Jun 5th 2017
SAUDI ARABIA and its satellites have repeatedly put their neighbour Qatar on notice, but never as severely as this. In 2014, they temporarily recalled their ambassadors from the tiny, rich Gulf statelet: but on June 5th, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain announced they were not only severing diplomatic relations with Qatar, but their air, sea and land links too—meaning that Qatar’s only land border is to be closed. Panic buying is already reported in Qatari shops. Qataris must leave Saudi Arabia within days, and will henceforth be denied entry. For good measure the ambitious young Saudi defence minister and deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, expelled Qatar’s 1,000-strong force from the coalition he leads against rebels in Yemen.
Qatar is the world’s second-largest exporter of natural gas and will host the football World Cup in 2022, and it has sought to exert influence across the region. Saudi news outlets say the measures are reprisals for Qatar’s support for terrorism, including al-Qaeda. That said, other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have also had to fend off claims that they—or their citizens—have helped to fund jihadists.
There are broader and older grievances at play, rooted in geopolitics and the place of Islam in politics. For decades, Saudi and Emirati officials have blamed Qatar, which protrudes like a sore thumb from the western Gulf, for breaking ranks with the Saudi-dominated six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).
Qatar is one of three GCC states that still maintains cordial relations with Iran (Kuwait and Oman are the other two). Its emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was quoted expressing reservations about Saudi Arabia’s increasingly belligerent posture against Iran. Qatar also sponsors and provides sanctuary to the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly irking the UAE, which deems the Brotherhood a terrorist group. And it also funds and hosts Al Jazeera, a broadcaster that offers a platform to Arab dissidents everywhere but in Qatar, and which fanned the flames of revolution and armed revolt during the Arab Spring.
For all their ambition, the Al Thanis have little appetite for confrontation. Qatar’s foreign ministry has meekly expressed “deep regret” at the severing of ties. In recent years Qatar has scaled back its public support for the Brotherhood. As tensions mounted in recent days it ejected senior members of the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, Hamas, and repatriated a dissident wanted in Saudi Arabia. It has disclaimed a headline criticising Saudi Arabia’s stance on Iran, and described the quote attributed to the emir as “fake news”.
But the isolation is unlikely to end soon. Saudi Arabia has yet to define its demands for restoring ties, and Qatar can expect little solace from other Arab states. Most of them are likely to welcome Qatar’s comeuppance. Egypt’s president and his fellow generals still fume at Al Jazeera for opposing their overthrow of the Brotherhood’s elected president in 2013; so Egypt quickly joined Saudi Arabia in cutting its links with Qatar. Yemen’s Saudi-supported government and the UAE-backed authority in eastern Libya also declared they are following suit.
Historically, Qatar looked overseas for protection against Saudi bullying. The British kept the Saudis from extending their rule to its coastal protectorates in the 1920s. More recently, Qatar has reached out to an unlikely assembly of Israel, Iran, Turkey and America for support. Of late, though, its alliances have seemed to fray. Israel has deepened its security relationship with Qatar’s rivals, the UAE, and to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia.
American support may also be less certain. Qatar hosts the largest American base in the Middle East, al-Udeid. Located on the road to the Saudi border, Qataris have long viewed it as their best defence against invasion by land. But many Qataris now fear that America under Donald Trump might be less a regional referee than a Saudi cheerleader. Last month Mr Trump chose Riyadh, the Saudi capital, as the first foreign destination of his presidency, and in return was greeted with Saudi pomp and arms contracts. His foreign policy advisers are reckoned to maintain close ties with Muhammad bin Zayed, the UAE’s de facto ruler, who has been urging America to move its forces there from Qatar for years.
Qatar could look to Turkey, which shares its favourable view of the Muslim Brotherhood and opened a base in the sheikhdom last year. Given his troubles at home, though, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, might shy from a confrontation with the Al Sauds. That leaves Iran. The two countries jointly manage South Pars, the world’s largest gas field. In addition, says a cleric close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran has a defence pact with Qatar which commits it to the latter’s defence in the event of a Saudi attack. Already, Iranian officials have offered to send food shipments across the Gulf. Saudi Arabia’s impetuous actions risk further driving Qatar into the arms of Iran, and increasing the danger of armed confrontation with Shia state. In response to nervousness about both outcomes, oil and gas prices are rising.