Saudi Arabia and Qatar: Tribal Feud with Regional and Global Implications

by Emile Nakhleh

On the morning of June 5, Saudi Arabia and four of its regional friends decided to sever diplomatic, economic, and transportation ties with Qatar and its ruler Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Such a feud within the Gulf Cooperation Council—which comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman—is not new, especially between Qatar and its most immediate neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. But the severity of the Saudi-engineered boycott of Qatar, the reasons given, and the implied demands for Qatari capitulation are unprecedented and potentially carry serious regional and global implications. The UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, plus the pro-Saudi government in Yemen, the UAE-backed regime in eastern Libya, and the Maldives, lined up behind the Riyadh’s move, using similar language to that in the Saudi official statement announcing the break with Qatar.

The key imponderable is whether the Saudi action, regardless of the veracity of the official justification, aims at regime change in Qatar by replacing Tamim bin Hamad with another Al Thani who could act as a Saudi quisling. If the Saudis indeed intend to depose Sheikh Tamim, the kingdom would not play such a dangerous game without a nod from Washington. Perhaps Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler and Minister of Defense Muhammad bin Salman feel emboldened by President Trump’s recent visit to the kingdom. Regime change in the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms over the past two centuries has been accomplished through overt or covert support from external powers, first by the British and now the Americans.

If the Qatari emir rejects the Saudi demands—including abiding by the GCC “commitments and agreements,” ceasing “hostilities against the Kingdom,” and standing “against terrorist groups and activities”—does Riyadh plan to send troops into Qatar and forcibly remove him from office? Will post-Tamim Qatar join Bahrain in becoming another Saudi vassal state in the GCC? Will the Saudi defense minister use such an aggressive adventure as a diversion from his disastrous and stalemated war in Yemen? What will happen to the huge Al Udeid American airbase and its 10,000 US troops in Qatar? Are the Trump administration and Congress prepared for yet another war in the volatile Gulf region in the name of fighting Iran and terrorism? Is this Saudi adventurism in the neighborhood another sign of the kingdom’s power projection beyond its borders, and does it really frighten Iran and force it to bend to Saudi—and even American—wishes?

The anti-Qatar action is a clumsy demonstration of the kingdom’s desire to challenge Iran for regional hegemony. What makes the Saudi boycott even more puzzling is the fact that, in addition to Qatar, two GCC member states—Kuwait and Oman—maintain working relations with Iran and have not severed relations with Qatar.

Two other points add to the intrigue of the Saudi-Qatari spat. Both states adhere to the Sunni Wahhabi Salafi interpretation of Islam, which has spawned “jihadism” and terrorism across the region and globally. They have also both supported and financed, at least initially, al-Qaeda affiliate groups fighting against the Assad regime in Syria.

A key analytic question is whether the draconian Saudi measures against Qatar will ultimately lead to the GCC’s demise. Such a course of action is not unthinkable. Since the end of the first Gulf war and the eviction of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, GCC members generally have pursued their own separate military, economic, and political national interests regardless of their membership in the GCC. By severing relations with Qatar so publicly, drastically, and unexpectedly—with very little room for diplomatic compromise—Saudi Arabia might be signaling that the GCC has outlived its usefulness.

If Kuwaiti attempts to reconcile differences between Riyadh and Doha, as happened in previous disputes, succeed with the Tamim regime remaining in power and without much capitulation, then the Saudi boycott would amount to no more than a tempest in a teapot, and the Saudi regime would be exposed as no more than a schoolyard bully. If, on the other hand, Qatar gives in to the Saudi demands and Tamim stays in power as a pliant ruling potentate, the kingdom would emerge as an Arab hegemon on the western side of the Gulf, leaving the GCC in tatters. Saudi Arabia would then boast to its neighbors that being closely aligned with the Trump administration pays off.

Regardless of the outcome of Kuwaiti diplomacy, Iran is unlikely to be deterred by Saudi mini-power games and would continue its ascendancy as a regional hegemon unaffected by the tribal squabbles in Arabia. Sunni extremism would remain unabated, regional instability would likely increase, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE would remain bogged down in their futile Yemen war.

Old Tensions

Tensions within the GCC go back to its creation in May 1981. However reluctantly, Gulf Arab emirates acceded to Riyadh’s invitation to enlist because they supported the organization’s three main objectives: help preserve tribal family rule; stifle all anti-regime democratic protests and preserve autocracy; and enlist Western military support to defend the Gulf Arab littoral from the perceived threat of Iran following its 1979 revolution.

Qatar and other smaller Gulf Arab states were terrified by Tehran’s interest at the time in exporting its Islamic revolution to the other side of the Gulf and stoking anti-regime popular uprisings akin to what happened in Iran itself. As part of research for my book on the GCC in the early 1980s, I asked the then and current Bahraini prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman, about the Bahraini regime’s response to the Iranian revolution. He told me that in order to survive, “They better go for democracy!” Of course, he had no intention of democratizing Bahrain and made the statement only in jest. When I posed the same question to the then ruler of Qatar and grandfather of the current emir, he replied, “Democracy is good,” but his people “have not yet learned the rules of democracy!”

When I asked a Qatari government official what he thought of the GCC, he whispered in slang Gulf Arabic, “Hatchi!” (just talk). Despite their membership in this exclusive ruling family regional arrangement, Qatar and Bahrain almost went to war against each other on more than one occasion. The GCC has served primarily as a tool in the Saudi foreign policy kit. Bahrain, the country most dependent on the kingdom, has benefited from the GCC, thanks to Riyadh’s financial largesse. The UAE has also used the GCC occasionally to serve its regional ambitions, either in coordination with Saudi Arabia or separately. Like Qatar, Kuwait and Oman have pursued their foreign policies, especially toward Iran and other regional state and non-state actors, as individual states, not as GCC members.

Despite the lofty rhetoric over the years that the GCC was a prelude to Gulf unity or a precursor to an EU-type Arab regional union, the past 36 years have shown that the GCC is merely an alliance of convenience, more for show than for genuine regional security. It has helped member states share intelligence against their peaceful dissidents and coordinate their strategies for combating reform and pro-democracy movements. It has helped family rule survive as entrenched autocracies, not as modernizing states in which their citizens have a say in the governing process.

By announcing its multi-faceted breach with Qatar, Saudi Arabia may well have pounded the final nail in the GCC coffin. Unfortunately, the Saudis have not pondered the long-term implications of their action. For example, Qatar and perhaps other emirates could move closer to Iran; security cooperation with Washington could become muddled; containing extremism and terrorism would become more difficult; and al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen could become more brazen. Humiliating and isolating Qatar will not necessarily enhance Saudi Arabia’s regional prestige or power position against Iran. Nor will it hasten the end of the ruinous Yemen war.

New Claims

In its official statement, the Saudi regime listed several “grave violations” allegedly committed by Qatar. Among other things, it accused the Qatari ruler of “instigating against the Saudi State and infringing on its sovereignty,” supporting various terrorist and other groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State, using its media to attack Saudi Arabia, and undermining the war in Yemen. Based on these “violations,” Saudi Arabia proceeded to sever all relations with Qatar—diplomatic, economic, food imports, and flights—and ordered all Qatari citizens, including diplomats, to leave the kingdom. The Saudis also ordered Qatar to pull its 1,000-troop contingent from the so-called Coalition to Support the Legitimacy in Yemen. They may yet go one step further and demand Doha’s expulsion from the GCC.

These so-called grave violations could be boiled down to three key grievances: Qatar’s relations with Iran; its refusal to brand the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist “organization, as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt have done; and its support for the Pan-Arab Al Jazeera network. Qatar shares the largest natural gas field in the world with Iran and cannot possibly extricate itself from that. From the very beginning, Qatar viewed the Saudi war in Yemen as an unnecessary adventure in which the new Saudi defense minister wanted to show Riyadh’s military muscle in the face of perceived Iranian threats and support for the Houthis. Saudi Arabia has also accused Qatar of promoting sectarianism, but in fact the kingdom has been the region’s biggest promoter of Sunni-Shia tensions. Saudi Arabia, the strongest GCC member, has resented Qatar’s freedom of action regionally and internationally and viewed it as an impudent upstart that has failed to observe tribal etiquette and show deference to its Saudi elder sister. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and other family autocracies have long seethed at Qatar for allowing Al Jazeera to spread its pro-reform message across the Arab world and supporting the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood as a genuine, indigenous Islamic activist organization. It called Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military deposition of the democratically elected president Muhammad Morsi a “coup,” which of course infuriated both Sisi and the Saudis.

The Saudi-Qatari feud is not good for regional stability and security and certainly does not serve America’s long-term security and economic interests in the region. Riyadh’s action also undercuts the global effort to fight terrorism and contain Sunni extremism and radicalism. Saudi tensions with Iran are less sectarian and more a struggle for power and regional hegemony.

Fighting Iran is a dead-end for Saudi Arabia. The history of the past century has shown that Gulf security can best be served by cooperation, not conflict, between Riyadh and Teheran. Riyadh, Teheran, and most importantly Washington should learn this lesson and act on it. The reverberations of the CIA’s involvement in illegally removing the Iranian leader Muhammad Mosadeq from power in 1953 are still with us today. Despite President Trump’s tweets in support of the Saudi action against Qatar, the Trump administration can ill afford to take sides or to get involved in another Saudi military adventure in the Gulf.

Photo: GCC delegation present agreement of understanding to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.