Qatar, the gravest one was perhaps the quartet’s inability to predict how effectively Doha would leverage its image as a victim that has suffered for its promotion of modernity and openness in the Middle East.