Stratfor describes the Qatar-Saudi conflict, a new fissure in the Middle East

A conflict has broken out in the Middle East, as the Saudi Princes seek to re-establish hegemony over the Qatar Princes. It is yet another fissure in the Middle East, the world’s most critical flash point. Here Stratfor explains the origin of the conflict, what has happened, and its likely consequences. Of course, the extreme but unlikely consequences could be much worse — such as sparking the long-awaited destabilization of the region.

Former friends Saudi King Bin bin Abdulaziz and Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Saudi King Bin bin Abdulaziz and Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Photo by Pool / Bandar Algaloud / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images.

“Qatar’s Feud With the Gulf States Reaches New Levels”

Stratfor, 5 June 2017.

Summary.

Long-standing tensions among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that intensified over the past two weeks have culminated in several Arab governments suspending relations with Qatar. The current crisis has roots in multiple areas in which GCC states do not see eye to eye, including in their attitudes toward Iran, their manifold perspectives on supporting political Islamists and the degree of economic and strategic rivalries among them.

Analysis.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain announced they would suspend diplomatic relations with Qatar, which has long bucked the Saudi line on condemnation of Iran and support for Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Their declarations were followed by those made by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives government in Libya, which has close ties to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; the Saudi-backed government of Yemen led by President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi; and the Indian Ocean island nations of Mauritius and the Maldives, which have close ties to the Saudi and Emirati governments.

The countries said they would halt sea trade with Qatar as well. Saudi Arabia — the only country with a border with Qatar — has also blocked land transport across that border, according to reports. Several regional airlines such as Emirates, Bahrain’s Gulf Air, Flydubai and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways have canceled flights into Qatar, while Qatar Airways has canceled its flights to Saudi Arabia. Likewise, GCC airspace is off-limits to Qatari flights. The countries that scrapped diplomatic relations with Doha have given Qatari citizens in their territories two weeks to depart, while diplomatic staff were given until June 7 to leave. Because of the diplomatic disruptions, Qatar has also been removed from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, though Qatar filled only a token role in that operation.

In announcing the diplomatic and travel freezes, the countries cited Qatar’s alleged support for groups that they consider terrorists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban and Hamas, as well as others, including al Qaeda. Qatar hosts a significant number of delegates from groups such as Hamas or the Taliban and has fashioned Doha into a neutral zone that allows for negotiations to take place. Qatar’s willingness to host these organizations, of course, has been met with disapproval in the past. Saudi Arabia has also blamed Qatar for allegedly supporting Shiite militants in eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Meanwhile, reports have emerged that after Qatar urged them to leave the country, several Hamas leaders are relocating to Turkey, Malaysia and Lebanon. This echoes moves Qatar made to try to defuse a similar crisis in 2014. However, Qatar has not indicated any willingness to soften its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban or Hamas. Backing such groups has broadened Qatar’s regional legitimacy and granted Doha some leverage with the United States and other countries that seek to control the behavior of the Islamist groups.

Map of the Gulf States and Qatar
Click to enlarge.

The Spark of a Crisis.

The current deterioration in relations between the Arab states and Qatar was sparked by the remarks of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who was quoted expressing support for Iran {see another perspective on this, from MEMRI}, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood at a military graduation speech on May 23. The statements triggered a response from other Gulf states that started banning Qatari media outlets, including Al Jazeera. A flurry of accusations then flew through media outlets on both sides.

The decision by a hacking group calling itself GlobalLeaks to release emails purportedly from Yousef al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, also suggested strong ties between himself and a neoconservative pro-Israel think tank, further roiling the media environment (see this and this). The toxic back-and-forth that built momentum for Qatar’s estrangement could suggest a concerted move by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to pressure Doha by portraying it poorly.

Closing the land border and halting air and sea traffic is intended to put economic pressure on Qatar. Between 40% and 50% of its food imports, including most fresh dairy, vegetables, fruit and processed cereals, are shipped overland from Saudi Arabia. But when considering overall imports, the blockade will not have as much of an effect on Qatar, which receives only 8.8% of its imported goods (including construction materials) from the United Arab Emirates, and only 4.3% from Saudi Arabia.

The air travel ban will pile more problems on a struggling Qatar Airways, which immediately lost its right to serve 19 destinations in the countries that issued the bans. The state-linked airline was already dealing with a 38% loss in its brand value over the past year (it is now worth $2.2 billion). If the trade and travel blockades continue, Qatar may experience food price inflation, though food aid pledged by Iran could mitigate that. In the highly competitive banking and financial services sectors, prolonged economic sanctions could undermine Qatar’s competitiveness with other GCC states.

Some Qatari media outlets could feel more intense pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well. The Saudis have already blocked the Doha-based Al Jazeera, and Qatar will feel pressure to shut down the outlet along with other smaller channels like Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. Those media outlets, which routinely contradict the GCC’s heavily Saudi-influenced positions, have afforded Qatar the ability to have an outsized influence on policy debates.

Qatar trade

Echoes of the Past.

Parallels can be drawn between the incidents of the past week and the 2014 conflict that pitted the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia against Qatar. That spat arose from Doha’s continued embrace of regional Islamist groups that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi deemed a threat, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Both disputes stem from the same root: Qatar lacks the demographic and sectarian diversity with which other GCC states must contend, freeing Doha to support regional groups that help it expand its influence without stirring up trouble at home. However, the diplomatic and trade cutoffs of the current dispute are unprecedented.

As its ties with its immediate neighbors erode, Doha could turn to Iran, Turkey and Iraq for help. A June 5 meeting in Baghdad among Turkey, Iran and Iraq called by the head of Iran’s Expediency Council highlights that possibility. Qatar and Turkey have built close and ever-growing ties, and Iraq’s powerful Sunni parliament speaker met with al-Thani on June 4, a sign of the countries’ positive relationship. While none of these countries could supplant the support that Qatar has enjoyed from the GCC network for decades, or from the United States, Saudi Arabia’s efforts to punish Qatar could spur deeper cooperation between Qatar and other non-GCC countries.

The actions of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and others are part of a coordinated effort to push Qatar to align with the Saudi-led consensus on the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. Strong support by the United States for the Saudi-led coalition likely bolstered those countries’ confidence in making the move to isolate Doha to this degree.

However, that rift also complicates the United States’ mission, since it counts on a tight Sunni coalition to manage regional threats like the Islamic State. Even as Riyadh tries to undermine the trust Washington has placed in Doha, it will not be easy as Qatar hosts the second-largest U.S. military presence in the region, including the U.S. command center coordinating the fight against the Islamic State. Additionally, a substantial percentage of its regional air sorties stage from the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

For its part, the U.S. military announced that it does not plan to adjust its posture in response to the diplomatic row, which will provide immediate reassurance to Doha that its key backing is assured and prolong Qatar’s ability to hold out under GCC pressure. Meanwhile, though the United States routinely maintains military ties with countries that are at odds with one another, the severity of the intra-GCC split this time around only underscores the weaknesses of its effort to stand up a viable “Arab NATO.”

Qatar’s Feud With the Gulf States Reaches New Levels
is republished with permission of Stratfor.

Stratfor-Worldview

About Stratfor

Founded in 1996, Stratfor provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world. By placing global events in a geopolitical framework, they help customers anticipate opportunities and better understand international developments. They believe that transformative world events are not random and are, indeed, predictable. See their About Page for more information.

Update

Qatar has allies. From Reuters: “Turkey’s parliament is expected to fast-track on Wednesday a draft bill allowing its troops to be deployed to a Turkish military base in Qatar,”

For More Information

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9 thoughts on “Stratfor describes the Qatar-Saudi conflict, a new fissure in the Middle East

  1. Dear FM,

    Interesting post, and reflects the complexity and mess that is Middle East politics. In the mainstream press, everything generally breaks down on Sunni/Shia/other divides, but there is an Islamist axis that gets lost in all of this. Islamism, writ large and as far as I understand it, is political Islam that is, at its core, incompatible with the Gulf state monarchies (though monarchy Qatar has some sympathies; it’s complicated). So states and other organizations that have Islamist sympathies or worldviews might make Islamist/non-Islamist distinctions more important that Sunni-Shia.

    While undoubtedly Iranian money has funded “terrorism” via Hizballah, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, etc., American and other Western support of sketchy regimes (hello, Iraq, anyone? Saddam? Hear 41 say it when you read “Saddam”!), there is yet another axis, terrorism loving versus non-terrorism loving. And this is a spectrum. Iran is principally an Islamist, Shiite (but very diverse), non-terrorism state (terrorism is side-effect, not the intent, like US with the Contras or The Bachelor), and with pretexts of “democracy”.

    Saudi Arabia is an anti-Islamist rigid monarchy, Sunni (with a huge, oppressed Shiite community), terrorist-supporting state via their export of Wahhabism and indirect and possibly direct support of al Qaeda, ISIL/ISIS/Daesh, and others. Qatar is a monarchy, but supports al Jazeera to the Saudi’s great mortification and has some at least Islamist sympathies, Sunni with very little diversity, and terrorist-ambivalent to anti-terrorist. And so it goes. Syria is a hot mess, because Syria is a hot mess. 50 years after the Six Day War, Israel occupies the West Bank that had been previously “occupied” or was the sovereign territory of, depending on how you look at it, of Jordan (monarchy, Sunni, but with some diversity, Islamist-tolerant, anti-terrorist. We have *every* flavor!).

    A thought experiment: quickest way to end ISIL
    For each person killed by “Islamic terrorist”, starting from the top of the political hierarchy and working your way down, decapitate a person from:
    1) Qatar
    2) Iran
    3) Tibetdecaptiate
    4) Switzerland
    5) Tahiti
    6) Israel
    7) Saudi Arabia
    If I could bet, I’d be all-in on only one of them, and it *isn’t* the country who shot up Liberty.

    With kind regards,

    Bill

    Like

    1. Bill,

      “While undoubtedly Iranian money has funded “terrorism” via Hizballah, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, etc.”

      Nope. Iran certainly supports Shia jihadists. People in the Gulf States support the Sunni jihadists.

      “A thought experiment: quickest way to end ISIL – For each person killed by “Islamic terrorist”, starting from the top of the political hierarchy and working your way down, decapitate a person from:”

      I see you are eager for a larger war. I recommend you and your family go over there to fight it, and leave the rest of us alone. Your logic works just as well for them to kill an American for each civilian we kill in our invasions, occupations, and raids in Islamic nations.

      The similarities between the mad killers in American and the Middle East are quite similar. They just fight — or urge fighting — under different flags. The actual war is between them and the rest of us. When more people realize that, then the world will change.

      Like

    2. I think you misunderstand me, sir. I am not a pacifist, but war, much less just killing folks, is a thing of last resort and we are hell and gone from there, I hope. With the *thought experiment* (not a suggestion, I thought that might have been clear enough) I was trying to contrast the rhetoric of people trying to connect ISIL with Iran, versus the puppies and kitties rhetoric of Saudis *good*, ISIL and Iran bad and in bed together. It’s a very complex place, and does not decompose into neat solutions. The easily distracted can conflate Iran with ISIL if only because they are both four letter words that begin with I (no readers of your blog do, but I think they are the target audience of certain propaganda). My proposition stands that when it comes to *ISIL*, Saudis have more to answer for than Tibetans, Swiss, or Iranians. Iranians have things to answer for, I will never deny and actually know more than I would like to, but so as do Yanks.

      With the very kindest and non-warmongering regards,

      Bill

      Like

  2. FM,

    Thank you for the post. I am shocked, well not really, by the lack of coverage of this in the mainstream media. The significance of this attack and its ramifications cannot be overstated.

    Another side-bar thought. Extremism in any form is dangerous. Be it liberal, conservative, Christian, Muslim, etc…The 10% of ‘extremist’ on both ends of any continuum usually cancel out the other 80% or at least this has been my experience and my humble attempt to learn more about political theory and politics writ large have done nothing to make me believe otherwise.

    Keep up the great work.

    Not Republican or Democrat – but American,

    Jim

    Like

  3. Rebel Infighting in East Ghouta: Map and Analysis” at Skylight Syria.

    Not sure how this will render, but here’s another map. This overstates the case a little, but illustrates the stark point.

    Red is the Syrian government, backed by Iran and the Russians, and Grey and Green are Syrian rebels. Grey is Jaesh al Islam, supported pretty openly by the Saudis. Here in east Ghouta near Damascus Syrian rebels are completely surrounded by the Syrian government, so what to they do? Fight each other, of course.

    You would think if you’re fighting war, it’d be better to make iron over the minor differences for now, sort this out later, but no. The Saudis Sunni Unity talk has been nothing but fail. The Saudis are hopelessly paranoid, spotting accusing anyone with even the slightest Iran relationship as being backed by Iran. Trump and the USA, just as bad, and along for the ride on the road to failure.

    Here’s a link to the article this map is from. Looks pretty good to me, matches what I’ve read in other sources.

    Check it out, please.

    Like

    1. Cathryn,

      “Check it out, please.”

      I’m not a fan of war reporting. It’s notoriously unreliable. Especially wars in which there are few western sources of information (other than the US govt).

      More important – why should we care? How many hours have you spent reading about the Syrian War during the past few years? How has this information changed your behavior?

      Like

    2. I know quite a few people from war zones on Facebook these days. Particularly Gaza and Yemen, though some in Syria and Libya. Very little from Afghanistan. These days English speakers are more common, as recently as 2000 or so there were only a few bloggers online. When Gaza gets bombed, I see it in my Facebook feed. I do see the bodies of the children in Yemen from the Colera epidemic. Some talk about war and politics, but mostly it’s not about war. People just talk about money and children and housing, They often ask me for money, and I always ignore that, I never give money to anyone. Western reporters, mostly not so interesting or reliable except the few who are decent Arabic speakers, Fisk, Juan Cole.

      I don’t know if it’s changed behavior. For the most of the day I’m doing unrelated thing, hunched over a computer, working on obscure videogame crash bugs. I’ve been like this for decades, just grinding away on work, and sleep. I would say this, it does take the edge off of normal day to day problems here in the USA, with my personal life. Whetever is going wrong, I don’t worry, whatever. This is not ‘actual bad.’ I cannot be phazed.

      Like

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