The Gulf Crisis: Fear and Loathing on the Arabian Peninsula

The Gulf Crisis: Fear and Loathing on the Arabian Peninsula
Comment: The stalemate continues after a year of blockade and barbs, writes Andrew Leber.
8 min read
05 Jun, 2018
Qatari police divers sign a painting of Emir Tamim by artist Ahmed Bin-Majed al-Maadheed [AFP]

The early hours of June 5, 2017 saw traffic grind to a halt at Qatar's sole land border - as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic ties and closed their doors to the Gulf monarchy.

A year into the ensuing crisis, there remain three key dynamics that will characterise Gulf relations from here on out - the end of the GCC as a meaningful body of regional coordination, the entrenchment of intra-Gulf divisions over any sense of pan-Gulf identity, and the future of Qatar-Quartet relations as a standoff marked by minute manoeuvreing for incremental advantage.

While shared threat perceptions of the six Gulf monarchies were instrumental to forming the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981, diverging perceptions of the threat - or opportunity - posed by the Arab Spring have all but torn the bloc apart.

Though various border clashes have plagued the peninsula over the past century, the disruption following the 1979 Iranian Revolution as well as the demise of the Arab League as a meaningful actor following Egypt's temporary expulsion for signing a separate peace with Israel helped create and maintain the GCC as a relatively cohesive body - until now.

As Cinzia Bianco and Gareth Stanfield have recently argued, the uprisings of the Arab Spring were crucial in splitting this consensus. What Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain viewed as a systemic threat of region-wide protest, Qatar's leadership (particularly former Emir Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani) viewed as a key opportunity to expand political ties and influence throughout the region - particularly by courting and supporting political Islamist movements seemingly on the rise.

[Click for full-size]

Proxy conflicts ensued - dueling streams of funding to various parties and factions in Tunisia and Libya, contested backing for various rebel groups in the expanding Syria conflict, the full support of Al Jazeera and Qatari assistance to the nascent presidency of Muhammad Morsi, and, subsequently, hefty Saudi and Emirati support to the government led by General and then President Sisi after Morsi's ousting.

This brought an earlier, more restrained, diplomatic crisis in 2014 - albeit one seemingly resolved with a tacit understanding that the GCC's external challenges still outweighed any internal rivalries. That calculus seemed to shift for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the wake of President Trump's electoral victory and full-throated defence of Gulf security interests vis-à-vis Iran - hence widespread speculation that the president must have given some sort of "green light" for the Qatar blockade during his May visit to Riyadh.

Whatever the proximate cause, the result has been a GCC now as divided as the rest of the Arab world, adding one more set of closed borders and severed diplomatic ties to a fractious region. While last year's GCC summit was (helpfully) scheduled for neutral Kuwait, no head of state attended - save Qatar's Emir Tamim - and the two-day summit adjourned a full day early. Tighter regional coordination and identification will likely be restricted to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - and even here, greater tensions may lurk beneath the surface.

Likewise, the acrimonious nature of the conflict has made any future reconciliation - or further GCC integration - highly unlikely.

Qatar's leadership is unlikely to forgive and forget tactics such as the apparent championing of a series of Qatari 'opposition' figures

In contrast to the secretive agreement that closed the 2014 dispute - evidently binding Qatar to moderate some aspects of its strident foreign policy while providing regional rivals with ground to claim their hardball tactics had been successful - it is much harder to see how an agreement could now be reached that saves face for all sides.

Qatar's leaders now say they have been targeted despite abiding by the agreement, while the quartet claims that Qatar is being targeted because it has failed to adjust its international behaviour - demanding a more costly, public signal of compliance this time around.

Entrenchment of divides

At the same time, Qatar's leadership is unlikely to forgive and forget tactics such as the apparent championing of a series of Qatari "opposition" figures as rival claimants to the halls of power in Doha.

One Sheikh Saud bin Nasser al-Thani never made much of an appearance beyond a now-dormant Twitter profile. Actual Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali al-Thani made a series of appearances in Saudi media before disappearing into the Kuwaiti healthcare system. Most enduring of those figures put up by Saudi officials has been Sheikh Sultan bin Suhaim al-Thani, a son of an earlier Qatari foreign minister who claims that his father was poisoned by Qatar's leadership, and who makes regular appearances with Saudi and Emirati leadership.           

The acrimony has been particularly acute online, where automated Twitter accounts on both sides of the divide have championed their respective sides' narratives while trashing opposing leaders. Earlier this year, for example, when Qatari representatives appeared in Riyadh for this year's Arab League summit, Saudi officials mocked the country on social media as an isolated "East Salwa" - referring to a patently false news story claiming that Saudi Arabia was planning to divide Qatar from the rest of the Peninsula with a vast canal running along the border between the two countries.

Hacking operations have featured heavily as well - the Qatari government has alleged (and US intelligence officials have corroborated) that UAE-based hackers were responsible for false statements attributed to Emir Tamim that precipitated the current crisis, while the UAE and connected individuals have alleged Qatari involvement in various releases of hacked emails from officials such as UAE ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba.

The dispute has also helped stoke nationalist fervour across the Gulf, not least in Qatar, where a minor cult of celebrity has arisen around Emir Tamim, whose image is now emblazoned on skyscrapers and bumper stickers alike. While the GCC struggled to negotiate steps towards greater unity in recent years - proposals for a tighter currency union have languished for nearly a decade - any hope of promoting a broader "Gulf identity" is all but gone.

The future

The conflict has forced some adjustment from Qatar - albeit mostly economic - but can hardly be counted as a "win" for the blockading quartet.

The closure of Qatar's land border with Saudi Arabia - the source of some 80 percent of its food imports - has undoubtedly imposed a hefty financial burden on the country; Qatar is now more reliant on Turkey and Iran for its trading needs, while rerouting food shipments and expat visits to Dubai through Oman.

Still, Qatari diplomacy and economic structures have proven resilient enough to blunt the worst of the challenges facing the country, while the quartet has struggled to gain additional leverage beyond merely waiting for the costs of geographic isolation to pile up in Doha.

The quartet initially seemed vindicated in its apparent assumption that President Trump would back a diplomatic assault on Qatar - scoring precious presidential tweets railing against Qatar's alleged "funding of Radical Ideology" - yet efforts at maintaining great-power backing for the move were stymied by entrenched US national security interests in preventing intra-GCC strife - and in Washington maintaining close ties with Qatar - along with quick moves by Doha to blunt the most biting charges against the country, and the president's own short attention span.

Qatar signed a memorandum of understanding regarding fighting terror with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as early as July last year; despite protests from quartet commentators that "extremists" still circulate freely within Qatar, President Trump was full of praise for Emir Tamim and the country as recently as April. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was recently dispatched to Saudi Arabia to implore the kingdom's leadership to end the crisis - with, conspicuously, no photo op with the kingdom's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to mark the occasion - suggesting that the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia refused to even hear Pompeo out.

The result has been a stand-off, characterised by minor efforts to gain some advantage. Qatar's rulers have never remotely suggested they would shutter marquee television network Al Jazeera, and the station's satellite broadcasts are still barred from the quartet's airwaves. With football games from counterpart beIN Sports blocked as well - beIN holds the Arabic-language broadcasting rights for some of the most lucrative football venues, including this summer's World Cup - persons unknown have sought to sidestep the issue through the all-too-obviously named bootleg operation beoutQ.

The only clear winners from the crisis are the flock of Washington, DC- and London-based PR, advertising, and consulting firms

Both sides have been offering Oman economic incentives to cleave closer to their camp, with little indication that the Sultanate will part with its apparent neutrality - so long as economic pressures driven by low oil prices do not mount.

The only clear winners from the crisis are the flock of Washington, DC- and London-based PR, advertising, and consulting firms hired or retained by all sides of the conflict to make their respective cases to Western publics and lawmakers.

Qatar added to an existing roster including Mercury, LEVICK and Portland Communications by signing John Ashcroft's law firm, Nelson Mullins, and Avenue Strategies Global (managed by former Trump campaign staffers). Saudi Arabia already had a range of communications firms at its disposal following efforts to derail legislation on the Hill in 2016, including Qorvis MSLGROUP, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, CGCN Group and the Glover Park Group.

For the foreseeable future, then, intra-GCC relations are likely to resemble this past year's Gulf Cup, which moved from Qatar to Kuwait - measured competition, wildly different context, no further major disruptions.

The status quo allows Qatar's rulers to present themselves as resisting efforts to hem in the country's sovereignty, the Quartet to satisfy themselves with a slow trickle of perceived concessions by Qatar - or the belief that the pressures of the border closure will bring more in the future, and Kuwait (as well as possibly Oman) to pretend that the GCC is still a meaningful guarantor of regional security.

Andrew Leber is a PhD student in the department of government at Harvard University.

Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMLeber

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.