‘Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy’
On Pain (1923) – Khalil Gibran
By – Ayushman Kaul:
The Gulf occupies a position of immense geo-strategic importance lying in the friction zone between competing world powers – with Washington’s involvement in the region as part of a wider US security umbrella on one side, and Russia’s renewed engagement in the region on the other. Additionally, the region represents the shatter zone for regional powers hegemonic ambitions with Tehran and a Saudi-led-GCC competing for pre-eminence within the region. This analysis shall begin by employing the ‘Security Dilemma’ concept in order to categorise the deep-seated animosity and geopolitical machinations at play between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Having established the presence of a tense regional security paradox and provided a brief historical overview of the main sources of instability and conflict in the region, this analysis shall explore the dynamics of Doha’s attempt to capitalise upon the power vacuum created by the revolutions and counter-revolutions of the Arab Spring (2011-2012) that threw the existing security architecture in the region into disarray, toppling two of the three main centres of power in the region (Iraq, Egypt) and continue to devastate the third (Syria).
Specifically, this paper shall demonstrate how the growth of Qatari influence and engagement within the region, under the personal direction of former Emir Hamid Al Thani and his successor Tamim, has acted as a catalyst, exacerbating pre-existing tensions between Riyadh and Tehran and putting additional strain upon inter-state relations of the GCC’s Arab powers. The crises unfolding in Arab states such as Syria and Libya, and Qatar’s failure to bring about an end to the violence despite taking a leading role in mediations has reinforced the views of Middle Eastern commentators and scholars for whom the ‘tiny emirate had moved out of its depth without due regard for the consequences of its actions’ (Ulrichsen, 2014, p. 6). Saliently, the arguments furthered through this analysis must be considered within the context of a broader decline in the Middle Eastern regional system whereby regional conflicts and crises have become interlocked and drawn together.
Within this rapidly fluctuating regional security environment which has seen the emergence of a number of non-state and trans-state actors pursuing contradictory agendas, the emboldened regional activism emanating from Doha is placing tremendous strain upon the pre-existing Security Dilemma dynamics at play, stoking misperception and instability and accentuating the pre-existing geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Additionally, the widespread anger generated by some of Doha’s Arab Spring policies across the Middle East and North Africa have also had the unintended consequences of alienating the countries traditional Arab allies and leaving the tiny state increasingly isolated in a volatile region. This paper shall conclude that while Qatar’s engagement in the region has afforded the tiny monarchy substantial press and raised the country’s profile in the International consciousness, ultimately Doha’s policies have failed to secure it greater influence and security and instead served only to increase the chances of further violence and conflict within the Gulf.
DEFINTION OF SECURITY DILEMMA
The security dilemma represents the most salient of existential conundrums within International Relations Theory. The importance of the concept to the field is articulated succinctly by Booth and Wheeler who assert that the dilemma cuts to the ‘very heart of politics among nations: the existential condition of uncertainty in human affairs’ (Booth & Wheeler, 2008, p. 1). Since its formulation the concept has been extended to ‘address many of the most important questions of international relations theory and security policy’ (Glaser, 1997, p. 172) including the policies of deterrence and reassurance between the US and the USSR for the duration of the Cold War. Following the collapse of the USSR and the end to nuclear brinksmanship between the two super-powers the security dilemma logic has been extended to the study of ethnic conflicts (Posen, 1993), arms control measures (Glaser, 2004) alongside analyses into the proclivity for armed conflict between major powers such as the US, Russia and China within Europe, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East (Mearsheimer, 1990); (Christensen, 1999); (Stein, 1993); (Fawcett, 2013).
This section shall begin by outlining a definition based upon the insight provided by Booth and Wheeler’s in their text The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation and Trust in World Politics (2008). The scholars offer a power re-conceptualisation of the dilemma as a paradox and seek to demarcate the one from the other so as to demonstrate the possibilities of transcending but not escaping the dilemma. Additionally, the definition provided by the scholars crucially takes account of both state and non-state actors offering a more holistic conception of agency with regards to the Middle Eastern regional security architecture that has undergone much transformation since the introduction of the security dilemma into the theoretical lexicon.
Drawing on assumptions which are most readily associated with the classical realist school of thought and the insights of pioneers of the security dilemma such as Herz (1951) Butterfield (1951) and Jervis (1976, 1978); Booth and Wheeler define the security dilemma as a ‘two level strategic predicament in relations between states and other actors’ (Booth & Wheeler, 2008, p. 4) with the first level consisting of a dilemma of interpretation into the motives, intentions and capabilities of other states and the second relating to a dilemma of response which concerns itself with the most appropriate manner in which the state should respond. Each level consists of two related lemmas which force decision makers to choose between them. The former a result of the perceived need for a state to make decisions about whether military developments in other states are for defensive purposes based upon a desire to increase their own security, or for offensive purposes representing a desire by the state to change the status quo to their advantage.
The latter level begins when the dilemma of interpretation has been resolved. At this juncture whether by diplomatic proclamation or military aggression decision makers must choose the most appropriate manner in which to respond. If the dilemma of response bases itself upon misplaced suspicion regarding the motives and intentions of other actors, and elicits a militarily confrontational response, it risks creating a ‘significant level of mutual hostility when none was originally intended by either party’. (Ibid, 2008, p. 5) Conversely if the dilemma of response derives itself from a misplaced trust in a revisionist state’s intensions then it creates a risk of the state left ‘exposed to coercion by those with hostile intensions’(Ibid). When the dilemma of response is resolved in a manner which creates a reciprocating process of mutual hostility and a build-up of tensions amongst initially benign agents it is referred to as a security paradox.
One of the most famous examples of this Security Paradox is provided by Thucydides account of the Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 BCE). His infamous assertion that the ‘growth of power in Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable’ profoundly influenced scholars belonging to both the classical and structural schools of realist thought for whom Thucydides account of fear, aggression and escalation demonstrated that the tragic and ultimately unescapable consequences of systemic anarchy and state’s desires to maximize their power represents a recurrent process that has characterized the nature of inter-state relations since antiquity. In the context of the Middle East, the increased saliency of sectarian conflict in what can otherwise be categorised as realist geopolitical battles, alongside the instrumental use of many of the uprisings for geopolitical ends has led to a spill-over effect upon the domestic politics of a number of post-authoritarian states. Additionally, the multiplicity of state and non-state actors professing distinct political and religious agendas is intensifying and further complicating the pre-existing geopolitical contests between Riyadh and Tehran.
This argument is also articulated by Shahandeh and Warnaar outline identity politics as an essential player in foreign policy choices for them ‘foreign policy makers do not identify friends and foes on the basis of material interest alone.’ (Shahandeh & Warnaar, 2016, p. 8). Consequently, in addition to geopolitical calculations based upon the material distribution of power, Religious identity has also served as an influential driver of antagonism and distrust between the relations of Riyadh and Tehran shaping both states’ view of the other since the advent of the revolution in Iran in 1979. Furthermore, as nation and nationalism represent ‘perceptual, rather than objective phenomenon’ (Saideman, 2001, p. 26) and ‘politics of nationalism is the politics of identity’ (Woodwell, 2007, p. 13) the concerns raised in this evaluation are embedded within a broader debate with the field of International Relations Theory concerning the manner in which states form and articulate their interests. Specifically, this debate rages between the schools of Political Realism and Social Constructivism, with proponents of both schools employing differing ontological and epistemological assumptions to provide insight into the most salient variables informing policy objectives, shaping perceptions amongst decision makers and ultimately defining the over-arching trends influencing patterns of friendship and enmity within the inter-state system.
Proponents of political realism argue that the international sphere constitutes a brutal self-help arena, where ensuring one’s survival and accumulating power constitute imperatives ‘imposed upon states’ (Kolodziej, 2005, p. 131) by the anarchical nature of the system. This belief is succinctly captured by Waltz in his text Theory of International Politics (2010) in which he asserts that ‘among states, the state of nature is a state of war’ (Waltz, 2010, p. 102). The lack of an over-arching hegemon in the system shapes ‘each unit’s incentive is to able to put itself in a position to take care of itself since no one else can be counted to do so’ (Ibid, 2010, p. 107). The insecurity fostered amongst states as a result of these systemic constraints mandates that ‘units worry about their survival, and the worry conditions their behaviour’ (Ibid, 2010, p. 105). Structural realists contend that the primacy of survival over expansion within the International sphere dissuades states from pursuing aggressive strategies and instead creates strong incentives for maintaining the status quo. While accepting the constraints upon states mandated by systemic anarchy, offensive realists maintain that aside from ensuring survival ‘great powers are always searching for opportunities to gain power over their rivals’ (Mearsheimer, 2014, p. 29).
In contrast to defensive realisms emphasis upon the maintenance of the status quo, offensive realists believe that ‘status quo powers are rarely found in world politics’ (Mearsheimer, 2014, p. 21). Instead offensive realists argue that ‘a state’s ultimate goal is to be the hegemon in the system’ (Ibid, 2014, p. 21). Scholars employing this theoretical prism argue that the legitimacy of the use of force creates strong incentives for states to maximise relative gains at the expense of their rivals. Despite these ontological differences, both camps agree that competition amongst states in the international realm represents an empirical measure and observable phenomena, that is ‘universal in time and space and constitutes an undeniable fact of experience’ (Morgenthau, 2006, p. 36). Political realism demonstrates the manner in which the use of force continues to serve as the principle means through which states interact to ‘limit manipulations, moderate demands and serve as an incentive for the settlement of disputes’ (Waltz, 2010, p. 114). Later on, this paper details the extent to which this is the case for Qatar and the GCC or not.
While the image of the international system furthered by realists may well define the broad parameters of foreign policy behaviour, it cannot provide insight into the specific decisions that determine the behaviour of individual states. Unlike the materialist analysis furthered by advocates of political realism, constructivism sees the world as a malleable construct whereby ‘the objects of our knowledge are not independent of our interpretations and our language’ (Adler, 2012, p. 95) particularly as ‘structure has no existence or causal powers apart from process’ (Wendt, 1992, p. 395). Accordingly, scholars subscribing to this theoretical approach contend that individuals are situated in particular contexts that shape their world-view and ultimately inform their decisions. Extrapolating from this premise, Wendt asserts that ‘state interests are an important part constructed by systemic structures not exogenous to them’ (Wendt, 1995, p. 73). Consequently, collective meanings are attached by actors through discourse that imbue meaning to the material world.
The emphasis of constructivism on ideational variables is meant to oppose arguments about the social world that highlight the role of intrinsically materialist conditions like geography, technology etc. Scholars subscribing to this prism do not discount the effect of these variables upon state and agent behaviour but instead seek to demonstrate the manner in which their impact is ‘mediated by the ideas that give them meaning’(Fearon & Wendt, 2012, p. 57). In this regard, the constructivists consider ‘inter-subjective knowledge and ideas to have constitutive effects on social reality and its evolution’ (Adler, 2012, p. 102). While these Social structures include material resources like guns, bombs and tanks, these resources only acquire meaning for human action through the ‘structure of shared knowledge in which they are embedded’ (Wendt, 1995, p. 73). In an influential article on national security written in 1952 Wolfers highlights the competing subjective and objective elements of the mainstream conception of security arguing that the ‘possible discrepancy between the objective and subjective connotation of the term is significant in international relations’ (Wolfers, 1952, p. 485). In particular, as the chances of future attack never can be measured in objectively, ‘it must always remain a matter of subjective evaluation and speculation’ (Ibid).
The assertive foreign policy pursued by Doha through the course of the Arab Spring undertaken under the moniker of regional activism has proven unsuccessful in bringing stability to the region and instead has inadvertently intensified the antagonism between Riyadh and Tehran heightening the potential for conflict between the two powers and undermining broader GCC attempts at regional integration and stability.
GCC AND IRAN – A PLURALITY OF VOICES
This section shall demonstrate the increasingly divergent position taken by Qatar with respect to its GCC neighbours. The growing friction between the GCC’s powers which has culminated in the current diplomatic standoff is indicative of the suspicion and hostility engendered by Doha’s assertive engagement in the region through the course of the Arab Spring. By pursuing an autonomous and often ambivalent foreign policy approach towards the two major hegemons in the region (Iran, Saudi Arabia) Qatar is heightening the GCC countries sense of insecurity, adding another dimension the pre-existing security dilemma at play and thereby increasing the chances for miscalculation and conflict.
The objectives of the GCC are to co-ordinate policies on foreign relations, security matters and oil politics. While in 1982 the member states agreed to uphold the principle of collective defence in the case of any foreign threats or intervention of world powers in the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. The domestic threat posed by Iran is most acutely felt by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, both of whom continue to deal with Shi’a opposition against their authority with status of Abu Musa and Tunbs Islands alongside Iranian claims over the sovereignty of Bahrain serving as pertinent examples of regional flashpoints between the two states and Tehran. Added to this, the perception that Iran has not fully accepted Bahrain’s sovereignty significantly increases Gulf states suspicion regarding Iranian expansionism in the region. The well-publicised comments made by Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, a member of Tehran’s Expediency Council that “Bahrain used to be Iran’s 14th province” (Arab News, July 28th 2014, p. 1) raised alarm in the region and drew the country international condemnation. While the other member states of the GCC share a common cause in seeking to contain the ambitions of Tehran, there remain many differences between individual states with scholars such as Shahandeh arguing that the hydrocarbon boom in the region allowed many of the GCC states to amass vast fortunes, as their economic power has increased so has their desire to adopt more ‘independent postures’ (Shahandeh, 2012, p. 4) in the region.
Despite Saudi efforts to coordinate with its GCC counterparts to stifle Iranian intervention, other GCC states such as Qatar often break with Riyadh’s position and attempt to maintain defiantly independent foreign policies. In this regard, Qatar, Oman and to a lesser extent Kuwait, stand out as regional powers that maintain cordial relations with Iran. Doha’s desire to work closely with Iran in order to exploit their jointly-owned gas fields betrays the desire of Qatar to ‘keep the GCC as an open-ended organisation, more of a collaborative group than the strong alliance that some envisioned in the early chapters of its history’ (Shahandeh & Warnaar, 2016, p. 5). In this regard, the relationship between some of the GCC states and the existential threat they believe to be posed by Iran can also be understood along the lines of a ‘strategic rivalry at sub-national level, as well as within the Gulf Region and the wider Arab world’ (Warnaar, 2016, p. 103).
While Iran has regularly backed Shia minorities and militant state actor’s hostile to GCC states, in return the Kingdoms have reasoned that if Tehran’s growing regional role is left ‘unchecked in these theatres, then it would one day be forced to confront Tehran in the Gulf, the kingdoms own strategic backyard’ (Gause, 2009, p. 5). The GCC states led by Riyadh have utilised their tremendous material wealth to fund Sunni proxies in a bid to contain Tehran’s efforts across the region. In this regard, the revolutions of the Arab Spring served only to further complicate relations between the two powers, in particular the arrival of a regional revolutionary wave in Libya and Syria, alongside Qatar’s schizophrenic overtures to both Saudi Arabia and Tehran in the various theatres of conflict, has created a direct clash between Saudi and Iranian interests and policies.
The bitter relationship between Riyadh and Tehran is described by Berti and Guzansky as one of ‘religious-ideological antagonism, competing political and geostrategic interests and an ongoing competition for regional hegemony’. (Berti & Guzansky, 2014, p. 25). The prevailing security dynamic between Riyadh and Tehran is built upon a flimsy bedrock of historical antagonism and deep ideological animosity between the two states. The convergence of this pre-existing ideological and historical rivalry with the added insecurity aroused by Qatar’s assertive engagement within the region is obfuscating the patterns of competing geostrategic and political interests between the two powers, and providing an impetus to further fragmentation and conflict within the Gulf.
QATAR AND THE QUEST FOR REGIONAL HEGEMONY
The broader systemic transformation in the region presented opportunities to the new generation of Qatari leaders whom assumed power in Doha in the 1990’s. During this period, the high level personal engagement of former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and former prime minister and foreign minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, a small circle of elite decision makers and the commitment of significant financial resources to affect mediatory outcomes – combined to win the country a glowing reputation as a “can do” actor in regional politics. The wider transformation in the regional system brought about by the toppling of successive authoritarian governments provided the Qatari Emir with the perfect opportunity to adopt a more ambitious, controversial and assertive foreign policy in the region. Doha’s assertive posture in the region initiated under the guidance of Sheikh Hamad and maintained by his successor Sheikh Tamim has seen ‘Qatar become an expansionary power, a sort of latter day Venice’ (Hounshell, 2012, p. 23). With commentators asserting that Doha’s rise to the ‘at least temporary status as a “regional power” is perhaps the oddest phenomenon in contemporary inter-Arab relations’ (Ryan, 2017, p. 8).
This section shall endeavour to demonstrate how a combination of domestic and regional considerations combined in the 1990’s and the 2000’s to open up a vacuum of leadership in the region which has allowed smaller opportunistic states such as Qatar to carve for themselves a role in the region that far belies their geographic stature. This multipolar competition has accelerated in the wake of Washington’s strategic withdrawal from the Region under the Obama Administration (2008). While the overarching premise of the Obama administration to the Middle East was termed as the Responsibility Doctrine: Stepping back to allow others to step in. This strategy while well intentioned, provided a political vacuum inspiring confusion and uncertainty amongst the big regional players Saudi Arabia and Iran while allowing opportunistic smaller players such as Qatar to pursue a more assertive and autonomous foreign policy within the region. Additionally, the mounting domestic unrest and insecurity faced by the large regional powers in the Gulf Sub-system during this period ‘forced the regimes in Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus to cede the stage to Riyadh, and more surprisingly Doha’ (Ryan, 2017, p. 7).
Doha’s strategy of securing regional and international leverage and goodwill have formed the cornerstone of a strategy that sought to ensure that Qatar had multiple allies with a direct stake in its survival. The legacy of the speed with which the international community mobilised in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 left a powerful imprint on the minds of Qatari leaders. The role of Liquefied Natural Gas has been instrumental in constructing a web of partnerships among key international partners around the world. The signing of these gas deals allowed the Emir to create a set of external “stakeholders” with a direct interest in a stable and secure Qatar. These covered areas as diverse as United Kingdom, China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. In this manner, the projection of regional and international influence creates the appearance of a number of external partners with a stake in local security and stability within Qatar itself. Doha’s importance as a key strategic ally for US in the Middle East began in 1992 with the two countries signing a comprehensive defence co-operation agreement. However, the 1995 coup that brought Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani to power marked a watershed moment in relations between the two powers. Sheikh Hamad sought to increase Qatar’s importance to the US as a guarantor of safety against any potential aggression from neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
In 2003, Doha took advantage of the growing friction between Riyadh and Washington over the War on terror’ and successfully lobbied the US to move its Combat Air Operations Centre for the Middle East (CENTCOM) from the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia to Al-Udeid Air base. This development shifted the US-Qatar relationship to centre stage in the run up to the 2003 Iraq war. The bases estimated $1.4 billion construction cost attested to its key strategic use for Washington. The base can host a US Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) as well as provide housing for over 10,000 troops. The increased involvement of Qatari policymakers in the region is typified by Hounshell’s assertion that ‘over the past decade, secured by one of the most massive U.S airbases in the world, Qatar has inserted itself into conflicts in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria and Yemen’. (Hounshell, 2012, p. 23).
In pursuing a course of independent action, Qatar attempted to distance itself from other regional actors, while simultaneously attempting to retain its identity as an Arab and Islamic state (Ulrichsen, 2014, p. 10). In doing so Doha sought to obtain legitimacy on the international stage and develop a reputation for progressive leadership in the Middle East. In 1999, Qatar acted as a mediator for disputes, both domestic and international, involving Palestinian factions, Jordan and Hamas; Pakistan’s new and old leadership; Ethiopia and Eritrea; Sudan and Eritrea; Saudi Arabia and the UAE; and Hezbollah and Israel in 2007 and in 2008 between rival political factions in Lebanon. Qatar’s mediation in Lebanon was more successful, at least initially. 18 months of political deadlock in Beirut threatened to escalate into armed conflict between Hezbollah and Prime minster Fouad Siniora in May 2008. Saudi Arabia and Syria were too closely aligned with domestic Lebanese factions and had too much historical baggage to be seen as impartial brokers, opening the door for Qatari mediation. Qatar brought the various Lebanese parties to Doha for negotiations that succeeded in reaching the Doha Agreement on 21st May 2008.
In particular, Sheikh Hamad and his foreign minister HBJ, identified diplomatic mediation as an effective means by which to mark Qatari leadership as distinct from its neighbours in the Gulf. The basic rationale behind this thinking was laid out by the Emir in September 2007 at the United Nations Assembly that “the major conflicts in the world have become too big for one single power to handle them on its own” (Janardhan, 2011, p. 218-219). Increased Diplomatic mediation in the region went hand in hand with the carving of an independent and innovative regional and foreign policy. Particularly as a policy of active mediation in the region was thought to fit well into the ‘overall strategy of promoting international recognition of Qatar as a necessary player on the diplomatic stage’ (Boyce, 2013, p. 372). Consequently, having achieved past success as a neutral mediator to international disputes, Doha began to take an increasingly active and independent course seeking to capitalise upon the aforementioned power vacuum in the Gulf, striving to increase its material and political leverage over other Gulf nations in the wake of the 2011-2012 Arab spring revolutions. In line with this autonomous strategy, Doha has sought to assert its independence from neighbouring Riyadh by forging ties of its own with Iraq, Iran and the US. The Gulf emirate has sought to position itself as a broker of peace in conflicts between factions in Lebanon, Palestine and even Afghanistan.
Not only were domestic divides in the Gulf monarchies accentuated by Doha’s actions through the course of the Arab Spring, the ensuing Regime changes in the Middle East laid bare the various actors hegemonic ambitions and accentuated differences among the Gulf monarchies, ‘particularly those which exist between Qatar and the other GCC members’ (Warnaar, 2016, p. 115). From the perspective of its neighbours, Doha’s actions are a study in contradictions. Qatar has good relations with Iran, but also hosts the American air base. It is helping to fight the Iranian-linked Houthi rebels in Yemen while concurrently backing Islamist insurgent’s fighting’s Tehran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Together these factors have coalesced to form an ‘uneasy equilibrium that appeared to outside observers as schizophrenic and even contradictory in practice’ (Ulrichsen, 2014, p. 4).
THE SEARCH FOR SECURITY AND GROWING RIVALRY WITH RIYADH
The previous section provided an over-view of Doha’s increasing autonomous stance in the region. The subsequent section shall now delve in the major drivers that govern Qatar’s foreign policy. In particular, the insecurity felt by Doha with regards to domination by its larger southern neighbour Riyadh have prompted it to utilise it’s economic largesse and resource wealth to cultivate long-term economic and political relationships with external powers such as the US, China, E.U all of whom have a vested interest in ensuring Doha’s domestic stability, while at the same time allowing the Qatari Emir to extricate himself from under the influence of policymakers in Riyadh.
As a small peninsula-country quite literally surrounded by larger neighbours to the west (Saudi Arabia), north (Iraq), and east (Iran) while concurrently inhabiting a region that has witnessed three major inter-state wars since 1980, Qatar’s precarious sandwiching between neighbouring would-be hegemonic powers required officials to skilfully balance competing and often conflicting interests. Sandwiched among three larger powers in a volatile regional neighbourhood, the traditional perils of small-state syndrome have been magnified in Qatar’s case. Boyce re-iterates this sentiment arguing that as a tiny state, ‘its foreign policy is determined first of all by its need to survive as an independent identity’ (Boyce, 2013, p. 367). Consequently, throughout the state’s modern history, its leaders have sought to play off competing and rival powers, in a bid to maximise their own interests and to prevent undue dependence on any one power. With Hounshell typifying Doha’s flip-flopping diplomatic posture as ‘sometimes appeasing Qatar’s larger neighbours, at other times irritating them and inviting outside protection’ (Hounshell, 2012l p. 23). With Barnard and Kirkpatrick characterising Doha’s strategy as ‘trying to be everything to everyone’ (Barnard & Kirkpatrick in New York Times, 5th June 2017, p. 1).
The Saudi government has tried on several occasions to influence the line of royal succession in Qatar. It is rumoured to have been behind the 1996 attempt to overthrow the former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, and place his father Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al-Thani back on the throne. Prior to this counter-coup attempt, relations between the two states had soured over the resurgence of a formerly dormant border dispute in 1992. In September of the same year, this disagreement culminated in violent clashes in the town of Al-Khafus, along the un-demarcated Saudi-Qatari border (Rabi, 2009, p. 444). Until this 1995 Palace Coup, Qatari foreign, domestic, and oil policies were considered to be an echo of Saudi Arabia’s owing to a range of social and ideological similarities between the two monarchies. With Gulbrandsen demonstrating the manner in which the growing divergence from Saudi-centric regional policies emerged during this period of considerable friction and border tensions with Saudi Arabia (Gulbrandsen, 2010, p.28). The souring of Emir Hamad’s perception of Riyadh a result of this attempt to oust him from power is also amplified by the tremendous influence exerted by the Saud family upon the wider Al-Thani clan.
Although the state remains firmly within the grasp of the Al-Thani family, the Al-Thani’s themselves have had a history of internal conflict and competition over political power. Mehran Kamrava argues that ‘Sheikh Hamad’s early promises of liberalisation arose out of elite factionalism, and more specifically, intra-family competition within the Al-Thani’s’ (Kamrava, 2009, p. 403). This argument is also furthered by Zahlan whom argues that ‘the Qatari ruling family have displayed open disregard for the ruler’s authority in the past. This has resulted in intermittent periods of lawlessness’ (Zahlan, 2016, p. 88). The fierce infighting inherent in the political succession of the Al-Thani family is demonstrated by the fact that not one of the royal successions in the 20th century (1913, 1949, 1960, 1972 and 1995) has passed without conflict. In line with this strategy, Qatar has actively supported Islamist political movements and causes, notably the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated offshoots in Egypt, Libya and Syria.
MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD: A MEANS TO AN END
Initial Reponses to the Arab Spring appeared to confirm and seal the rise of Qatar as a regional power with international reach, and positioned the state powerfully “on the right side of history” in Libya and initially in Syria and Yemen. By the time the euphoria of authoritarian regime breakdown in Tunisia settled, the geopolitical contests that defined the regional system before the uprisings resumed with a vengeance. (Salloukh, 2013, p. 32). Doha’s attempt to pick the winners following the toppling of a number of governments as part of the Arab spring proved to be a catastrophic failure. In the transition states of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, as well as the Syrian Civil war, the perception that Qatar has thrown its weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated Islamist organisation generated extreme friction both among other local groups and fellow GCC states.
The lynchpin of Doha’s policy of co-optation of Islamist and oppositional movements, continues to be the Egyptian scholar Yusuf-al-Qaradawi. Living out his exile in Qatar, in the 1990’s Qaradawi rose to become one of the world’s most influential Muslim scholars greatly facilitated by Al-Jazeera where he was provided with a weekly programme entitled Sharia and Life. A community of exiles gradually formed around al-Qaradawi and as the Arab Spring reached its crescendo, many of these exiles returned to their countries to take on roles as leaders, financial backers, religious authorities and politicians. The Emir’s use of this organisation should be viewed through the lens of rational pragmatism as Doha views such trans-national factions as effective vehicles capable of spreading Qatari influence and extending the peninsular kingdoms geopolitical leverage over its neighbouring states.
With Steinberg asserting that Qatari policy at the time was ‘driven by a strong pragmatism and by Emir Hamad’s sympathies for the Islamists’ (Steinberg, 2012, p. 4). In particular the Qatari monarchy has little in common with the fallen republican regimes in the Arab world. Keeping in mind, its socio-cultural background yet attempting to maintain distance from a Riyadh led alliance, Doha believes that the Muslim Brotherhood and many Salafists represent an interpretation of Islam that is compatible with the Wahhabism that most Qatari citizens follow while at the same time distancing itself from the official ideology of Riyadh whose relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood deteriorated rapidly in the wake of 9/11.
Doha’s instrumentalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood has propelled Qatar onto a collision course with its Gulf neighbours, with some expressing extreme disquiet at the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. With Roberts asserting that ‘root of Qatar’s current set of problematic relations is quite clear: the state’s modus operandi during the Arab Spring of channelling financial, diplomatic and material support through moderate Islamic groups usually affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood’ (Roberts, 2014, p. 23). Such differences in approach indicate how Egypt has developed into the barometer of post-Arab Spring politics in the Middle East, and Qatar’s strained relationships with its Gulf neighbours have become a microcosm for the broader tensions between status quo advocates and supporters of political change across the region.
In this regard, Qatar’s botched attempt to capitalise upon these multiple crises in the Arab world has placed tremendous strain upon the pre-existing geopolitical stand-off between Riyadh and Tehran, while it’s contradictory overtures to competing sides in this conflict have created great confusion amongst regional policy makers, reflected in the current diplomatic stand-off between Qatar and it’s GCC neighbours. As a precursor to the current stand-off, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in March 2014. The three powers accused Doha of ‘supporting organisations or individuals who threaten the security and stability of the gulf states, through direct security work or through political influence’ while also speaking out against the activist tone taken by Al Jazeera referring to the organisation as “hostile media” (Kirkpatrick, 2014. P. 1).
On June 5th 2017, five nations – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen with Maldives and Eastern government of Libya accused the Qatari regime of financing terrorism and promoting instability across the Middle East. The bloc levied sanctions and made 13 demands of Doha; the first was to break military and political ties with Tehran. The sanctions include the severing of all diplomatic relations, travel and economic ties with Qatar; the closing of airspace to all Qatari aircraft, closing of ports to Qatari vessels and the shutting down of all broadcasts by Qatar based media powerhouse Al-Jazeera. This decision amounts to the ‘most serious rift in intra-GCC relations since the Saudi-Qatari skirmishes and Qatari-Bahraini tensions in the mid-1990’s’ (Ulrichsen, 2014, p. 8). The isolation of Qatar was widely being taken as a clear message from Saudi Arabia that in the new order, no softness on Iran or on the Muslim Brotherhood would be tolerated.
The escalating confrontation between Qatar and other Sunni-led Arab states presents a new and unwelcome complication for the United States military, whom have made strenuous efforts, expending great political capital in the region in order to forge a broad coalition that can combat the growth of Daesh influence in the region. Engagement with such non-state and trans-state organisations coupled with an expansive economic investment policy has been utilised by Doha as a key plank of its new foreign policy allowing the Qatari’s to co-opt these movements and leverage their networks for greater influence and involvement in regional policy. Qatar backed anti-government movements, both secular and Islamist, with Al Jazeera airtime, diplomatic support and later, money and sometimes weapons, hoping to install friendly new governments across the region. Doha’s active engagement in the domestic politics in Libya and Syria serve as clear examples of the re-alignment of Qatari foreign policy from one that had focused upon ‘mediating between conflicting parties and maintaining good relations with all powers in the region’ (Steinberg, 2012, p. 1) to a regional strategic paradigm whereby Doha has sought to derive ‘benefit from the multiple crises in the Arab world’ (Ulrichsen, 2014, p. 8).
When the Gaddafi regime fell in 2011, centralised power in the state quickly dissipated and Libya fell into chaos. A wide range of armed groups asserted control over large swathes of territory in the oil-rich nation without any effective central authority strong enough to exert control over the entire country. The country quickly morphed into a battleground for outside powers, each with distinctive and competing interests and visions. Several weeks after losing the July 2011 election, a Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition (Libya Dawn) seized the capital city of Tripoli. The Libya Dawn fighters established an administration (New General National Congress) pushing the nation’s UN-recognized government in Tobruk, situated along the Mediterranean coast near Egypt. Despite UN efforts to broker peace, forces loyal to Libya’s Tripoli-and Tobruk based governments remained in conflict. Qatar has played a pivotal role in the Libyan Uprising as a sponsor of anti-Gaddafi rebels. The UAE along with Russia and Egypt backed the Tobruk based government, while Qatar in concert with Turkey and Sudan, supported the Islamist led government in Tripoli.
Shortly after the uprising began, Doha made it clear that it wanted to take a leading role by urging the Arab League to impose a no-fly zone and to call for military intervention. This was subsequently authorised by UN Security Resolution 1973. In late March 2011, Doha became the first Arab country to recognise Libya’s National Transitional Council based in Benghazi. Qatar sent 6 military jets to support the ensuing military action, making it one of the only two countries (the other was UAE) to actively participate in the NATO intervention. Moreover, Qatar is thought to have sent in special forces that were involved in the fighting. These forces were likely comprised of Afghan Taliban fighters in Qatari Special Forces uniform. Additionally, the Qatari intervention in Libya is demonstrative of the regime utilising its hard and soft power in tandem, while Doha’s economic largesse went towards feeding and arming the rebels, the state’s media wing, Al-Jazeera dedicated hours of airtime every day to reports on the uprising. While Yusuf al-Qaradawi repeatedly called for the Gaddafi regime to be overthrown and actively encouraged support for the rebels.
With Steinberg commenting that ‘Qatar directed most of the weapons and money to Islamist rebels with just a small portion going to the National Transitional Council’ (Steinberg, 2012, p. 5). In Benghazi, a majority of these funds went to militias connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, whilst in the Western mountains to units of Abdel-Hakim Belhadj, a former jihadist who later became a military commander in Tripoli. Ali Sallabi, a Libyan member of the Brotherhood born in 1963, became a key go-between for the rebels and Doha. He had lived in exile in the Qatari capital since 1999 and studied under al-Qaradawi. In 2007, he began to act as a mediator between the Gaddafi regime and the leaders of the jihadist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). During this time Sallabi developed close ties to Belhadj, the commander of LIFG and used this relationship during the 2011 uprising. Among the Islamist receiving aid, Belhadj and Sallabi’s brother Ismail became particularly powerful.
The proxy war between Abu Dhabi and Doha in Libya is indicative of a growing intra-GCC division within the members of the GCC. On one end of the spectrum, Abu Dhabi has invested substantial resources in efforts to contain the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood notably in Egypt and Libya, while on the other end, Doha continues to sponsor the spread of the organisation by providing a safe haven for its clerics while utilising its economic largesse to fund the opening of new Muslim Brotherhood branches across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia as the GCC’s powerhouse sits in between these two ends, while Riyadh has aligned itself with Abu Dhabi in the Egyptian theatre of operations by investing billions of dollars in the Egyptian military following Abdel Fattah-el-Sisi’s ousting of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013. In Syria, it has instead worked in tandem with Doha to back Sunni Islamist rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad regime.
It comes as no surprise that the Arab monarchs of the Gulf have grown increasingly unsettled at Doha’s increasing proximity and support of Pan-Arabic political Islamist movements whose promotion of “democratic” institutions and espousal of social justice concerns vastly increase the potential for anti-government protests on their home soil. This is reflected in Cafiero & Wagner’s assertion that at the heart of the ‘Emerati-Qatari rivalry in Libya lay sensitive political issues for the Gulf. Specifically, how should the Council’s ruling families react to the rise of grassroots Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan)’ (Cafiero & Wagner, 2015, p. 2)
When peaceful protests broke out in the southern town of Deraa in March 2011, few observers could have imagined the horror to come. Almost six years after the outbreak of the civil war, Syria is completely fragmented. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad retained a heavily populated strip of land stretching from Suwaida in the south, through the capital Damascus, the central cities of Homs, Hama and the coast, but had lost control of large swathes of land in the east, north and south. The withdrawal of Assad’s troops from these regions, opened up a political vacuum which has been filled with a patchwork of different opposition movements claiming authority and often challenging each other as much as the regime. Along the northern border, Syrian Kurdish forces ruled three self-proclaimed cantons, while the Islamic State (Daesh) took control of much of the east. In the south and north different opposition militia ruled local fiefdoms, some secular but many Islamist, often radically so.
At the onset of the conflict, Qatar adopted an altogether more cautious policy than it had with Libya, However, this initial hesitation was soon replaced by efforts to overthrow the Assad regime and help the Muslim Brotherhood dominated opposition take power. Despite previously enjoying warm relations with Syria fostered by Qatar’s heavy investment in the Syrian economy, particularly in the property sectors. In July 2011, Qatar became the first Gulf state to close its embassy in Damascus after it was attacked by Assad supporters. Just as it had in Libya, Qatar attempted to use multilateral organisations such as the Arab League (whose rotating presidency lay with Qatar until March 2012) as the main instrument in implementing its strategic objectives in Syria. In a startling move, the Arab league suspended Syria’s membership in November 2011 and announced shortly afterwards that it would be imposing economic sanctions.
Undoubtedly, when the conflict initial broke out, it was part of a wider systemic change, reflecting the new harsh realities of a post-Washington, multipolar Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Russia and Iran all sought to take advantage of this broader systemic shift to further their influence. With Phillips arguing that despite the presence of significant internal factors, ‘from the start, external factors have been essential in enabling and facilitating both regime and opposition actions. The war’s character, scale and scope has been greatly impacted by these factors’ (Phillips, 2016, p. 3). Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in particular pushed headlong into encouraging a conflict in Syria they could not end without American assistance. Russia and Iran, while more adept, proved unable to moderate their ally Assad’s behaviour. Additionally, Phillips asserts that ‘once the war was under way, the policies pursued by regional and international actors shaped its character and, importantly, insured that it continued’ (Phillips, 2016, p. 4). Once under way, the same actors helped to prolong the conflict by providing balanced interventions, enough to keep their allies in the field, but not enough to win or force the other to seriously negotiate. Moreover, with the conflict still underway the final outcome may yet disproportionately favour one over another. However, this seems unlikely and ultimately ‘no state has benefited from its involvement in this conflict, though some have done relatively worse than others’ (Phillips, 2016, p. 233).
Russia’s goals before the war were to ensure its domestic security from militant Islamists, continue to expand its economic reach in the Middle East and to boost its geopolitical position at the expense of the US. While its trade in the region has remained unaffected for the duration of the conflict, its domestic security seems likely to have been worsened by the war. In particular, despite vigorous engagement in the region, Moscow has presided over the rise of Daesh and its 2015 military intervention against the rebels will make it even more of a target for Islamists, even those unsympathetic to the ‘Caliphate’. Similarly, the danger of Russian jihadists inspired by Daesh conducting strikes deep in the Russian homeland cannot be underestimated. Iran’s priorities were similarly seemingly satisfied by its involvement in Syria. It has maintained its support for Hezbollah by securing Damascus and the Qalamoun and Bekaa deliver routes while also ensuring that its ally did not fall to a pro-US force in Syria. Tehran was also able to consolidate its hold over Iraq while its involvement in the regions conflicts did not prevent Iran signing a nuclear agreement with US.
Turkey would appear in the worst position compared to 2011. Its ambitions for regional leadership in tatters, with the Syrian morass now physically blocking it from expanding its influence further into the Middle East. The war has also contributed to internal challenges: receiving over two million refugees and being targeted by Daesh terrorism with increasing numbers of its citizens becoming radicalised. Long term destabilisation akin to that suffered by Pakistan as a result of the Afghan wars is not an unrealistic possible comparison. While it has maintained its alliance with NATO, the Kurdish situation has considerably worsened as a result of the Syrian war, 2016 began with the PKK-Turkish conflict at its worst for years. A radical Kurdish group launched twin attacks on civilians in Ankara in February 2016, killing 28, and March, killing 37, while the government has utilised violent assaults in the Kurdish dominated east in response.
Yet as typified in the case of Qatar, despite bold ambitions, these actors lacked the capacity to match their ambitions. The most noticeable issue is the contradiction between the desire to ensure stability among its immediate neighbours and its commitment to supporting protest movements that are happening at a safe distance. Events in Egypt and across the Middle East demonstrate how the Arab Spring came full circle in the Arab world’s most populous state. Just as the uprising that ousted President Mubarak from power galvanised demonstrators across the region, so the reinstatement of military rule sent a clear message about the embedded power of counter-revolutionary forces and vested interests. The events of the Arab Spring have also highlighted the limits of Qatar’s potential. With Hounshell arguing that If Libya represented the ‘apotheosis of Qatari power, Syria represented its limits’ (Hounshell, 2012, p. 24).
Qatar is definitely worse off, and now faced with growing opposition at home, its domestic position is increasingly insecure. While it’s vital security alliance with the US stands for the moment it’s regional ambitions remain derailed. As in Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s emergence as the lead sponsor of the opposition greatly dented Doha’s dual aim of projecting influence and rivalling Riyadh. Furthermore, the Syria conflict, and the outing of Qatar’s ties to al-Qaeda has damaged Doha’s precious international branding strategy which in the wake of increased international scrutiny, must be rebuilt. With former US Treasury under-secretary David Cohen arguing that Qatari support for extremist groups operating in Syria “threatens to aggravate an already volatile situation in a particularly dangerous and unwelcome manner” (Levitt & Bauer, 2017, p. 2).
Similarly, in March 2014, then Treasury Department under-secretary David Cohen singled out Kuwait and Qatar among the GCC countries as ‘permissive jurisdictions’ where private fund-raising network can be relied on to solicit donations to radical recipients in Syria with ‘al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate al-Nusrah Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (Daesh), and the group formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI)’ (US Department of the Treasury 2014) amongst the organisations reportedly benefiting from Doha’s largesse. This was followed by the listing of Qatari nationals such as Abdulazziz bin Khalifa al-Attiyah and Saad bin Saad al-Kaabi upon a terrorism financier’s sanctions list. The former, a designated financier for al-Qaeda and it’s Syrian affiliate al-Nusrah Front (Jaffe & Gibbons-Neff in Washington Post, June 6th 2017) whereas the latter was found guilty of posting solicitations on Facebook and WhatsApp accounts for “arming feeding, and treating” fighters in Syria (Levitt & Bauer, 2017, p. 2).
Doha has repeatedly brokered hostage and prisoner exchanges, paying millions of dollars to insurgent and militant group in these deals. A notable example of this is provided by the huge ransom of over $1bn (Keatinge in BBC News, 13th June 2017) paid by the state to free 26 members of a Qatari falcon-hunting party, including members of the royal family, who had been taken hostage by Iran-backed militiamen in Iraq. This deal also resulted in the release of dozens of Shia fighters captured by jihadists in Syria. Qatar is also a sponsor of the Four Towns agreement in Syria, negotiated with Iran and Hezbollah, in which civilians trapped under siege by government troops or by rebel forces have been bused to other areas.
Despite belatedly taking some action to check the sponsoring of terrorism by Qatari nationals, including the prosecution of known criminals such as Ibrahim al-Bakr, Saad al-Kaabi, Abd al-Latif al-Kawari, Abd al-Rahman al-Nuaymi, and Khalifa al-Subaiey, these measures have proven to be insufficient in curbing the flow of funds to radical movements in the region. This sentiment is re-iterated by former senior US Treasury official Daniel Glaser lamented in Feb 2017 that US and UN designated financiers continue to operate “openly and notoriously” in the country. He also argued that Doha was yet to make the kind of “fundamental decisions” on combating terror finance and what steps were taken by the regime had been “painfully slow” in their implementation (Quoted in Levitt & Bauer, 2017, p. 4). Saudi Arabia is in a stronger position compared to its Gulf rival. The Syrian war has helped usher in a more activist Riyadh that is emerging as a more overt regional leader than in the past. Its highest regional priority, containing Iran, has been partially achieved in Syria. While Assad has not been toppled, Tehran has been bogged down in financially and militarily propping up Damascus.
With the momentum of the Arab Spring having shifted back in favour of the status quo ante and with the regional upheaval showing no signs of abating in the near future, Emir Tamim faces a delicate combination of consolidating power domestically while engaging in damage limitation regionally. In this context, Qatar’s new leadership will find its room for manoeuver constrained by the residual scepticism, even hostility, to Qatari intentions, real or perceived, whether from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates or further afield from Egypt and Algeria.
A VICIOUS CIRCLE
The ideological tensions and rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran manifesting itself through proxy warfare in a number of geographical arenas across the Middle east demonstrate the existence of a tense security paradox within the Gulf region. The coalescing of a number of material and ideological factors namely the anarchical nature of the international system, the fluctuating balance-of-power within the Gulf region, the resurgence of sectarian conflict and the growth of armed non-state and trans-state organisations and their use as proxies by larger regional powers are creating uncertainty amongst policymakers in the region. Within this context of heightened insecurity, the assertive and expansive foreign policy pursued by Doha under the direction of Emir Hamad-Al-Thani and his successor Tamim are creating further sources of instability and tension amongst its Gulf neighbours increasing potentials for miscalculation and conflict within the region.
Riyadh has long considered Qatar to be part of its own sphere of influence. The mutually antagonistic relationship between the two powers provides insight into the instrumentalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood by Doha through the course of the Arab Spring revolutions. Support for the Brotherhood and other associated groups originated in a structural need for staff who would not establish systems that deferred authority to Saudi Arabia. Such support also established and preserved Qatar’s position as an important part of the wider Brotherhood, raising the state’s standing across the Middle East. These interventions in addition to shaping the Arab Spring, helped realign the region’s geopolitics. Saudi Arabia tolerated Qatar’s autonomy, to focus on another regional proxy war against Iran. The 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which Saudi Arabia opposed, further complicated the issue.
Few countries have grown from client state to regional power. While Qatar has sought to manage this in a few years. Every time a vacuum opened, both Gulf rivals would rush to fill it first. In Tunisia, each supported opposing political parties. In Libya, each backed armed groups that would later fight a civil war. In Syria, each sought to outbid the other in financing rebels. In Egypt, Qatar backed the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate won the country’s first real presidential vote in 2012. The next year, when the Egyptian military took power in response to popular demands, Riyadh and its allies awarded the new rulers a $12 billion aid package. The current diplomatic crisis has sought to highlight the complex relationship between Tehran and Doha historically. They have cooperated over economic development, particularly on the South Pars/North Field gas reservoir that is shared between the two countries. Regionally they have both supported Islamist groups including Hamas, the Palestinian party that has ruled the Gaza strip since 2007. Qatar has also brokered deals with Hezbollah, the Iranian backed militia in Lebanon. In return, Tehran has supported Qatar in its dispute with Bahrain over Fasht al Dibal Island.
However, the statements of Qatari Prime-Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani are interesting particularly as most commentators perceive relations between Doha and Tehran to be friendly. Al-Thani has been reported as saying “They lie to us, and we lie to them” and argued that while Doha and Tehran were neighbours they are “not friends” (Quoted by Parvaz, 2010, p. 3). Moreover, Hamad bin-Khalifa Al-Thani, the former Emir of Qatar asserted that based on his three decades of experience with the Iranians “they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100” (Ibid).
If the Syrian situation escalates further, it seems likely that Iran will step up its already forceful attempts to prop up Bashar al-Assad which will further increase the dispute between Riyadh and the GCC countries on one hand, Qatar and Iran and what is left of the Syrian regime on the other. Particularly as with the Assad Regime looking increasingly likely to remain in power, Doha’s funding of opposition rebels will have served only to aggravate the Syrian regimes greatest supporter – Iran- with which Qatar shares the North Field/South Pars gas field and maintains officially friendly ties ‘to little end’ (Hounshell, 2012, p. 24). It behoves Doha to maintain constructive ties with Tehran to ensure the stability of the North Field, the engine of Qatar’s economic security. Iran and Qatar agreed their offshore boundary in 1969 but this agreement does not cover the allocation of revenues from their shared gas field. This pragmatic need to maintain workable relationship with Tehran has merged with Qatar’s advocacy of diplomatic mediation. During its 2-year tenure on the UN Security Council, Qatar defied the US by voting against Resolution 1696 in July 2006 concerning Iran’s alleged nuclear proliferation.
A similar interplay of pragmatism and tension lies at the heart of Qatar’s relationships with Israel. Qatar began a pattern of normalisation in the mid-1990’s with the state that many Arab countries either refused to recognise or imposed direct and secondary boycotts on all forms of contact with. Relations started after the 1991 Gulf War when Qatar participated in the Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid, later becoming the first GCC country to grant de-facto recognition of Israel. Yet even with Israel, Qatar’s policy of dealing with everyone is epitomised by the developments in October 2012. On 23rd October, the Emir, accompanied by Sheikha Mozah and the prime minister, became the first head of state to visit Gaza since the Hamas takeover of power in 2007. This visit symbolically represented a breaching of the punishing Israeli- and US-led sanctions on the Hamas-controlled territory only weeks before a new Israeli attack following month. During this visit, the Emir pledged to increase Qatari investment in Gaza from $250 million to $400 million to finance urgently needed housing, health and infrastructural projects (Rudoren in New York Times, 23rd October 2012). This move understandably prompted a harsh reaction from Israeli authorities. An Israeli spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Yigal Palmor accused the emir of having ‘thrown peace under the bus’ and suggested that ‘most of the money that he’s pouring into Gaza will go into Hamas pockets, directly or indirectly’ (Ibid).
Furthermore, Doha’s overtures to Tehran alongside its funding of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are developing fears within Riyadh of an Iranian crescent stretching deep into its historical backyard. With Roberts commenting that ‘Doha seems to underestimate the depth of the antagonism this policy creates’ (Roberts, 2014, p. 29). For Qatar, a country with a small native population that has typically had a strong ruler-ruled socio-political bargain, the Brotherhood has never posed any kind of threat. Though Qatar has stepped back, its campaign taught Saudi Arabia a lesson: Uncontrollable Qatar posed a grave threat. Leading to recent diplomatic blockade. The increased fear amongst policymakers in the Kingdom is in turn accelerating its power competition and rivalry with Tehran. By stoking fears within Riyadh over a potential Qatari-Iranian alliance and pursuing an aggressively autonomous path Doha is playing a dangerous game. This growing divergence is succinctly captured by Boyce for whom the gap between ‘what the Qatari’s think they are doing, and what others think they are up to’ (Boyce, 2013, p. 365) can entail catastrophic consequences.
The interventionist policies pursued by Doha, Riyadh and Tehran in the build up to, and in the course of Arab Spring revolutions alongside the disengagement of Washington, has allowed the growth of a range of non-state actors predominantly in the form of armed Islamist formations. The emergence of this plethora of state and non-state actors pursuing distinct and often contradictory ideologies, interests and political strategies have added another layer of antagonism and complexity to the regional security architecture and in doing so have dramatically influenced the trajectory of events within the region leading to what many local commentators have begun to call a ‘New Great Game’ (Sharghi & Dotu, 2017, p. 1537). The support of competing proxies and armed militias throughout the Middle East by Riyadh, Doha and Tehran have led to the emergence of further cleavages along religious, identity and ideological lines which are unlikely to recede into the background in the near future. Instead the increasing fragmentation of states, actors and alliances within the region can be readily witnessed in the internal and external politics of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Turkey.
As the power and capabilities of its rivals grow, each state within the region will work to enhance their military capabilities relative to the other. Thus, as each state attempts to increase its power relative to the other by increasing its defensive capabilities and supporting regional proxies to undermine its rivals, this action will in turn be perceived as threatening and compel the other to take counter-measures to enhance its own security creating a vicious cycle of uncertainty and distrust. The tremendous insecurity engendered by the aforementioned developments have led Middle Eastern scholars such as Huwaidin to assert that in such an inflammatory context, ‘the question is not whether, but when, war would occur’ (Huwaidin, 2015, p. 76). In particular the drivers identified in the course of this paper will continue to promote destabilisation and provide the impetus for the elongation of armed conflict within the region particularly in the absence of the emergence of a more moderate and cautious political base within Doha. Alongside a clear, strong and coherent vision for the Middle East from Washington with renewed regional engagement expected under the Trump administration. The longstanding history of factional in-fighting within the wider ruling family will probably mean that even if Tamim is able to ensure members of his inner circle continue to retain their respective government portfolio’s, in light of the tense geopolitical situation with his neighbours and the vested interests of the wider Al-Thani family with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi the Emir will not be able to stifle efforts by the broader ruling family to increase their influence over state decision making.
The resolution to the blockade might solve a two-decade Saudi-Qatar rivalry, or it could bring just another layer of instability and crosscutting alliances to a region that is awash with them. The current crisis will most probably end with the wider Al-Thani family forcing the current Emir Tamim to accept US demands that take into account Gulf concerns and failing that will likely call for abdication. Despite Tamim’s desire to chart a more independent course from his Arab-GCC neighbours, the Al-Thani family is unlikely to support an alliance with Iran against Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and the US given the reliance of the state upon Washington and its larger neighbours to guarantee its security, while further alienation of its allies would also threaten the livelihoods and business interests of other members of the ruling clan.
Even if Tamim is not forced to step down from power, key figures in his inner circle will likely be replaced including potentially Tamim’s cousin, Prime Minister and Interior Minister Abdullah bin Nasser Al-Thani, Tamim’s half-brother, Deputy Emir Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Thani, Defence Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah and Tamim’s cousin, Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Jassim Al-Thani. In the immediate term, the establishment of independent press and publishing houses could represent the growth of independent institutions with a separate voice and identity from that of the regime. In the absence of decision making bodies outside the ruler’s circle, and of political parties, an accountable and responsive government and ruling elite, transparency in the workings of the government and its agencies, an effective legal framework for rights, a free press and conditions conducive to the free-flow of ideas, Qatari society will remain far from a democratic or pluralist path.
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