The Saudi-Qatari Cold War: State of Affairs Before Tillerson’s Regional Visit
Ahead of a week-long trip to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, India, and Switzerland, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the Saudi-Qatari geopolitical crisis would remain unresolved for the foreseeable future. On Thursday, Tillerson condemned the anti-Qatari coalition of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt for its aloof attitude towards what he perceived as Qatari overtures of cooperation.
Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s staunch support for Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, the two Gulf countries constitute key American allies (Qatar hosts Al-Udeid Air Base, the U.S.’s largest regional military base), and the Department of State, led by Tillerson, has provided mediatory services in conjunction with Kuwait.
“I do not have a lot of expectations for [the Saudi-led embargo] being resolved anytime soon,” Tillerson said in an interview with Bloomberg. “It’s up to the leadership of the quartet when they want to engage with Qatar because Qatar has been very clear—they’re ready to engage.”
On June 5, the Saudi-led “anti-terror” quartet severed diplomatic ties with Qatar—expelling ambassadors, imposing travel bans, and levying economic sanctions—after accusing the Al-Thani royal family of sponsoring terrorist organizations and collaborating with Iran. In turn, the Qatari ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement, saying, “Qatar has been exposed to an instigation campaign based on allegations that amounted to absolute fabrications, which proves that there are premeditated intentions to cause damage to the State.”
If Qatari-Iranian collusion did not already exist, then Saudi Arabia’s accusations proved a self-fulfilling prophecy. Doha restored full diplomatic relations with Iran in August, which constituted a brash rejection of Trump’s pan-Sunni, anti-Iranian rallying cry during the 2017 Riyadh Summit in May. Furthermore, Qatar refused a series of harsh, Saudi-drafted reconciliation terms that Tillerson deemed “difficult for Qatar to meet…[but ultimately able] to provide a basis for ongoing dialogue leading to a resolution.” Notable demands included closing Al-Jazeera (King Salman claimed that its journalists actively undermined his authority), ceasing military, intelligence, and diplomatic relations with Iran, and severing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, ISIL, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Al-Nusra Front.
While Tillerson and the Al-Thani family maintain that Qatar, the victims of what the latter calls an “unjust siege,” stands ready to negotiate with the Saudi-quartet, the affluent Gulf state continues to deny its involvement with terrorist cells beyond innocuous humanitarian aid in their areas of activity (the Gaza Strip, Syria, and so forth).
Qatar’s adamant denial of wrongdoing may be justified. Even the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with notorious ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), recognizes that, while Qatar does fund U.S.-recognized terrorist organizations in the name of pan-Arab philanthropy, “some of the accusations made against Qatar are exaggerated, blown out of proportion, or simply not based on fact.”
Before the recent Hamas-Fatah reconciliation accords, Qatar functioned as a rare ally to Gaza’s citizens. Qatar provided principle to fund critical public services such as housing projects, hospitals, and roads to a population that, since 2007, has remained isolated from its neighbors—Israel and Egypt—and, by extension, from the international community at large.
One should also consider the 2017 Qatar crisis in the context of an ongoing Qatari-Saudi “Cold War”—a long-running feud between GCC states for regional supremacy. Yes, Qatar’s comparatively lenient treatment of terrorist entities possesses the potential to destabilize regional security, but not for the reasons that one might expect. Qatari “support” does not necessarily make non-state actors like Hamas or the Al-Nusra Front viable international threats, but it undoubtedly aggravates Saudi Arabia and indicates Doha’s desire to restructure the Gulf hierarchy.
Ultimately, Saudi Arabia’s criticism of Qatar constitutes pure hypocrisy, because throughout its horrific struggle with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Riyadh has forged close ties with Al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist party, and has relied heavily on the organization to provide ground infantry. Furthermore, Doha’s ostensible alliance with Tehran is far from universal, as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have both actively funded the Syrian Free Army in its struggle against Bashar Al-Assad, an Iranian proxy.
Saudi Arabia, like Qatar, picks and chooses when to adhere to its ideological, anti-terror provisions and readily takes the moral high ground when it suits the royal family’s geopolitical interests. Contemporary circumstances, which include Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian shortcomings in Yemen, and Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, present a ripe opportunity for King Salman and Crown Prince bin Salman to reassert Saudi Arabia’s “hard power” while simultaneously damaging Qatar’s economy and international reputation.
Indeed, if all factors remain constant, then Tillerson’s prediction will come to fruition: Qatar’s diplomatic crisis will end on Saudi Arabia’s terms, and, as it stands, there is no end in sight.