Pity the pipsqueak, the ne’er-do-well, left to struggle in a family of overachievers. This would create discord in the most harmonious of blood unions, but when global influence is part of the mix the uproar will be equal in scale and scope. As anyone who has sat through a large family Thanksgiving dinner knows, it doesn’t take long for longtime wounds to surface, personal rifts to widen into canyons.
The Middle East and North Africa has often been referred to as the “Arab family,” or an alliance of “brotherly nations,” and with good reason. It is a vast region bound by religion, language, and other characteristics of culture that have held it together through centuries of colonization, not to mention its own internal bickering. To get any grip on the crisis rocking the Persian Gulf, and the recent ostracism of Qatar, requires a short course in its history and the history of the Gulf region.
Prior to independence in the early 1970s, the western slice of the Arabian Peninsula existed a protectorate under the widening umbrella of the British Empire. The lands were never colonized, like nearby East Africa and South Asia. The climate was far too inhospitable to facilitate colonization, and before the 20th-century discovery of oil it offered nothing that would interest the colonial powers anyway. It also can’t be overlooked that the influence of the ruling sheikhs over the local population and the respect they held was far too daunting to dent. The result was a tidy arrangement. The British used the ports of the Gulf to transfer goods shipped from their colonies in South and East Asia. In a quid pro quo, the sheikhs relied on the British to protect their own trade routes from attack by pirates and other scallywags that roamed the Arabian Peninsula, and large tribal families remained the threads of social and political cohesion that held the region together.
The discovery of oil tipped the dynamic—first in Bahrain, in 1932, then Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, in 1938. Qatar would join the oil club in 1940, the United Arab Emirates in the 1958. The end of World War II saw a global movement toward decolonization ripple across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and the sheikhs of the Gulf region saw their newfound wealth as a pathway to true independence, and nationhood. In 1971 Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, united the seven emirates once called the Trucial Coast to form the United Arab Emirates. Nearby Sunni-dominated Qatar and Shiite-majority Bahrain were invited to join the new union but declined, preferring to form their own nations. As Qatar would find out, within the Gulf family, rebuffs are never forgotten, nor forgiven.
Despite talk of brotherly relations, petty spats continued. Qatar and Bahrain turned to the International Court of Justice to settle a border dispute in 2001 (in Qatar’s favor), and Saudi Arabia was peeved when the United Arab Emirates adjusted its weekend from Thursday–Friday to Friday–Saturday, to allow one more workday to align with the international workweek. But none of these quibbles boiled over into outright conflict. They remained internal squabbles, papered over to maintain the appearance of regional unity.
Any family, especially one constantly in the public eye, would struggle to maintain such an image when roiled by discord, and the oil-rich nations of the Persian Gulf are no different. And nothing erases differences like the emergence of a common enemy. In 1981 the six Arab nations of the Persian Gulf—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates—formed the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC. One of its aims was to form a bulwark against Iran, a perennial foe that had just been transformed by the Islamic Revolution. Never mind that Bahrain, like Iran, has a Shiite majority. It had long been ruled by a Sunni monarchy and was therefore a reliable ally within the Gulf family.
As the Gulf grew in international importance, tiny Qatar faced a troubling question: how could it distinguish itself among its neighboring heavyweights? There was Iran to the east, to the west Saudi Arabia, de facto capital of the Islamic world, and the UAE’s Dubai emerging as the region’s business, transportation, tourism, and entertainment hub. But an itch to distinguish itself Qatar had, buoyed by developments that transformed the economic landscape (or seascape) of the Gulf. Vast reserves of natural gas were discovered in Qatar’s territorial waters, and it was soon revealed that the tiny country of two million possessed 14% of the world’s natural gas, third only to massive Russia and ever formidable Iran, which gave the country a much brighter economic future than oil-dependent Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar’s economic ascent was meteoric. In 2017 it bypassed the UAE in a significant global benchmark: it became the wealthiest country in the world, with a per capita GDP of $125,000.
More questions arose. Now a “player,” in the international economy, what was Qatar to do with its newfound clout? How could it carve a place for itself on the global stage, and one worthy of its economic might? Foreign affairs offered an opening. None of its neighbors were doing much besides throwing money at the world’s problems, so Qatar aimed to fill the vacuum. After the Israel-Gaza war of 2008–9, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani hosted a conference to explore ways to negotiate Middle East peace. However, new to the nuances of foreign diplomacy, Qatar mis-stepped: Hamas, rather than the Palestinian Authority, was invited to represent the Palestinians, prompting scorn from Western powers and even Arab nations long-claiming that Qatar had a habit of cozying up to Islamists.
It has to be admitted that in its external relationships, Qatar has not helped its own cause. In its zeal to carve a place for itself in global diplomacy it found itself getting mixed up with what the international community might call the “wrong crowd.” This has brought Qatar recognition and headlines, but not of the welcoming kind. In 2013 the Taliban opened an office in Doha, a move that quickly exploded into controversy when a sign on the building designated it as the offices of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” effectively a government in exile. It was closed. The country’s moderate image was not helped by reports of wanted Taliban figures enjoying a life of luxurious immunity in the capital, relaxing in lavish villas and jetting around town in expensive cars, paid for, reportedly, by wealthy Qatari sympathizers.
The Qatar bashers saw their opening. Qatar was “funding extremists” and “global sponsors of terror,” so claimed the neighboring “moderates.” More weight was added to the charge when a 2016 U.S. State Department report claimed that “entities and individuals within Qatar continue to serve as a source of financial support for terrorist and violent extremist groups.” The statement never implicated the Qatari government, and if “entities and individuals” are bona fide targets of State Department barbs they could be hurled at virtually every Muslim-majority country. No mention was made of the arch-conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam preached in mosques and madrassas throughout the Islamic world that have been funded by “entities and individuals” within Saudi Arabia, or that 15 of the 19 perpetrators of the September 11th terror attacks were Saudi nationals. Which brings to mind a well-known word of warning to those who live in glass houses—but I will end there.
The accusation that Qatar has supported terrorism may have the most sticking power in its relationship with Hamas, but this also exposes the ever lurking murkiness of Middle East politics. True, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal found sanctuary in Qatar after he fled Turkey in 2012, but a few years before, after the 2008–9 Gaza War, former emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani toured the devastated strip and pledged $400 million in reconstruction. Was this support for Hamas, support for terrorism? Yes, in the eyes of some. But in 2005 Sheikh Hamad also toured the Ninth Ward of New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina left it a waterlogged wreck and earmarked $100 million of his personal wealth for the construction of new homes. Was this support for America, support for democracy? Of course not, in the eyes of many.
In our media-engulfed world it was almost inevitable that the airwaves would become another battleground where the Gulf feud would play out. In 1996 Qatar launched Al Jazeera, the first 24-hour news network to reach viewers across the Arab world, but it was soon denounced for giving a platform to extremist views and support for banned organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2007 it had the gumption to expand its reach by launching English-language Al Jazeera International. For Qatar watchers this was another cause for concern. No other network in the Arab world, not popular Dubai-based Al Arabiya, commanded as much media clout, and none, by broadcasting in English, aimed to embrace an international audience.
As Qatar wallowed on the edge of pariah status it scored a coup de grace, thumbing its nose at its detractors. It beat out all other competitors to host the football World Cup in 2022. Not only did the tiny country earn a privileged place among the sporting giants of Brazil, South Africa, Russia, and Germany, the announcement was made on December 2, 2010, the UAE national day. The timing could not have sparked more glee in Qatar and humiliation in its neighbor. Nearby Dubai would earn a bid to host an international expo in 2020 (given the ironic slogan “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”), but this was meager consolation compared to the Holy Grail of international sports awarded to Qatar. A few scandals naturally followed (this is the Middle East, after all). Shortly after the award was announced accusations of bribery and a rigged voting system erupted. And during the building of the facilities several dozen Nepalese laborers perished, which brought to light the living and working conditions and legal limbo that many migrant workers endure not only in Qatar but throughout the Gulf states.
At some point one would expect the United States, the Gulf region’s grand patron, to enter the fray, play the adult in the room, and send these spatting brats to their rooms. But no. The U.S. was far too compromised in too many quarters, with too much at stake to run the risk of angering anyone. Its arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE have buoyed the U.S. defense industry with multi-billion-dollar contracts. Since 2002 Doha has hosted the U.S. Central Command at Al Udeid Air Base, the military’s staging ground for its adventures in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and a vital link to additional bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was the Middle East, after all, with too many apple carts to risk upsetting. In 2014 the U.S. quietly renewed its defense agreement with Qatar’s young, new, fresh-faced emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and that was that.
In a fit of pique, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors to Doha. Undaunted, the following year Qatar hosted an international conference to resolve the Israel-Hamas standoff. As expected, it produced nothing, but “it was the gesture that counts.”
It was only a matter of time before such a simmering pot would boil over, and in the spring of 2017 it did. U.S. president Donald Trump made his first overseas trip to Saudi Arabia, where he signed mega-billion-dollar weapons contracts and pleased his hosts by railing against its arch-rival—Iran. Hardly had the shadow of Air Force One left Riyadh than Qatar fired its rebuttal, stating that it had always had good relations with Iran and saw no reason why it should jeopardize them. That blew the top off the kettle. Gulf monarchies, it should be remembered, are top-down hierarchies in which leadership is passed through the family line. No upstarts dare jump the queue. This respect for ruling authority applies to the larger Gulf family. Deference is granted to the patriarch, who speaks for the whole on matters that concern the whole. Tiny Qatar, less than one-tenth the size of Saudi Arabia, had broken ranks, dared to speak up on its own, unequivocally and even publicly.
Retribution was swift. Al Jazeera was cut from the airwaves in the anti-Qatar block. Qatar Airways—leading competitor of Dubai-based Emirates Airlines—was banned from airports in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatari students were expelled from universities. Qatari nationals were given weeks, sometimes days, to pack up and leave. Accusations of computer hacking and the dissemination of fake news ricocheted between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its allies. Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan, a UAE security official, argued for the bombing of Al Jazeera’s Doha headquarters.
If that weren’t enough, there was the siege. Saudi Arabia closed its land border with Qatar, the country’s only land transport link. Supermarket shelves in Doha began to empty. Relief was offered by none other than Iran, which shipped four planeloads of fruit and vegetables to its beleaguered ally.
The anti-Qatar block quickly drew up a list of 13 demands that Qatar would have to meet to return to its place within the Gulf fold, and it reads like a manual for the demise of an autonomous state. Among other things, it claims that Qatar must sever its ties with Iran and other “terrorist organizations,” close Al Jazeera and all its spinoffs (oddly, but not surprisingly, BeIN, the Qatari sports channel, popular throughout the Gulf, continues to operate). Qatar must also quit its “meddling” in others’ internal affairs (though exactly what this “meddling” constitutes has never been specified), and it must fall into line with other Gulf countries’ polices in all respects, from politics to economics. To ensure compliance, Qatar would be monitored for 10 years.
The standoff continues. Needless to say, the invective has only grown sharper, as a result—needless to say—of Qatar’s unwillingness to fall into line. Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, has railed against Qatar’s “mendacity and duplicity” and “destructive orientations.” He has added, “It calls for mutual respect, but it attacks our leaders and our countries around the clock. It calls for non-interference in internal affairs, but it is interfering and does not stop conspiring.”
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir fumed, “Relations will be frozen until they change, and I hope they will change, and if they don’t change we’re a patient people. We’ll wait for 10-15, 20, 50 years. How long did it take [the US] with Castro and Cuba? We can do the same with Qatar!”
Al Jubeir and company may have a long wait for Qatar to come in from the cold. With over three years to go till the kickoff of the 2022 World Cup, the country will have plenty of opportunity to strut its stuff in the international limelight, which will surely generate even more catcalls and brickbats from its neighbors, threatening, some will claim, “regional stability.” On the upside, this will be a rare opportunity for global watchers of the Middle East to gain long-awaited insight into the true dynamics of the region. Unknowingly and without design, this prodigal son has raised the blinds on the House of Arabia, and exposed its unwashed laundry for all to see.