Critics have come out in support of besieged Qatar and against the decision made by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt to impose sanctions, the removal of which are conditional on Doha meeting demands that are unrealistic, unprecedented, and will strip the tiny emirate of much of its sovereignty. Are these critics correct? Are the quartet’s actions just a smokescreen to reduce Qatar to a vassal state? After all, they argue, disagreements among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members are nothing new. Why should the punishment exceed the crime?
In fact, while there are similarities between the quartet-Qatari standoff and previous schisms within the GCC, the current crisis is the only instance where the foreign policy actions of a single GCC member have threatened the security of the entire bloc.
Saudi Arabia’s history and size, in both population and territory, has created a disparity in geopolitical influence between Riyadh and its smaller GCC neighbors. This has yielded benefits and, on occasion, created tension. The Kingdom, which won its independence more than forty years before the rest of the bloc and which fields a population of twenty million nationals, provides its neighbors with military and political strategic depth, and acts as a legitimizing force for their tribal monarchies, most of which are little more than city-states (Qatar, the smallest, has 250,000 nationals). But Saudi Arabia has also driven the other Gulf states to sometimes go out of their way to make a point of their “independence” from Saudi Arabia.
Kuwait was the first Gulf state to do exactly that. In 1963, the Kuwaitis allowed the USSR to open the only Soviet embassy in the GCC, even though the Soviets were, at that time, seen as the principal threat to the Saudi monarchy. The Kuwaiti obsession with charting an independent path was only broken with Iraq’s invasion of their country in 1990 and the subsequent recognition that, absent Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical clout, the United States might never have intervened to save their country.
After the death of its founder, President Sheikh Zayed, in 2004, the UAE also passed through a rebellious phase by pushing, for a short time, to amend its border agreement with Saudi Arabia in a futile attempt to regain oil-producing land that the Emiratis had ceded to the Kingdom in 1974. Oman continues to exhibit such behavior to this day; most egregiously, it has allowed the Islamic Republic to use its territory to smuggle weapons into Yemen during the recent conflict.
The difference between the actions of these states and those of Qatar is that not one of the former—Kuwait, the UAE, or even Oman—ever escalated its independent policies anywhere close to the point of working to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, whereas Qatar has been doing precisely that.
The file of accusations against Qatar is thick, but just one example suffices to demonstrate the extent to which Doha has worked to undermine its neighbors. Following the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, rebels seized recordings where the Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad informs the deposed Libyan president of his plans to subvert the Saudi monarchy and split the Kingdom into three states. “I promise you,” Hamad tells Gaddafi, “Al Saud will not be around in twelve years.”
When these recordings came out on YouTube in 2014, Saudi Arabia made a conscious decision not to publicize the fact that its close neighbor and ally was actively working to destroy it. On the contrary, the Saudis adopted a policy of quiet diplomacy via Kuwaiti mediation, which resulted in the Qatari emir apologizing and subsequently abdicating in favor of his son, Sheikh Tamim, with the understanding that the era of disruptive behavior would end. Qatar, however, did not abide by the agreement; the “Father Emir” continues to wield power from behind the scenes and the tiny emirate’s policies of subversion continue.
The struggle with Qatar originated with the 1995 coup of the Father Emir against his own father, Sheikh Khalifa. In the view of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, introducing the “palace coup” as an accepted norm of politics in the region set a dangerous and destabilizing precedent. Consequently, when Sheikh Khalifa, with support from within the Qatari royal family and allied Qatari tribes, and probably from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain as well, unsuccessfully sought to reverse the coup in 1996, the Father Emir Sheikh Hamad began to actively plot revenge against these countries. He backed any organization, Sunni or Shia, that could potentially harm or destabilize his Gulf neighbors, and in 1996 he founded Al Jazeera as a state media arm to directly attack the legitimacy of those who had opposed his coup against his father. Driven by anger, the usurper emir’s strategy was tantamount to cutting off the nose to spite the face; Qatar’s policy of destabilization could only result in inflicting harm on the entire GCC, including Doha.
Today, the entire GCC is firmly in the crosshairs of jihadi groups who want to bring down its monarchical ruling order, and of a revolutionary Iran determined to, at a minimum, dominate the Gulf (if not also bring down its Sunni monarchies). To have a member of the GCC family continue to work from the inside to support such subversion, whether it is done inadvertently, out of ignorance of the consequences, or as the result of a misplaced sense of self-importance, is simply intolerable.
This behavior also undermines Qatar’s own interests. The Islamist revolutionaries Qatar is flirting with will take the tiny city-state down as quickly as they will the other monarchies if they can find the opportunity to do so. Any protection money paid, shelter provided, or media platforms given to Islamists in years past will do little to stop these revolutionaries from eagerly swallowing Qatar if they are ever in a position to overrun the region. A Gulf dominated by either Sunni or Shia jihadi regimes will hardly leave the überwealthy Al Thani monarchy alone to enjoy its trillions of dollars of natural gas wealth.
The issue here is the internal stability and security of the whole GCC, Qatar included. Qatar is a wooden house in a neighborhood of wooden houses; any fire it starts among its neighbors will surely burn it down as well. How the Qataris can think otherwise beggars belief. And yet, to quote Mathew Brodsky writing in The National Interest, they behave like “an uncoordinated child attempting to juggle fire atop a keg of dynamite, too foolish to grasp the consequences.”
That is why Qatar needs to halt its attempts to subvert the security of its neighbors: by ending funding and support for Sunni jihadists; by keeping relations with Iran civil but not abetting the expansionist policies of the Islamic Republic by funding Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon; and by not allowing the region’s revolutionaries to spread their ideology and try to undermine the established order by giving them unfettered access to media platforms like Al Jazeera.
Qatar will ultimately sink or swim with the rest of the GCC. The time has come for the Qataris to grow up and realize this fact.