An invitation from the king of Saudi Arabia to his Qatari counterpart to attend the most recent Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh in December of 2018 set the stage for potential progress on a protracted dispute that has left the council deeply divided and arguably undermined US efforts to build a united front against Iran. The Qatari emir, however, declined to show, sending a lower level emissary instead. Qatar’s earlier decision to exit OPEC, another forum where Saudi Arabia has considerable influence, also did not bode well for potential deconfliction. Accordingly, any expectations of a breakthrough in this conflict that has frustrated and baffled many in Washington must be tampered by a healthy dose of realism and seen in light of stubborn and longstanding geopolitical facts to which most appear oblivious.
The Saudi king’s invitation was not the first gesture from Riyadh toward Doha in the wake of the brutal assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Hopes of a breakthrough first surfaced after an unexpected comment by Muhammad bin Salman (MBS)—Saudi Arabia crown prince and de facto ruler—during a landmark “Davos in the Desert” investment conference held in Riyadh in October. MBS shocked the audience by offering words of praise for rival Qatar, stating that “despite the differences we have, [Qatar] has a great economy and will be doing a lot in the next five years.” The Qatari-owned Al Jazeera news network was quick to headline, “Under pressure from Khashoggi killing, MBS praises Qatar.”
The significance of this mild yet rare compliment is more apparent when contrasted with the information-warfare campaigns the two countries have been engaged in since the onset of the crisis in June of 2017, both in the Arab and Western press. Both sides have attempted to depict the other as a supporter of terror, and both sides have derided their opponent’s ruler. Saudi media, for example, calls Qatar’s emir “the reckless prince,” while Qatari media refers to MBS as “the boy.”
On the Saudi side, the architect of these smear campaigns, a senior advisor to the royal court and a close confidante of the crown prince, has been let go because of his suspected involvement in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. A tough political operative who was instrumental in assisting MBS to consolidate power, he often spearheaded the most vicious criticism of Qatar, even vowing to turn the small peninsula into an island by digging a moat visible from space.
The reshuffle in Riyadh, coupled with the king’s invitation and the crown prince’s comments, is certainly a noteworthy development that could contribute to a thawing of relations should Qatar reciprocate. But these factors are also up against realities that predate MBS, Qatar’s current emir, and the most recent downturn in bilateral relations. At the heart of the matter is good-old-fashioned geopolitics and considerable history.
Ultimately Qatar is a small, if influential, country with a significantly larger neighbor that has historically dominated the resource-rich Arabian Peninsula. A weaker state like Qatar faces one of two choices according to realist theory: either to “bandwagon” by hitching its fate to the more powerful neighbor in the hope of establishing a mutually beneficial relationship, or to “balance” by partnering with other hegemons to counteract perceived threats from the powerful neighbor.
To varying degrees, with Bahrain on one end of the spectrum and Oman on the other, the smaller states of the Arabian Peninsula have historically chosen to bandwagon with Saudi Arabia under the nominal umbrella of the GCC. Qatar, on the other hand, began to break with this consensus as far back as 1996, when Saudi Arabia took a hard stand against a coup in Doha that saw the emir overthrown by his own son. Fearful of the precedent being set and the implications for themselves and other hereditary monarchies of the region, Saudi Arabia and the UAE halfheartedly attempted to help restore the toppled father emir. For Qatar’s new ruler, the die was cast, and cooperation since gave way to competition.
Qatar’s steady march away from Saudi Arabia and the GCC coincided with technological breakthroughs in the global market for liquified natural gas (LNG) that enhanced Doha’s economic influence. In 1996, Sheikh Hamad built Qatar’s first LNG liquefication plants and an export terminal at Ras Laffan. The gamble paid off spectacularly; thanks to LNG exports, Qatar’s economy skyrocketed from about $8 billion in gross domestic product in 1995 to over $210 billion in less than a decade. At the same time, the LNG terminal allowed the tiny emirate to bypass pipelines that extended through Saudi territory.
Qatar invested much of its newfound wealth in efforts to counterbalance its more powerful neighbor. Militarily, this included inviting US forces to expand their presence at Al Udeid Air Base while spending billions expanding the facilities to accommodate the soldiers. Diplomatically, Qatar’s hedging included signing landmark economic agreements with Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres and taking the unprecedented step of hosting an Israeli trade representation office in Doha in 1996.
The launch of Al Jazeera that same year heralded Qatar’s use of soft power through the medium of satellite television to spread its influence. As the first twenty-four-hour Arabic-language regional news channel, beaming into homes across the Middle East, Al Jazeera allowed Doha to project power, providing a platform for allies and its own views as Doha criticized its Saudi rivals. Qatar actively courted the Muslim Brotherhood, along with other Islamists, and gave them a platform on Al Jazeera in order to cultivate a transnational network of nonstate clients and allies.
Qatar’s full shift from an initially defensive posture to a campaign for regional influence became clear with the Arab uprisings of 2011. It sensed an opportunity to reshape the region by throwing its weight behind the ascended forces of political Islam. Whether in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, or elsewhere, Saudi Arabia stood for the status quo while Qatar fueled the promise of a future where the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam prevailed.
In this quest for outsized regional power, Turkey’s President Ragip Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist AKP Party proved to be the perfect partners, providing the geopolitical heft that Qatar lacked and offering yet another buffer against potential Saudi domination. In 2014, three years prior to the current diplomatic standoff, Qatar offered Turkish troops a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, a first since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The base was announced as part of a defense agreement to “confront common enemies” and now hosts an estimated three thousand Turkish troops. In Riyadh, which sees Istanbul as a rival regional heavyweight, the message was not lost on anyone.
Hence, the current boycott is not simply the making of impetuous young royals that can be easily reversed, as many have come to believe. It has deep-seated roots tracing back over two decades to Qatar’s 1995 coup and the 2011 Arab Spring.
If the Trump administration is to seize the current diplomatic opening and take advantage of the new tone in Riyadh, it must set realistic expectations. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain remain more intransigent in their position toward Qatar, and US plans for an “Arab NATO,” a coalition of Arab allies to counter Iran, are simply improbable at this point. De-escalation and conflict management are the necessary first steps if there is to be any significant progress toward resolving the crisis.
A plausible path forward is for the US to work toward becoming a guarantor of a new accord based on the spirit of the three 2013–14 agreements between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. These countries need Doha to stop undermining their security by ending support for the now much-diminished Muslim Brotherhood and by halting “antagonistic media” campaigns, mainly by Al Jazeera. At the same time, for Qatar, preserving its sovereignty is paramount. US security assurances coupled with the GCC’s tacit acceptance of the Qatari-Turkish partnership could sufficiently address this issue.
As the indispensable security guarantor of all parties to the dispute, Washington can ensure compliance on all sides, threatening to name and shame, and even to impose punitive measures on any country that violates the terms of the new agreement. Surely such an accord will not resolve all outstanding issues, but it could prove to be a tangible first step back from this destructive interregional competition and a solid step toward focusing on counterbalancing Iran.