There’s No Space for Qatar to Save Face
As the crisis in the Gulf heats up, the impossible demands made by the Saudis and Emiratis virtually ensure that things will get ugly.
Last week, Saudi Arabia and its allies outlined their list of demands that Qatar would need to fulfill in order to end the worst crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) since its establishment in 1981. The 13 demands, confirmed by multiple Gulf media outlets and by foreign ministry officials from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, are too sweeping for Qatar to accept without a 180-degree change in its foreign policy.
Nor is the anti-Qatar quartet — namely Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt — necessarily expecting a quick compromise that resolves the crisis. Rather, they appear to be digging in for an extended conflict with their Gulf neighbor. Their demands included requirements that Doha pay compensation to them for any losses incurred due to Qatari foreign policy and to completely shut down Al Jazeera — extreme steps that suggest the four countries are not interested in negotiation at this point.
Even if the five countries reach a settlement, the wounds caused during the row are too deep to heal in the coming years. Asked whether this meant the end of the GCC, a senior Gulf official replied: “Yes. Unless Qatar complies with the demands 100 percent.”
The roots of the quarrel can be traced to the 1995 coup in Doha, which saw the rise of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. Sheikh Hamad ousted his father, whom he regarded as a puppet to the Saudis, and pursued an independent policy that broke away from his country’s larger neighbor, as Qatar began to use its abundance of gas to modernize the country and expand its influence regionally and internationally. Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully backed a comeback attempt by the ousted emir the following year, and the relationship went downhill from there.
From a Qatari perspective, Doha seeks to retain an independent policy that does not necessarily impinge on the interests of its neighbors but is also not linked at the hip with the GCC. Qatar also says its threshold for what it considers extremism differs from those of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, most notably with regards to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian organization Ahrar al-Sham. Saudi Arabia and the UAE counter that Qatar has deliberately supported individuals, groups, and media outlets that directly threaten the security and stability of their societies. They cite Oman as a counterexample of a GCC country with an independent policy, which includes close ties with Iran, but one that does not threaten their stability. To them, the issue relates to Qatar’s destabilizing approach in a volatile region.
The Egypt factor
The current crisis intensified with the Arab uprisings in 2011, when Doha invested in Islamists and political activists across the region, and was triggered by events in the summer of 2013. Just three days after Sheikh Hamad abdicated on June 25 that year, protests erupted in Egypt calling for the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the Qatar-supported and Muslim Brotherhood-aligned president. Morsi was replaced by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a close ally of the UAE and Saudi Arabia who emerged as a military dictator hostile to the Qataris. However, tensions with Qatar were largely contained due to the perception at the time that the new Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani — then just 33 years old — was “inward-looking,” a friend of the Saudi royal court, and would pursue a conciliatory approach with his neighbors.
Pressure mounted on the new emir to reverse Qatari foreign policies. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain announced the withdrawal of their ambassadors, in a rare public move designed to put pressure on Doha. The move was a sign that the tension between the two sides had reached a boiling point.
In an exclusive article published after the envoys’ withdrawal, Foreign Policy was first to report on the content of the agreement signed in Riyadh in 2014 to defuse the conflict. The terms involved demanding that Qatar rein in hostile media outlets “inside and outside Doha”; expel Muslim Brotherhood members, particularly those from Gulf countries; stop naturalizing Gulf activists; and halt any support to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Yemen’s Houthis. Doha denied funding the Houthis, and sources close to the government in Doha say Qatar never admitted to doing the things its Gulf neighbors accused it of — but agreed to take steps to reassure them and bring an end to the conflict.
The list published on Thursday echoed the 2014 demands, with new additions. The new list, unlike the old one, includes the shutdown of Al Jazeera — not just affiliated media outlets that specifically targeted the Gulf states. The demands also specified six other media outlets — some of which are linked to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, like Mekameleen TV — that must be shuttered.
The quartet’s demands also include the need for Qatar to significantly scale down its relationship with Iran. Saudi Arabia and its allies are calling on Doha to downgrade its diplomatic representation in Tehran, expel members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and sever any military and intelligence cooperation. Instead, the Qatari-Iranian relationship must be limited to commercial ties that are also compliant with international and Gulf sanctions imposed on Iran. The two countries share an enormous natural gas field, discovered in the 1970s.
Qatar is also required to halt military cooperation with Turkey — including the establishment of a Turkish military base on Qatari soil. Two days after the Saudi camp announced the blockade against Qatar, the Turkish parliament approved the deployment of 5,000 troops to Qatar. Despite reassurance from Turkey that the move was discussed prior to the crisis, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw the move as a challenge to the quartet’s position. A Gulf official told FP that he expects the Turkish involvement will further increase friction between Ankara and Riyadh.
The list also stipulates that Doha must relinquish any relationship with extremist groups, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State, al Qaeda, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syria franchise), and Hezbollah. Qatar must also designate these groups as terrorist organizations, per existing and future lists issued by the four countries.
The demands placed in front of Qatar don’t end there. The document also requires that Doha pay compensation for any financial losses incurred as a result of Qatari policy in recent years and hand over databases of oppositionists previously supported by the country. Updates about progress must be conducted on a monthly basis during the first year, every three months the second year, and annually for 10 years. Finally, Qatar must accept the demands within 10 days; otherwise, the demands are considered null.
A GCC shakedown
Acceptance of the demands would undo two decades’ worth of Qatari efforts to create soft power in the region. Doha is also under pressure domestically to demonstrate strength, which Sheikh Tamim did on the same day of the blockade by publicly meeting with prominent Islamic cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi — a particular jab at both Egypt, from which Qaradawi hails, and the UAE.
Qatar’s capitulation would mean a full dilution of its regional standing, as well as humiliation at home — and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE know it. According to conversations with both Saudi and Emirati officials, as well as others close to the decision-making, the two countries believe the rift is beyond repair at this point. This is also reflected in the unprecedented verbal attacks against the Qatari royal family by media outlets close to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi — something that would not have happened if they expected a settlement to the crisis based on negotiation and pressure.
The latest measures came amid the backdrop of simmering frustration that goes back years, not sudden or knee-jerk measures. When asked why this conflict had been transformed into a crisis now, a senior Gulf official said there was no particular trigger — if anything, he said, the move had been delayed by the belief that the Barack Obama administration would have opposed an escalation against Qatar and that it was inappropriate to make such a move before Donald Trump’s U.S.-Islamic summit in Riyadh.
The situation is poised to get worse before it gets better — if it ever does. Qatar is unlikely to capitulate, its detractors are unwilling to compromise, and the divergence between the two camps is hard to bridge. Officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE see no urgency in bringing Qatar back into the club. From their perspective, Qatar cannot change without serious consequences and sustained pressure against it. The maximalist position taken by the Saudi camp has left no passage for Qatar to seek a face-saving settlement.
Because of this, a break-up between Qatar and the GCC remains a real possibility. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE believe that they could do without Qatar. For them, the GCC has been divided over the past decade: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain are largely in sync; Oman and Kuwait are mostly neutral; and Qatar is an outlier. Doha has worked against them more than it worked against Iran since 2011.
Escalation against Qatar is unlikely to be militarized, not least because of the American base in the emirate. The next escalation point could involve the suspension of Qatar from the GCC. Despite pressure from the United States, the four countries seem adamant to send a message that they are serious about a radical behavioral change in Qatar — whatever it takes.
Photo credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images