Written by Steven Tibbitts
Power grabs, political strife, proxy wars, and pride have all contributed to the most recent crisis to hit the historically unstable Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (Adams 2018; Stratfor 2017; Hassan 2018). This time it features the so-called “Quartet” of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt facing off against Qatar, and to an extent Turkey and Iran (The Economist 2018; Al-Jazeera 2017; Haaretz and Reuters 2018). The ongoing instability from the conflict, which was almost fought with armies instead of PR companies, creates friction between US allies and prevents a united front against Iran (Stratfor 2017; Yousef et al. 2018, Pfeffer 2018; Emmons 2018).
In June 2017, the Quartet cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and closed all air, sea, and land routes to the island (Al-Jazeera 2017; The Economist 2018). Suddenly Qatar, one of the richest Gulf nations with a native population of only 300,000, found itself in a blockade designed to reign in its independent foreign policy (Adams 2018; Hassan 2018; Stratfor 2017; Financial Times 2018). The Quartet cited Qatar’s ongoing ties with Iran (with which it shares its main gas field), support for Islamist groups, and funding of media outlets, namely Al-Jazeera, as reasons for the blockade (Financial Times 2018; Al-Jazeera 2017).
The reality behind the goals of the blockade is more nuanced, especially in light of allegations that the UAE orchestrated the hack on Qatar that provoked the crisis (DeYoung and Nakashima 2017). Qatar does have a history of sponsoring terrorism (including al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the Syrian conflict) and Al-Jazeera is oftentimes a mouthpiece for radical Islamist groups; however, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also have ties to extremism (Wilson 2017; Dearden 2016; Henderson 2016; Shane 2016). Qatar is also not the only GCC member close to Iran—Kuwait and Oman maintain some levels of connection (Stratfor 2017).
It appears that the Quartet, led by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), is irked by Qatar’s support for Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood that threaten the stability of the monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE (Haaretz and Reuters 2018; Hassan 2018). In places like Libya and Syria, Qatar and the Quartet back rival proxy groups; additionally, Qatari news outlets like Al-Jazeera lambast Saudi Arabia and the other GCC members (Hassan 2018; Lucas 2017). In addition, mixed signals from the US, including President Trump, may have played a role in the debacle (Pfeffer 2018; Emmons 2018).
The rise of young rulers such as MbS or his UAE counterpart Mohammad bin Zayed, as well as Qatar’s young ruler Hamid al-Thani, has led to a regional power struggle based on ego as much as realpolitik (Pfeffer 2018; Lucas 2017). This is particularly the case with MbS; the Saudi Crown Prince has been focused on implementing his vision of change through both the faltering implementation of the new economic program Saudi 2030 and the war in Yemen (Riedel 2018; Pfeffer 2018; Lucas 2017). Part of MbS’s style is a requirement for absolute loyalty—since coming to power, he has launched broad crackdowns on activists, imprisoned high-ranking Saudi officials, and promoted regional bilateralism rather than wide-encompassing GCC activities (Stratfor 2017; Pfeffer 2018; Lucas 2017).
So far, the impacts of the blockade have been mild. Qatar’s economy is faring relatively well despite some negative impacts, and it has established stronger ties with Iran and Turkey (Financial Times 2018; Adams 2018; The Economist 2018; Mogielnicki 2018; Al-Jazeera 2018; Bukhari 2018). The Quartet suffers from a lack of international support (especially in the wake of the probable murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi) (Adams 2018; Pfeffer 2018).
The US does not want this inter-GCC tension to continue. This fight between allies is made even more awkward by the presence of the largest US base in the Middle East in Qatar (Haaretz and Reuters 2018; The Economist 2018). Additionally, in a time when Iran is maneuvering to secure territory and influence, the US needs a united front against Iran. However, the blockade threatens to permanently sever the binds between the GCC countries and fragment US attempts to use the GCC to counter Iranian expansionism (Yousef et al. 2018).
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