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The Pitiful Endgame of Saudi Arabia’s Qatar Blockade

As the Trump administration winds down, Riyadh is trying—and failing—to cut its losses on a failed regional policy.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepares to board his plane at the Old Doha International airport in the Qatari capital Doha, on Nov. 21, 2020.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepares to board his plane at the Old Doha International airport in the Qatari capital Doha, on Nov. 21, 2020. PATRICK SEMANSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In a last-ditch effort to unite the Gulf against Iran, outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump’s Middle East advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner have both visited the region in the administration’s dying days. But while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been brought back to the negotiating table, under Kuwait’s mediation, little progress was made on resolving the three-year-old dispute; the trade and travel embargo on Qatar by a quartet of countries—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt—has not been lifted. The Saudis and Qataris have talked, and cordially; the Saudi foreign minister even sent a virtual message that an agreement was “within reach.” And yet analysts remain skeptical of a breakthrough.

The outcome of the long-awaited talks to end the blockade of Qatar fell far short of its expectations. It was also disappointing for the United States, which often struggles to achieve its strategic goals in the region because of the quarrels among its petulant allies. For instance, while Trump was exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran to choke it economically, Qatar Airways was forced by the blockade to use Iranian airspace, with the required payments aiding Iran’s economy in turn. The wider region also bore the brunt of the rivalry as Qatar and the UAE backed opposing factions in several conflicts.

Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at King’s College London and a Gulf analyst, said that so far the two sides had agreed to tone down their media campaigns against each other to build trust. “In a second step, Saudi Arabia might open the air or land border as a sign of goodwill,” Krieg added. Some of these confidence-building measures may be announced at the Gulf Cooperation Council’s summit later this month, but the differences at the heart of the dispute still seem intractable.

At the core of the crisis are Qatar’s ties with Iran; its alleged support for Islamist groups, particularly the political Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood; and its alleged use of the state-owned news network Al Jazeera to spread the Brotherhood’s message, inciting popular uprisings. Cutting off ties with Iran and with the Islamists as well as shutting down Al Jazeera were among Saudi Arabia’s 13 demands over the blockade, which read like an infuriated parent’s reprimand to a wayward adolescent. That may indeed be just how the princes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE see their Qatari cousin, who refuses to fall in line.

Doha may throw out some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders, as it did back in 2014 when over the same grievance the Saudis and the Emiratis previously severed diplomatic links, but it isn’t ready to upend its policy of keeping channels of communication open to all sides of the Middle East’s divides. It is instead trying to present itself as a useful mediator to the West in a region torn between different shades of Islam and riven by violent conflicts.

Some analysts contend that Doha’s strong relationship with both Tehran and Washington make it a good potential mediator when U.S. President-elect Joe Biden wishes to rework and rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. They also say that Qatar’s relationship with Turkey and its leverage over rebels in Syria and pro-government forces in Libya could be used to end those prolonged conflicts. There are increasing signs that, especially since it acted as mediator between the United States and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Qatar fancies itself as Oman’s replacement as the region’s negotiator-in-chief.

Noha Aboueldahab, a fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said the cornerstone of Qatari foreign policy was to serve as a hub for diplomacy. “This includes unofficial and official talks between groups such as Hezbollah and the Lebanese government in 2008, the Taliban and the Afghan government, most recently in 2020, Hamas and Fatah, and Darfur rebel groups and the Sudanese government in 2009,” she said. “Severing ties completely with another country has never really been a typical attribute of Qatari foreign policy, and I don’t see this changing even under the current circumstances.”

In possession of the third-biggest natural gas reserves in the world, Qatar has successfully weathered the blockade. It would, however, like to see the embargo lifted so the money it is spending on alternative air, land, and sea trade routes could be channeled instead to preparations for the soccer World Cup in 2022. But it regards breaking up with Iran as a nonstarter, and not only because they share a giant gas field. The blockade paradoxically increased Qatar’s dependence on Iran. As the embargo threatened the supply of basic goods, Iran was the first to send in supplies of necessities such as vegetables, opening its ports and airspace. Even if the blockade is lifted, there is no guarantee it won’t be reimposed, and so it serves Qatar best to keep that door ajar.

Iran, however, has been perceived as a threat by Saudi Arabia since the Islamic revolution in 1979 when it emerged as the model and inspiration for myriad resistance groups scattered around the Middle East. It is also concerned that a sectarian rival might develop a nuclear weapon, and that the Iran nuclear deal might have been insufficient to obliterate that possibility.

However, dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood acquired urgency owing to the group’s successes in the Arab Spring. The Gulf region’s monarchies were terrified that an unimpeded rise of the Brotherhood would create conditions for unrest at home and that they might meet the same fate as toppled autocrats such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Until the Arab Spring, local branches of the Muslim Brotherhood were tolerated, but that has changed. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain have proscribed the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

So when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman befriended Kushner and found a godsend American ally in Trump, he tried to mitigate both threats by squeezing Qatar. However, as Biden, who has publicly chastised Saudi Arabia and taken a more charitable look at Iran, takes charge, Qatar imagines itself in a better bargaining position and wishes to brandish its credentials as a peacemaker.

A few days after Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, was killed in an American drone strike, and fears of a war between the United States and Iran picked up pace, Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani traveled to Tehran. Some analysts are pointing to that visit as proof of Qatar’s usefulness to the United States.

According to Krieg of King’s College London, the emir’s visit came at the United States’ urging, and he was to advise restraint. “The emir was asked by the U.S. to go and mediate so as to avoid an escalation of tensions in the Gulf,” Krieg said. Aboueldahab of the Brookings Doha Center added that Qatar’s foreign minister flew to Iraq with the same message. “It’s important to remember that when a U.S. strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani in January 2020, Qatar’s foreign minister flew to Iraq in an attempt to de-escalate tensions. As such, Qatar’s approach when it comes to tensions with Iran is to seek de-escalation, rather than isolation,” she said.

It is possible that Qatar hopes to upstage Oman, but there is little chance it can succeed. Oman delivered as an intermediary between the United States and Iran when back channels were first activated to discuss the nuclear deal. There is no reason for Biden to swap Oman for Qatar if there is again a need for a go-between. Moreover, Qatar is a less palatable option because of its difficult relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which are demanding to be consulted this time when negotiations over the deal are restarted.

Qatar’s bigger foe, perhaps, than Mohammed bin Salman is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE. It is he who has been pulling strings from behind the scenes, the man behind policies such as punishing Qatar, mending fences with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and opening up to Israel. More than Iran, Mohammed bin Zayed has been worried about the impact of the Brotherhood and other Islamists on regional security as well as on the continuation of monarchies like his. He is deeply mistrustful of Doha and is not yet ready to forgive its perceived sins, let alone allow its elevation to the position of a mediator between Washington and Tehran.

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a retired professor of political science in the UAE, said he regarded the talks between Riyadh and Doha as premature and without “meat.” He said Qatar had not changed its behavior and remained loyal to the “terrorists.” “Qatar just does not want to recognize the grievances of its neighbors. Fine, so be it,” Abdulla said. He added, and analysts across the political divide in the Gulf agreed, that while Riyadh and Doha can talk, there will not be a deal with Abu Dhabi.

“I don’t at the moment see that the UAE is on board and it might be a difficult sell for the Saudis to persuade the UAE to sign up to a final agreement or even a preliminary one,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“Qataris want to play a larger and bigger role that annoys Saudi Arabia, it outshines Saudi Arabia,” Abdulla added. “Saudis are saying, do as the Emirates does and let us be on the same page. But Qatar is coordinating with Iran and Turkey and God knows who.”

Saudi, Emirati, and Qatari sheikhs all trace their ancestry to the nomadic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. They practice the same religion and have sustained their monarchies by a serendipitous presence of oil and gas underneath their sands. Their squabbles, however, are much older than their wealth, and none feels they can be seen to be backing down. While Trump can wish to score a last diplomatic win, if the attitudes of the parties involved are anything to go by, any resolution would be at best temporary. It is going to remain up to Biden to bring the U.S. allies together behind a cohesive Iran policy.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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