by Nicolai Due-Gundersen
On July 21, 2017, Qatar’s emir gave his first address since the start of a two-month blockade launched by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt. “The time has come for us to spare the people from the political differences between [our] governments,” Emir Tamim al-Thani said, implying a willingness to negotiate with the blockade’s instigators. Nonetheless, he warned, any “solution must respect the will and sovereignty of each state.”
The Saudi-led GCC blockade was intended to weaken the small emirate. Instead, the political attack has apparently backfired against the Saudis and their partners. Domestic support for Tamim al-Thani has strengthened in a show of defiance against the blockade. “We will go to the streets and fight for [Sheikh Tamim],” vowed one 32-year-old Qatari engineer. Hundreds are enlisting in the military in a show of national unity through resistance.
Like many Gulf states, Qatar is young and still constructing its national narrative. The focus of this narrative has shifted, but it has always been one of resistance to an external force and unity under family rule. Until recently, this resistance was aimed at imperialist Britain. September 3 was traditionally Qatar’s national day, marking independence from Britain in 1971. However, in 2008 this date was changed to December 18. As Qatar analyst Michael Stephens explains, this move was intended to cement the importance of the ruling al-Thanis, marking “the battle fought between Jassim [al-Thani] and the Ottomans in 1871, in which the tribes of Qatar united to defeat the last Ottoman presence on the Peninsula.”
Qatar’s domestic unity contrasts with the regional politics of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Founded in 1981 in response to Iran’s Islamic Revolution (1979), the GCC encompassed Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Although a collective, it was clear from the start that the Saudis dominated the project. Middle East Report Editor Mouin Rabbani emphasizes that “[in] the early 1980s, the only GCC member of consequence was Saudi Arabia–whose size, population, resources, and wealth dwarfed that of the others combined.” As a result, the Saudis called the shots on regional policy. No Gulf state would have contemplated directing regional or foreign projects without Saudi approval. This attitude also controlled GCC relations with Washington. No GCC member, Rabbani explains, “could have permitted the United States to deploy troops and establish military bases on their territory had the Saudis not led by example and consented to such moves.”
Qatar’s nationalism meant unity under al-Thani rule and resistance to the British, the Ottomans, and now the GCC. The GCC is a Saudi-led bloc projecting an image of regional rather than national strength. This image became all the more important post-Arab Spring. Under Saudi administration, the GCC has attempted to project its own nationalism based on regime survival. This “hypernationalism” rests on the belief that the state can hunt and destroy both domestic and regional threats to its authority. GCC patriotism downplays domestic annoyances in favor of regional unity through proxy wars in Saudi Arabia’s backyard, from ideological condemnation of Iran to the very real intervention in Yemen and earlier troop deployment in Bahrain during the 2011 protests.
Yet, Gulf cooperation does not mean Gulf coordination. Individual regime survival has driven each GCC member to support contradictory projects. Blockade instigators Saudi Arabia and the UAE “have been determined to block the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood,” explains Madawi al-Rasheed of Singapore’s Middle East Institute/National University. “[But] until recently Qatar was actively supporting it.” In Syria, each Gulf state has supported “moderate” rebels of differing origins, while the “sectarian agenda of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain does not resonate well in Kuwait and Oman.” Given this muddled mosaic of interventions, Saudi Arabia’s leadership of the GCC lacks unitary clout, limiting GCC nationalism and the prospect of a strong regional identity dominated by the Saudis.
Saudi pull was linked to oil. Slumping prices in the 1990s meant a drop in Saudi influence and, because of its liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, an increase in Qatar’s. While Saudi Arabia struggled, Qatar used LNG to become “the world’s leading [LNG] exporter, accounting for almost a third of global supply,” explains Rabbani. Qatar’s new wealth came fast and steady, no doubt helped by LNG being “less prone [than oil] to sudden price fluctuations [and] sold on the basis of long-term contracts that can run decades.”
This energy rivalry foreshadowed further Saudi-Qatari tension leading up to the Arab Spring. In the mid-1990s, a failed Saudi-BBC venture gave Qatar another opening. Snapping up the journalists and staff from this venture, Qatar launched Al Jazeera in 1996. By 1999, Al Jazeera provided 24-hour news coverage across the Middle East, breaking political taboos by interviewing Israeli officials and addressing common Arab concerns without government interference. Qatar’s media influence included sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, a political group loathed by traditional Gulf monarchies for challenging their right to rule. Qatar further added to its soft power by launching the Qatar Foundation, attracting international universities to Doha while also establishing NGOs outside Qatar to promote political groups that challenged authoritarian traditions.
Qatar also spent the mid-1990s expanding Al-Udeid airbase. An investment of $1 billion ensured that it could host every aircraft in the US fleet stationed in the Gulf. By 2001, US Central Command (CENTCOM) in the Gulf vacated Riyadh in favor of Doha. Qatar’s status as a regional power was growing at the expense of Saudi pride, and the presence of 10,000 US personnel acted as a deterrent to any Saudi plans against its tiny neighbor.
By 2014, tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia were peaking. As a result of Al Jazeera’s activities, up to eight Arab states had recalled ambassadors from Doha at one time or another. The network’s 2013 coverage of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall and its sympathetic portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood provoked similar actions the following year. By 2014, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. That March, the pair and Bahrain withdrew ambassadors from Doha. Kuwaiti-led mediation facilitated their return but foreshadowed what would become the current blockade.
Under cover of a hacking scandal (recently linked to the UAE), Saudi Arabia led the UAE, Bahrain, and Yemen in severing diplomatic ties once more. Though a Qatari client under Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s new leadership under anti-Brotherhood strongman Abdel Fatah al-Sisi meant that it too joined the blockade. For Saudi Arabia, rivalry with Qatar was the reason for the blockade; other GCC partners feared the Brotherhood. As the GCC looks to Saudi Arabia, the Saudis look to Washington, and Trump’s ostensible support likely encouraged the move. As that support is reversing, however, the blockade is failing.
Between a patriotic, defiant Qatar and a fragmented GCC, there are no winners in the Gulf. The blockade’s consequences have exposed Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as aggressively reckless in his attempts to succeed his father. Qatar’s people may be more united under the al-Thanis, but a lowered credit rating and the risk of losing the World Cup overshadow this short-term benefit. If there are any winners, they are Turkey and Iran, whose respective military assistance and food aid have garnered much publicity at the expense of Arab unity and the image of the Gulf as the last stable region in the Middle East.
Nicolai Due-Gundersen is a PhD candidate at Kingston University, London and author of The Privatization of Warfare (Cambridge: Intersentia). He is former adviser to the Arab Institute for Security Studies in Jordan. Follow him @DueGunderse. Photo: Al Jazeera newsroom.