The Qatarization of the Middle East

Gulf Arab countries are copying Qatar in hedging against U.S. power. Iran is thrilled.

By , a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (left) gestures toward Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi as they walk after a group photo during the final session of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum summit in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 22.
Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (left) gestures toward Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi as they walk after a group photo during the final session of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum summit in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 22.
Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (left) gestures toward Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi as they walk after a group photo during the final session of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum summit in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 22. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

Almost alone in the Middle East, the small emirate of Qatar has managed to walk the balance beam between powerful actors: housing a key U.S. air base, Al Udeid; enjoying a defense pact and major non-NATO ally status with the United States; all the while maintaining friendly relations with Iran; hosting senior leaders of U.S.-designated terrorist groups including Hamas, the Taliban, and assorted other terrorist actors; and continuing to finance and promote Al Jazeera, a vast media network that routinely pushes anti-Israel, anti-U.S., pro-Iran, and pro-Muslim Brotherhood messaging.

Various efforts to punish Qatar for its nominal nonalignment—though some might say it’s merely two-faced—have failed ignominiously. And Qatar’s success has made it a model for the rest of the region.

Now, frustrated with wild swings in U.S. regional policy and increasingly doubtful about the constancy of U.S. military support, the rest of the Gulf is in the process of what might be called “Qatarization”: hedging their bets against U.S. power, playing footsie with Tehran, making economic and weapons deals with China and Russia, and otherwise acting like, well, Qatar.

Almost alone in the Middle East, the small emirate of Qatar has managed to walk the balance beam between powerful actors: housing a key U.S. air base, Al Udeid; enjoying a defense pact and major non-NATO ally status with the United States; all the while maintaining friendly relations with Iran; hosting senior leaders of U.S.-designated terrorist groups including Hamas, the Taliban, and assorted other terrorist actors; and continuing to finance and promote Al Jazeera, a vast media network that routinely pushes anti-Israel, anti-U.S., pro-Iran, and pro-Muslim Brotherhood messaging.

Various efforts to punish Qatar for its nominal nonalignment—though some might say it’s merely two-faced—have failed ignominiously. And Qatar’s success has made it a model for the rest of the region.

Now, frustrated with wild swings in U.S. regional policy and increasingly doubtful about the constancy of U.S. military support, the rest of the Gulf is in the process of what might be called “Qatarization”: hedging their bets against U.S. power, playing footsie with Tehran, making economic and weapons deals with China and Russia, and otherwise acting like, well, Qatar.

And one country in particular is exploiting this trend to its own advantage: Iran.


Several forces have combined to accelerate the Qatarization of the Gulf. A major factor was U.S. President Barack Obama’s pivot away from the region during his term in office. That turn was then furthered—ironically—by his successor Donald Trump’s championing of the new Abraham Accords arrangement, which aimed in part to neatly substitute Gulf countries’ dependence on U.S. power for alliances with Israel. And all of that was capped off by President Joe Biden’s eagerness to reenter the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.

For Washington’s traditional Gulf partners, particularly the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, everything revolves around the question of who will defend them against Iran and its proxies. In the Obama era, the answer was clear in their minds: The United States would be on Iran’s side.

But many believed Obama was an aberration. Hope revived in the Trump era, but it quickly became clear after Iranian-sponsored attacks on key Saudi oil facilities that even the most virulent of Iran’s foes in the White House would not spring to Riyadh’s defense. Needless to say, Biden’s team—peopled by former Obama administration officials and a vice president who made denouncing Saudi Arabia a key element of her foreign policy—would not be an improvement. Thus solidified the Gulf’s era of hedging.

Another factor in the region’s growing Qatarization is the double whammy of climate activism and the diversification of energy supplies. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine have distorted markets in unexpected ways, but the overall trend has long been clear. In the year prior to the pandemic’s outbreak, the United States was a net gas exporter and the world’s largest oil producer. Taken in conjunction with population growth in places like Saudi Arabia, massive fluctuations in the price of oil, staggeringly large public sectors, and other demands on the public purse, most Gulf governments are fretting about their future economic security.

Also in their eye is public enemy No. 1: the man who negotiated the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and now serves Biden’s climate czar, John Kerry. In their view, as multiple regional leaders have confided to me, Kerry once sought to subjugate the Gulf Sunni powers by elevating Iran and is now furthering that plan by trying to destroy oil producers in favor of pie-in-the-sky environmental gains.

Doubtless, Washington’s shifts have upended the traditional calculations of its Gulf allies. And Iran has been quick to take up the slack. Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, most Gulf countries have flirted on and off with Tehran and vice versa. But their tolerance for Iran’s shenanigans abroad has been limited, and bilateral talks have rarely resulted in serious rapprochement.

One reason for that has been Saudi Arabia’s staunch and growing concerns about Iran’s hegemonic regional ambitions. Riyadh has experimented with a variety of policies to contain the Iranian threat, including an effort in the 1980s and 1990s to emulate Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism to its own advantage by financing al Qaeda, recognizing the 1990s Taliban government in Afghanistan, and exporting Wahhabi extremism. But the 9/11 attacks put an end to that approach.

Given a “with us or against us” choice by then-U.S. President George W. Bush in the wake of those attacks, the Saudi monarchy abandoned its drive to build a Sunni version of the Islamic Republic. And for the first decade and a half of the 21st century, Saudi Arabia began to reshape itself as the leader of a U.S.-backed regional anti-Iran bloc, suffocating occasional attempts by its Gulf neighbors to mend relations with Tehran. But that interregnum has ended.

Riyadh’s first attempts at a post-American anti-Iran Gulf consensus included an almost pointless boycott and embargo of Qatar as well as a disastrous war in Yemen. In each instance, Riyadh’s desire to make a point and assert its own independent foreign-policy priorities—to stop Qatar’s promotion of Saudi dissidents and Muslim Brotherhood extremists in the first case and to stop the Iranian-backed Houthis from launching cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia in the second case—made sense on its face. But in each case, the execution was so counterproductive that early supporters (including the United States and Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbors) fell away.

Realization dawned on the Emiratis first that a Saudi-led future was unlikely to work well. Eventually, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman caught up. Now, along with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, and, of course, Qatar—Saudi Arabia has embraced a hedging strategy that includes better relations with Moscow and Beijing, and, yes, more openness to talking with Iran.

The most shocking manifestations of this new hedging strategy were the well-publicized Saudi and Emirati snubs to White House calls seeking oil to backfill after the Russia embargo. (Notably, both leaders chose to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin after he invaded Ukraine.) But there were other steps as well, such as the Emirati purchase of Chinese trainer jets, a (now paused) Chinese port project near Abu Dhabi in the UAE, a Chinese-supported ballistic missile factory in Saudi Arabia, and, of course, abstentions in the United Nations General Assembly vote punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.


From Tehran’s perspective, Washington has created an opportunity—and, as usual, Iran’s leadership has been quick to exploit it.

The Iranian regime has always fretted about encirclement, and while it has worked extraordinarily successfully to destabilize a variety of players in the Middle East—Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen among them—its Gulf neighbors were always a tougher nut to crack. Tehran has historically found that efforts to foment internal dissent in places like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have failed. And as Iran’s leadership discovered that exporting instability to its more prosperous Gulf neighbors was too tall an order, it embraced a more subtle approach that has met with surprising success.

Over the last year-plus, the government in Iraq (itself trapped between Tehran and Washington) has brokered detente talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These on-again, off-again conversations have been desultory at best, but Baghdad, at Tehran’s behest, has sought to keep them going. Similarly, an unusual but important high-level meeting took place last December in Tehran between the UAE’s top national security official and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Neither Tehran’s eagerness for talks with its Gulf neighbors nor their own willingness to take part should be construed as transformative. Indeed, Emirati and Saudi leaders remain mistrustful of Iran, and Iran, for its part, continues to agitate against its Sunni neighbors. But as the gulf between the United States and its erstwhile best buddies in the GCC has widened—laid bare by their failure to backstop U.S. oil supplies or punish Russia for its Ukraine invasion—Iran has continued to proffer dialogue.

Tehran’s willingness to take advantage of Gulf hedging is a shrewd strategy. It doesn’t signify any alteration in Iran’s overall ambitions for itself and its proxies, but it does underscore a willingness to play the game that Qatar copyrighted. And in the short term, that willingness may diminish the open war of attrition between the region’s Sunnis and Shiites and cement in place Iran’s hegemony over Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. More importantly for the United States, it means an almost complete loss of influence in the region.

As with Qatar and Al Udeid, the United States will continue to enjoy basing and prepositioning in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE. But those basing rights will come with little political or economic loyalty. And as Biden discovered when he approached Saudi Arabia and its neighbors for support, the Gulf nations will make their decisions based on what they perceive to be their interests, not America’s.

Danielle Pletka is a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-host of the podcast What the Hell is Going On? Twitter: @dpletka

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