Isolating Qatar: The Gulf Rift

Isolating Qatar: The Gulf Rift
Book Club: Qatar's status in MENA has veered dramatically, shifting from pariah to an indispensable mediator and trade partner. Edward Lynch's book examines the infamous rift between the GCC and Qatar, and how Qatar has emerged seemingly victorious.
6 min read
13 July, 2022
Edward Lynch tells the story of the Gulf Rift from start to finish. Lynch's work serves also to highlight the often unrecognized role of small states in international relations [Lynne Rienner Publishers]

In January 2022, Qatar was nominated as a Major Non-NATO Ally by the United States in recognition of Doha’s key security role for Washington.

Soon afterwards, the European Union imposed sanctions on Moscow in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This led to renewed interest among European countries in Qatar’s natural gas.

"The discontentment in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi about Qatar’s growing assertiveness led to a crisis in 2014 that was somehow a prelude to the 2017 rift"

The future looked far less promising for Qatar five years ago.

On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed an unjust blockade on the country.

The blockading countries officially announced the move was motivated by a desire to protect “national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism.”

Qatar stood accused of supporting IS, al-Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Shia rebels in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and maintaining close ties with Iran.

The unlawful demands Qatar was requested to comply with were wide-ranging. Doha was asked to downgrade relations with Tehran, stop military cooperation with Turkey, and close down Al-Jazeera, among other requirements.

After the blockade was announced, a political analyst wrote that Qatar “may have few cards left to play.” This judgement proved inaccurate.

In his book Isolating Qatar: The Gulf Rift, 2017-2021, Edward Lynch presents a well-argued analysis of the reasons that led Qatar to successfully weather the storm of the Gulf blockade.

The author, a professor and chair of political science at Hollins University who travelled to Qatar in 2018 on a study trip, explores Qatar’s modern history in the first two chapters.

He notes that the emirate has traditionally balanced its more powerful neighbours, Saudi Arabia and Iran. This practice has continued into the present day, despite Qatar’s increasingly assertive foreign policy under Sheikh Hamad (1995-2013) and his successor and current emir, Sheikh Tamim.

During the last decades, Qatari leaders have presented the country as a reliable mediator in multiple Arab countries, from Sudan to Yemen. Qatar’s relevance in international affairs has also been cemented by the popularity – especially in the Arab world – of Al-Jazeera, the TV channel founded in 1996 by Sheikh Hamad.

The media network was particularly influential during the Arab Spring when it provided what Lynch describes as “unparalleled coverage” of the popular protests.

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Since the times of Sheikh Hamad, Qatar’s foreign policy had progressively become more independent from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and its leading members, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The discontentment in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi about Qatar’s growing assertiveness led to a crisis in 2014 that was somehow a prelude to the 2017 rift.

Although the crisis did not escalate beyond the withdrawal of ambassadors from Doha and lasted only a bit more than half a year, part of the accusations levelled against Qatar in 2014 would resurface three years later.

"The group of countries behind the rift failed to foresee that, given the importance of Qatar’s natural gas for the global economy, the European and Asian customers of Qatari gas would resent the blockade and diplomatically support Qatar"

Qatar drew consequential conclusions from the 2014 crisis.

Aware that “such hostile actions by their larger and more powerful neighbours could happen again”, Qatari leaders intensified their efforts to diversify the national economy and put renewed emphasis on developing its soft power.

These changes would prove useful when the 2017 rift started. Lynch identifies some of the key successful decisions implemented by Qatar in response to the blockade. One of these was the quick injection of capital from government accounts to Qatari banks. Also important was the establishment of new trade routes – many of them with Turkey and Iran – to offset the abrupt cutoff in food imports from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Parallel to this, the Qatari government put forward ambitious plans to develop the national food industry. When the 2017 rift started, Qatar relied on Saudi dairy products to satisfy almost the totality of domestic demand. One year afterwards, Qatar had become a net milk exporter.

Qatar’s enormous wealth provided the country with opportunities to thwart the effects of the blockade that would not have been at the disposal of poorer states.

Even so, it is clear that Doha took many thoughtful decisions, especially when contrasted with the behaviour of the equally wealthy neighbours that orchestrated the blockade. Lynch convincingly details the general lack of preparations on the part of the blockading states.

The group of countries behind the rift failed to foresee that, given the importance of Qatar’s natural gas for the global economy, the European and Asian customers of Qatari gas would resent the blockade and diplomatically support Qatar.

Moreover, the blockading states underestimated the potential of Qatar’s wealth fund – valued at over $300 billion in June 2017 – to allow the blockaded country to emerge from the crisis without conceding to the demands of the blockading nations.

The blockading countries’ decision to force the repatriation of their nationals living in Qatar, which led to the splitting of multinational families, was also ill-advised. Al-Jazeera and other media channels covered in detail these dramatic family separations in what represented a PR disaster for the blockading countries.

Lynch concludes that the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the main architects of the blockade, “expected Qatar to knuckle under almost immediately. Yet, how they could have expected any such thing is a great mystery.” 

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It is important to note that the Qatar blunder was not without its precedents. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE decided to intervene in Yemen to stop the advances of the rebel Houthi movement and reinstall the internationally recognised government presided by Abed Rabou Mansour Hadi.

After seven years and around 4,000 civilian casualties as a result of the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, achieving the intervention’s goals remains a distant prospect. The reader of “Isolating Qatar” would probably have welcomed a deeper exploration of the Saudi and Emirati decision-making that led to the blockade, even though the opacity surrounding it complicates the efforts of the researcher.

Regarding these decision-making processes Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, the author of the book Qatar and the Gulf Crisis, has commented that “it is generally accepted that the break with Doha originated more in Abu Dhabi than in Riyadh.”

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The January 2021 Al-Ula Summit officially put an end to the Gulf rift. It has been argued that “there are no winners” from the 2017 rift, but Lynch disagrees. The author does so with good reason, as he explains that “none of the rift nations’ hostile actions had its intended effect”.

As a result, “Qatar came out of the rift with its future largely in its own hands”.

Isolating Qatar: The Gulf Rift, 2017-2021 presents a solid approach to the blockade of Qatar from Doha’s viewpoint.

Although borders have been re-opened and diplomatic relations restored, intra-Gulf tensions have by no means disappeared. Lynch’s book represents a key resource to understanding the Gulf rift as well as its future repercussions.

Marc Martorell Junyent is a graduate in International Relations, currently finishing a MA in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society at the University of Tübingen (Germany). He has been published in the London School of Economics Middle East BlogMiddle East MonitorInside ArabiaResponsible Statecraft and Global Policy

Follow him on Twitter: @MarcMartorell3