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.
The first step the Qatari government took was to reach out to Turkey. Turkey’s military intervened to forestall a direct invasion. Turkey and Qatar both support the right of religious parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood to participate peacefully in civil society, and were on the same side in opposing the 2013 coup by the Egyptian officer corps against Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi. Despite Riyadh’s backing of hard-line Salafi fundamentalists, which it sees as loyal to the Saudi monarchy, its leadership has come to view the Brotherhood as a populist threat to the crown, and the UAE feels the same way.
Then there was the problem of air flights. The British Empire had left Bahrain in control of a disproportionate amount of Gulf airspace, and Manama used that advantage to deny Qatar Air overflight rights and access to its air-traffic controllers. Qatar quickly negotiated with Iran, which was happy to thwart Saudi ambitions by letting Qatari flights go over its territory, guided by air traffic controllers in Shiraz. With access to the air space of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, Qatar Air was able to work around the air blockade of the Quartet of countries confronting it, though it faced substantial new costs.
Doha then went to the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization and got a ruling against Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt over their attempt to close their air space arbitrarily despite being signatories of the International Air Services Transit Agreement. The three conspirators, two of which have major international airlines themselves, moderated their hard line slightly (Bahrain relented and allowed its air-traffic controllers to talk to Qatari pilots). Still, the air blockade has hurt Qatar Air’s bottom line this year, though it has ambitious plans for expansion to the east (routes unaffected by the Saudi boycott). Airlines in the United States had voiced suspicions that Qatar Air received government subsidies, which the company denies, but in order to lessen tensions with the United States, its leadership has offered to open its books so that the complaints can be resolved.
Qatar began importing more food by air and sea, and there were never any shortages, despite some sensationalist reporting at the time. Indeed, longtime non-Qatari residents have told me that they were astonished that people in Doha did not rush to stock up on food and water last June when the crisis broke. Qataris have begun farming and gardening and even imported some milk cows, depending on the country’s desalinization plant for water. While some food items are now more expensive, especially for guest workers, the economy has proven resilient, since gas exports were unaffected by the crisis. Qatar was among the first major gas producers to go to liquefied natural gas (LNG), a technique that allows the gas to be stored in containers and shipped. Since the Quartet has not dared impose a sea blockade (which would have been an act of war in international law), Qatar has been able to keep exports steady. Indeed, the UAE rather hypocritically continues to import gas from its avowed enemy!
Initially, the four hostile countries were unable to say exactly why they were treating Qatar this way. Ultimately, they came up with a set of 13 demands. The Quartet demanded what they characterized as reparations for the loss of life resulting from Qatar’s recent policies. In other words, they all but admitted that the move on the small Gulf state was a sort of bank robbery. (Qatar, with a citizen population of less than 300,000, has a GDP of around $160 billion, putting it in the neighborhood of much more populous countries such as Greece and New Zealand. It has a sovereign wealth fund of some $300 billion, a tempting target for Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, who allegedly mulcted the Saudi business class of $100 billion by arbitrarily imprisoning them in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton.)
They wanted Qatar to cut off relations with Iran, which is impossible because the two share a major gas field that runs under the Persian Gulf. Qatar is not close to Iran, but has correct relations with Tehran and, if anything, the relationship has warmed because of the flatfooted mafia tactics of the Quartet. They wanted Qatar to close its award-winning Al Jazeera TV network, one of the few sites of free speech in the region. They wanted Qatar to stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which they incorrectly termed a terrorist group, and they falsely accused the strongly Sunni state of backing Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah. And they wanted to monthly audits of Qatar’s compliance with their demands. Such a wide-ranging ultimatum amounted to a demand for Qatar to give up its sovereignty as a country. Sheikh Tamim has roundly rejected the demands and refuses even to talk with the Quartet about any of them, a stance that has made him a national hero in Qatar.
Although the Saudis initially inveigled the gullible Trump into supporting their campaign against Qatar, over time, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson changed Trump’s mind and convinced him that the feud among the Gulf Arab monarchies, which had been grouped in the Gulf Cooperation Council, only benefited Iran. (The GCC was created in 1981, at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in which the Gulf supported Iraq, in hopes that it would strengthen military and economic ties among Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.) The Qatari elite, moreover, knew both men well. As former leader of the Marines and former head of Central Command, Mattis is intimate with and well aware of the value of Al Udeid, America’s military base in Qatar. Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, had long had close business ties to Doha.
The Qataris, moreover, gave both cabinet members things they wanted. They announced they would increase Qatar’s LNG production from 77 million to 100 million tons per year, and it is likely that Exxon Mobil, Total, and Shell, all traditional Qatari partners, will benefit to the tune of billions.
Then Qatar announced that it would greatly expand the Al Udeid base, in hopes of making it a permanent strategic asset to the United States and a place where US service personnel could bring their families. Defense Minister al-Attiyah pointed out that 80 percent of refueling of US fighter jets for sorties against ISIL and other extremists in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan is carried out in Qatar.
At the end of January, Tillerson and Mattis attended a Qatar-US strategic dialogue in which both heaped fulsome praise on Qatar as an economic and security partner for the United States. The discourse was 180 degrees away from Trump’s breathless tweet of last summer in which he accused Qatar of being a rogue state and font of terrorism.
In short, Qatar won in part by appealing to the adults in the Trump administration.
The crisis is unlikely to end soon, in part because the Quartet has made such extreme demands that it is difficult for them to climb down, and in part because the trust of the Qataris in their neighbors has been profoundly and permanently eroded. The likelihood is that the Gulf Cooperation Council is dead as a security organization, and Mattis and Tillerson are right that Iran is among the main beneficiaries of its likely breakup. Little Qatar will survive quite nicely and go its own way, more publicly than ever before. That it will be simply gobbled up by the two Mohammeds, who have an increasingly huge appetite for the territory and wealth of their neighbors, seems increasingly unlikely. Because of Qatar’s role in supporting freer speech and more pluralism in the region, that outcome could be crucial for the fate of the Middle East.