While the crisis brought about by the Saudi/Emirati/Bahraini/Egyptian decision to cut diplomatic ties and sever air, sea, and overland links with Qatar will, in all likelihood, end with Doha’s capitulation on a number of key issues, the precise trajectory to and timetable for reaching a workable settlement remains unclear.
The severity and suddenness of the current conflict has confused observers within the Gulf and abroad. This confusion is a direct result of the enormous efforts exerted by all parties to keep past disputes quiet in the interest of maintaining a façade of inter-Gulf unity. In those rare instances where disagreements did become public, as occurred with the November 2013 Saudi Arabia and Emirati recall of their ambassadors to Doha, the immediate causes were left opaque.
In this context, the depth of anger toward Qatar and the determination of the Saudi/UAE/Bahrain/Egypt Coalition to bring Doha to heel needs to be explained. Media characterizations of Qatar as an undisciplined younger sibling with an irritating satellite channel that plays host to troublesome figures from the Muslim Brotherhood and maintains suspiciously close relations with Iran, are not only reductionist but peripheral to the core issue: Doha’s desire to overthrow the Saudi monarchy.
Qatar’s malevolent intent was first exposed in a series of recordings of conversations between the former Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa and Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. In these recordings, which were seized by Libyan rebels and released on YouTube following the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011, Sheikh Hamad and his Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem, inform Qaddafi of their efforts to undermine, subvert, and ultimately depose the Saudi Royal Family. In the course of these conversations, the Emir informed the Colonel that Doha was not only funding the Saudi opposition in-exile, but actively recruiting and funding dissidents within the Kingdom itself with the intent of ultimately securing independence for the Hejaz and Eastern Province while leaving the Saudis with a rump state in their historical homeland of Najd. “We are the most troublesome country for Saudi Arabia,” the Emir said. “And I promise you that Al-Saud will not survive more than twelve years.”
While a convincing case can be made that the explosive revelations contained in this recording constituted a casus belli for a Saudi declaration of war, it was, in fact, publicly ignored by the Royal Family who opted, instead, to pursue a policy of quiet diplomacy with Doha via Kuwaiti mediation. In 2013, when the Emir abdicated in favor of his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, hopes were high that the new Emir would eschew his father’s subversive orientation in favor of a new GCC consensus rooted in a policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states.
Unfortunately, this honeymoon was short-lived; the new Qatar looked very much like the old Qatar. As Doha continued to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE became convinced that, despite appearances, the old Emir was still pulling the strings and the policy of quiet diplomacy had failed. Consequently, Saudi decided to publicize the Libyan recordings along with commentary by a senior member of the Royal Court which details the continuing incendiary behavior of the current Emir’s father.
Why did Saudi and the UAE wait until now to publicize this information and impose an embargo on their truculent neighbor? Clearly, the US-GCC summit in Riyadh where President Trump outlined a zero-tolerance policy toward both Iranian expansionism and Sunni Islamist extremism made it clear that the new US administration understood that a reunified GCC was the only way to secure these aims. This reorientation not only helped to align the policy positions of Washington, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi, but created a window for Saudi and the Emirates to take concrete action to achieve this aim. And while the steps taken by the Coalition, specifically the closure of air, sea, and overland crossings and the expulsion of Qatari diplomats and citizens is unprecedented, it is a clear indication of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s intent to definitively settle the matter.
Viewed in this context, the Coalition is looking for concrete indications that Qatar will abide by the 2012 revision to the GCC security accord which calls upon signatories to “take legal measures…when its citizens or those living on its territories interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.” Furthermore, it will push Doha to end its support for Shia opposition movements in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen as well as the Tehran-backed Popular Mobilization Units – to whom Qatar allegedly sent a large cash payment to secure the release of several of its citizens held in Iraq – and insist that Doha muzzle or evict Muslim Brotherhood members including Sheikh Yusef Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian cleric who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, has been living in Qatar for years, and is a near constant presence on Al-Jazeera.
Saudi and the UAE will also demand that Qatar reign in Al-Jazeera which consistently propagates Islamist-inspired propaganda that undermines their regimes. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may also push Doha to close financial and regulatory loopholes that allow Qatari terror financiers to use charities and social media to raise funds for ISIS, Al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda. This move would have the added benefit of winning additional support from the Trump Administration, which has publicly praised the Coalition embargo as a move to implement the President’s desire for these states to “take a hard line on funding extremism,” by dealing with Qatar.