Qatar-Gulf Rift: Can Riyadh be Triumphant?

For the past five days, the Gulf region has been experiencing one of its most serious political crises in recent history. Early on Monday, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain cut diplomatic relations with Qatar in an apparent attempt to isolate the country.

In addition to these three countries, Egypt, Libya, Yemen; the island nations of Maldives and Mauritius; and countries such as Jordan, Mauritania, Djibuti and Senegal have also joined in the campaign against Qatar, one of the most prosperous countries in the Gulf region. This unwise decision will undoubtedly harm the feeling of unity among the Gulf countries and cause serious repercussions for the perpetrators behind it.

Since the beginning of the crisis, analysts have been trying to understand the motives behind this move, which was spearheaded by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Despite their disagreement on a number of foreign policy decisions, these two countries are united in their stance against Qatar. I believe there are three main reasons behind Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's campaign of isolation against Doha.

Supporting Arab revolutions 

First of all, they are threatened by Qatar's commitment to supporting democratic demands of the Arab people since the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in 2010. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE considered the Arab revolutions as a direct threat to their own regimes' survival.

Both counties considered Qatar's support for the democratic changes in the region a direct assault on their regimes. This sentiment became particularly visible following the leadership change in Qatar in 2013. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani's increasing embrace of the revolutionary uprisings in the Middle East had further enraged the palaces in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.  

Supporting the Muslim Brotherhood

The second reason behind Abu Dhabi and Riyadh's enmity against Qatar is Doha's support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha has backed the Ikhwan movement in Egypt for a long time and always had strong ties with the moderate Islamist group. This support further increased after Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member, became Egypt's first democratically elected president in 2012.

Morsi's presidency was a cause of concern for Saudi Arabia and the UAE because they feared that the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power in Egypt would have a spillover effect in the region. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi worked relentlessly for the collapse of the Morsi regime. They even participated in the organisation of the July 2013 military coup that ended his presidency by supporting anti-Muslim Brotherhood figures within the Egyptian military. Therefore, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's latest move can be seen as an attempt to force the Doha government to cut its support to the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Seeking independence

The third reason behind the crisis is the tendency of the Doha government to follow a foreign policy independent of other Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. This attitude has been gradually adopted by other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), namely Kuwait and Oman, causing Saudi Arabia to become concerned about losing its leadership position in the council. This has led Saudi Arabia's King Salman, who wants to pursue a more active and aggressive foreign policy in the region than his predecessor King Abdullah, to adopt a more cautious attitude towards Doha. 

Qatar's perceived softening towards Iran and its close relationship with Turkey have been viewed as signs of Doha's departure from Saudi Arabia's influence.  Riyadh is especially worried about the possibility of a rapprochement between Doha and Tehran, since it would view such a move as a direct challenge to its efforts to lead the GCC countries.

How will the crisis affect the Gulf?

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain's decision to cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar would have direct consequences for the only functioning regional alliance, the GCC. By attempting to force Qatar to consider withdrawing from the organisation, the leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are risking the unity among the Gulf nations. As a result of this rift, countries such as Kuwait and Oman may also question their commitments to the GCC and consider seeking new regional alliances. This would further harm the regional alliances and create a division among the long-term Arab allies.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's attempt to politically ostracise Doha is more likely to isolate Riyadh than to force Qatar to its knees.

The main beneficiary of such a scenario would obviously be Iran, a country that has increased its influence in the region significantly during the past couple of years. Considering this a likely outcome, the latest move by the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini leadership is obviously a self-destructive one. By punishing the Qatari government, Saudi Arabia is trying to give a strong message to both Oman and Kuwait, the countries that have relatively better relations with Iran. However, the method that Saudi Arabia is employing to achieve this goal is immature and unprofessional.

Decisions such as cutting all diplomatic ties, suspending flights, preventing use of airspace, closing the land borders and asking Qatari citizens to leave Saudi Arabia are rarely taken in any diplomatic crisis, even between the most antagonist states. By taking this decision Saudi Arabia lost credibility not only in the eyes of Qatari people, but also in the eyes of fellow Arab citizens throughout the Middle East. By punishing a neighbour in such a manner, Riyadh is forcing its allies to consider getting closer to other regional and international actors, even possibly Iran. Therefore, while trying to contain Iran, the Saudi leadership's unrealistic approach may result in the opposite outcome.  

Why will the Saudi attempt fail? 

The decisions taken against Qatar put Doha in a difficult situation at international level, but at the moment Saudi Arabia and its allies are also not as comfortable as they thought they would be. In fact, the bloc supporting Saudi Arabia and the UAE in this crisis is not very robust. Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and the Maldives joined in the campaign against Qatar alongside Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, some of these countries are seen as failed states, while others are known to be controlled by Saudi Arabia in their foreign policy. 

Bahrain, for instance, is a state that is independent in its domestic affairs but controlled by Saudi Arabia in its foreign policy. Therefore, Manama is on the side of Riyadh in this crisis not by choice but by obligation. Given the small size of the country and its limited capacity, Bahrain's contribution to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi during this crisis will be limited.

On the other hand, the island nation of Maldives has been struggling with political instability in recent years. In the aftermath of a military coup in 2012, the country is accused of moving away from democracy and sliding into Saudi Arabia's sphere of influence.

For example, in the past couple of months the opposition in the Maldives has seriously criticised the government for selling 19 islands to Saudi Arabia. They claimed that the country's government has sold its legitimacy to Saudi Arabia for billions of dollars of investment. These ties between the country and Saudi Arabia can better explain the motivations behind the Maldives' support of King Salman's regime during the crisis with Qatar.

The Egypt factor

Another supporter of Saudi Arabia in this crisis is Egypt, a country struggling to survive both economically and politically. Following the military coup in 2013, Saudi Arabia and the UAE strongly supported the new regime in Cairo. But good relations turned bad when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi showed interest in establishing relations with Iran. Because of this, Egypt and Saudi Arabia had tense relations in 2016.

However, Donald Trump's election as the president of the United States changed the course of events. Trump initiated the creation of a unified Arab front, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, against Iran. Trump's recent visit to Saudi Arabia has consolidated this alliance.

But considering the ups and downs of Egyptian-Saudi relations, Cairo's commitment to Saudi plans to isolate Qatar in the region should be questioned. Also, even if Egypt chooses to stay on Riyadh's side, how powerful and effective can Egyptian support be? Egypt's economy is on the verge of collapse, the country is failing to cope with terror threats, particularly in the Sinai region, and it has achieved neither social peace nor political stability.

Libya is another country that joined the anti-Qatar bloc. However, it should be mentioned that the announcement of its support for Riyadh was made by the separatist government in Tobruk, a military leadership created with the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which obviously is not in a position to represent the official view of the Libyan government. 

Support from Yemen

Finally, Yemen also showed its support for the Saudi and Emirati plan to isolate Qatar. However, the Yemeni government can control only some parts of the country. The country is divided between a Saudi-backed Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi government, United Arab Emirates-backed Al-Zubaidi forces and Iran-backed Houthi militias. Hence, it is not possible for one entity to put forward a decision that represents the view of the entire country.

On the other hand, the political statement in which the Hadi administration accuses Qatar of supporting terrorist groups in the country was obviously constructed under instructions from Saudi Arabia because it ignores the fact that in March 2015 Hadi was rescued from the Houthi militias in an operation in which Qatar also participated.

Also Saudi Arabia and the UAE have different approaches to the conflict in Yemen. They follow independent policies and have different agents and interests in the country. Although they act together against Qatar today, it is highly likely that these two countries will face serious disagreements in the future with regard to Yemen. The Saudi-backed Hadi government of Yemen is in direct conflict with the Emirati-backed Al-Zubaidi forces.

Last March, following Hadi's decision to sack Aidarous al-Zubaidi as the governor of Aden, al-Zubaidi announced himself as the president of the Transitional Political Council in southern Yemen. Zubaidi, who has increased his control in the region, has created an alternative administration supported by the UAE. This is seen as the first step for a new independent South Yemeni state. With this move, the possibility of Yemen's partition has become a reality, something Saudi Arabia strongly opposes. Therefore, it can be said that the cooperation between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is fragile in Yemen. 

Turkish Support for Qatar

Countries such as Turkey, Germany and, to some extent, Iran criticised the campaign against Qatar. While German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel opposed the decision of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a public statement on the issue and showed his support for the Qatari government.

Also, as a sign of solidarity with the Gulf nation, on June 7 the Turkish parliament approved legislation allowing Turkish troops to be deployed in Qatar. And Ankara also announced its willingness to provide food for Qatar.

By showing support for Qatar, Turkey has sent a direct message to the Saudi government that it has risked its good relations with Turkey, the most powerful actor in the region, by trying to isolate the tiny but influential emirate. As strategic allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey share common goals in regional politics, and their alliance is key to regional stability and peace.

Moreover, the Saudi leadership should carefully consider whether it could totally trust the US government, particularly in light of its less-than-perfect relations with the country during the Obama administration. Only last year, the US congress passed a bill titled Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act that enabled US courts to start judicial processes against the Saudi government for its alleged responsibility in the September 11 terror attacks. Therefore, the Riyadh administration should remember the fact that the US' current support for the Kingdom can easily turn into accusations tomorrow. 

The future of the Gulf looks grim, as differences between neighbours are turning into hostilities. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's attempt to politically ostracise Doha is more likely to isolate Riyadh than to force Qatar to its knees. Therefore, rather than clashing with each other, Gulf nations should find a way to unite against the common threats such as terrorism, extremism and economic challenges.


This article was first published in Aljazeera.