Doha—On June 5, 2017, the potentates of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, fabulously wealthy oil monarchies, attempted a hostile takeover of the small country of Qatar. Not since Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, had Arab powers attempted so radically to redraw the Middle East map. This time, an American president stood with the aggressors rather than drew a line in the sand. Despite their much bigger populations, their massive petroleum reserves, the media reach of their propaganda, and their much more formidable military resources, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have gone down to humiliating defeat. How did little Qatar outmaneuver its foes? (Full disclosure: I am distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Gulf Studies at Qatar University for the spring semester of 2018.)
Mohammed bin Salman, 32, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed bin Zayed, 56, commander of the UAE’s armed forces and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, have abandoned the quietism of their predecessors and, in tandem, have sought to remake the Middle East. They are waging a bloody and destructive war in Yemen; they have supported militant fundamentalists in Syria; they tried to force the prime minister of Lebanon to resign; and they colluded with the Egyptian officer corps to make a coup and bring the Arab Spring youth protesters to heel.
The two Mohammeds announce themselves as battling Iranian influence in the Arab world, but what they really fear is any sort of popular politics beyond their control. It is no accident that they have a troubled relationship with Tunisia and Lebanon, the only Arab republics with meaningful elections.
Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah recently revealed that last summer Saudi Arabia and the UAE had geared up for a military invasion of his country. Some of Qatar’s clans have branches on both sides of the border with Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh reportedly incited them (unsuccessfully) to sedition. Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed dreamed of putting another, more pliant, member of the Al-Thani ruling dynasty on the throne in Qatar, deposing the present emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, 37.
The two aggressors, which along with Egypt and Bahrain formed a Quartet against Qatar, imposed an economic blockade on the small gas-producing state, and even put their airspace off-limits to Qatar Air. Qatar needs to import food for its 2.3 million residents, nearly 90 percent of whom are expatriate workers attracted by the jobs generated by Qatar’s natural-gas industry and by all the economic enterprises it spurred. It used to truck in the food overland from countries such as Jordan through Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis, Qatar’s only direct neighbor, closed the border. A propaganda campaign was begun against Qatar in the West, and British Member of Parliament Daniel Kawczynski was paid over $20,000 to speak at an anti-Qatar conference in London.