How Saudi Arabia and Qatar Became Friends Again

And why their rapprochement could mean an early end for the Arab Spring.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

In the spring of 2006, Qatar’s then energy minister broke his silence on a stalled, multibillion-dollar project to supply Qatari gas to Kuwait. "We have received no clearance from Saudi Arabia" he said. "Hence it is not feasible." Fast-forward five years and things couldn’t look more different.

The gas-supply project is emblematic of the hot-cold relationship between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The deal was initially proposed by the Qataris in 2001, denied permission by the Saudis, then approved in 2003, and then denied once again in 2006. The roller-coaster-like diplomatic relations between the two energy-rich neighbors dates back to 1992, when a border clash caused the death of two guards. Relations went downhill from there.

Riyadh’s vocal objections to Doha’s plans stretched to a proposed bridge between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a bilateral gas pipeline now in operation, which according to Reuters prompted the kingdom to send official letters in 2006 to the pipeline’s minority partners, France’s Total and the United States’ Occidental Petroleum Corp., questioning its proposed route.

Saudi Arabia’s then crown prince, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, boycotted a summit of Islamic states in Qatar in 2000 to protest the presence to the Israeli trade office in Doha. Riyadh then withdrew its ambassador to Qatar in 2002 following controversial comments made by Saudi dissidents on Qatar’s Al Jazeera satellite channel.

The dispute took a personal tone when lawyers for Qatar’s first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, argued in a libel case she won against a London-based Arabic newspaper in 2005 that the paper was, as Dawn reported, "controlled by Saudi intelligence paymasters who used the newspaper as a mouthpiece for a propaganda campaign against Qatar and its leadership." In April 2008, the London-based, Saudi-owned Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat apologized for printing three "wholly untrue" articles back in 2006 alleging that Qatar’s prime minister had visited Israel in secret.

During its decade of cold relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar warmed up to Syria, the leader of the so-called resistance axis in Arab politics. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani were frequent visitors to each other’s countries, and Qatari investors poured billions of dollars into the struggling Syrian economy. Both states, along with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, were seen as a regional counterbalance to the pro-Western axis of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. (The Saudis made their displeasure with Qatar’s maverick policies clear on a number of occasions. Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, refused to attend a January 2009 summit in Qatar supported by Syria and Hamas and instead held another summit in Riyadh just one day before.)

Wishing to put an end to the bad blood, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, widely seen as the architect of Qatar’s foreign policy, accompanied the emir on a surprise visit to Riyadh in September 2007. Relations quickly improved following that visit, with the Saudi monarch attending the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Doha that December. By next March, the new Saudi crown prince, Sultan, had paid a three-day visit to Doha, the first since 2002. In July 2008, the Saudis played host to a high-level summit in Jeddah that saw the two neighbors demarcate their border and set up a joint council to be chaired by both states’ crown princes — who are more than 50 years apart in age — to strengthen political, security, financial, economic, commercial, investment, cultural, and media relations.

It was perhaps that last aspect of the pact that drew the most attention. The New York Times reported in 2008 that the Qatari emir had taken the chairman and general manager of Al Jazeera with him to Riyadh in September 2007. One Al Jazeera employee claimed in an email message to the Times that "Orders were given not to tackle any Saudi issue without referring to the higher management" and that subsequently "All dissident voices disappeared from our screens." Al Jazeera is now accused of rarely taking on sensitive topics involving its larger neighbor.

Relations hit a high in May 2010 when the Qatari emir pardoned — upon King Abdullah’s request — an undisclosed number of Saudis who were accused by Doha of taking part in a 1996 coup led by loyalists of Sheikh Hamad’s ousted father. Upon arriving in Saudi Arabia, the released prisoners were received by the crown prince in his palace in Jeddah.

Despite the rapprochement, not all was smooth sailing between the two countries, especially when it concerned Syria. In 2008, the Saudi foreign minister, according to Syrian government-controlled newspaper Teshreen, expressed objections to Qatar’s attempts to resolve the political crisis in Lebanon, which traditionally falls under Saudi-Syrian influence. On another occasion in 2009, Kuwait’s Al Rai newspaper quoted a Qatari official saying that Damascus had rejected Qatari efforts to resolve yet another Lebanese cabinet formation crisis by interceding with the Saudis.

Despite the rapprochement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the two states have reacted differently to the Arab Spring. While Qatar’s support for this year’s Egyptian revolution was evident in Al Jazeera’s coverage, Saudi Arabia continued expressing support for President Hosni Mubarak until the very end. And despite the cold relations between Libya and Saudi Arabia due to an alleged 2003 assassination attempt against then Crown Prince Abdullah, the Saudis never called on Muammar al-Qaddafi to step down. Yet not only did Qatar call on the Libyan leader to go, but it was also the first Arab country to commit to the NATO-led military effort in the North African state.

At first, Doha and Riyadh appeared to see eye to eye on Syria. On April 2, shortly after the protests erupted in Syria, Qatar’s emir dispatched his prime minister to Damascus to deliver a message of "support for Syria in the face of efforts to undermine the country’s security and stability," as reported by Syrian state media. However, relations between Qatar and Syria had deteriorated so much by July 18 that Qatar suspended operations at its embassy in Damascus and withdrew its ambassador in yet another major surprise of the Arab Spring, especially considering the close relations of both states.

In the intervening months, Al Jazeera had noticeably amped up its coverage of the Syrian protest movement, privileging YouTube clips and eyewitness accounts over government claims that the protests were a foreign-backed Islamist conspiracy. Syrian channels retaliated by blaming Qatar for the unrest, at one point even showing bags of drugs with the Al Jazeera label, and by intimating that some $6 billion in Qatari investments were at risk. A senior Qatari official said his country might resort to international law to sue Syria while the Qatari press said that Syrian channels devoted hours every day to "portray Qatar in a bad light."

What can explain this dramatic shift in Qatar-Syria relations? As early as March 25, Egyptian-born Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a popular religious scholar who for many years maintained a weekly show on Al Jazeera and who is a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, declared his full and emphatic support for the Syrian revolution in a Friday sermon. "Winds of change [are] not far from Syria," Qaradawi declared, citing the "historical … political bond" between Egypt and Syria, and proceeded to condemn Syria’s "suppressive regime" and its "atrocities." Bouthaina Shaaban, an advisor to the Syrian president, immediately singled out Qaradawi for what she claimed was inciting a sectarian uprising.

Perhaps Qaradawi’s influence and presence in Qatar, where he has lived since 1961, explains why Doha was willing to publicly break with Assad while Saudi Arabia has maintained some level of support. The Syrian revolt, like Egypt’s, has been partially led by the country’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which regularly meets with liberals and other opposition factions to plan for a post-Assad Syria. Qatar, which like Saudi Arabia officially practices a Wahhabi version of Islam, evidently feels more comfortable with the Brotherhood sharing power than do the Saudis. Saudi Arabia may also be concerned for the stability of Lebanon, which would inevitably be affected by a regime collapse in Syria.

Another interesting twist will be how Iran reacts to Qatar’s now-frozen relations with Assad. Iran and Qatar share control of the world’s largest gas field, obliging Doha to maintain cordial relations with Tehran — yet Iran is deeply invested in Assad’s survival, to the point of allegedly sending trainers and billions of dollars worth of cash to help him contain the revolt.

Meanwhile, Qatari and Saudi ties grow ever warmer. In the past few weeks, the number of weekly flights Qatar Airways has been allowed to operate to Saudi Arabia increased from 35 to 60. In September, a delegation of 100 Saudi businessmen will visit Qatar to discuss joint business opportunities, including the establishment of a Saudi-Qatari bank and joint industrial zone. Al Jazeera, long banned in the kingdom, has also been given the green light to set up a Saudi bureau.

The friendly relations are likely to continue — at least until 2022, when Doha plays host to the FIFA World Cup, a marquis global event for which it has earmarked anywhere between $65 billion and $100 billion and invested considerable political capital. For the tournament to go as smoothly as possible, a pragmatic Qatar will need the full cooperation of its largest and only land neighbor. Saudi firms will doubtless win lucrative infrastructure contracts or supply essential raw materials to Qatar over the coming decade, and we will likely see Doha’s freewheeling foreign policy stay within the bounds of Riyadh’s interests. Above all, Qatar will spare no effort to make certain that nothing stands in the way of its global coming-out party.

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