There’s a certain curious timing to the sudden move by Gulf states to diplomatically isolate Qatar. It comes on the heels of Donald Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia and the signing of a multibillion-dollar weapons deal. For one American ally in the region to turn on another in this fashion suggests, at the very least, a renewed sense of boldness in pushing back at Qatar on issues of key interest to its neighbors in the region.
While ostensibly an unexpected and troubling new development undermining coalition-building in the Middle East, negative attitudes toward Qatar on the part of its neighbors are nothing new. The last time there were open diplomatic wounds festering was back in 2014, when Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassadors over issues with the Muslim Brotherhood.
To connect the dots: Qatar has in the past funded the Brotherhood, whose ideology opposes the absolute monarchy practiced in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the constitutional monarchy of Bahrain. Qatar is aligned with Iran and continues to maintain good relations with that nation despite opposition from other Gulf states. Qatar offered support during the Arab Spring for protesters and rebels. The small nation is home to Al Jazeera, a news network which covers dissent and contention in the region and has been accused of serving as the propaganda outlet of the Qatari government.
Needless to say, there are a few points on which these two sides disagree.
This new move is a bit surprising insofar as its scale – cutting off all land, sea, and air travel to Qatar and recalling not only diplomatic personnel but also citizens. Qatar has been accused of being overly supportive of Iran and of allowing financiers of terrorist operations to function within its borders. Qatar has been non-compliant with international sanctions regimes against persons known or suspected to be involved in terrorist activity. Qatar maintains that such support is not government-backed but instead the activity of private citizens.
While there are undoubtedly many factors that have led up to this moment and this decision, it’s not at all unreasonable to look to the recent speech by Donald Trump urging Arab nations to take a stand against Iran. Despite Qatar being a US ally, a military contributor to ongoing efforts in Yemen, and the host of a US military base, Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of this sanction-like move against a fellow American ally. It’s logical, then, to believe that Trump’s invective toward Iran functioned as implicit consent to allow for some local bullying to push Qatar to fall in line.
It remains to be seen how this situation will develop; it’s possible there’s a deeper negotiation underlying the public show of diplomatic displeasure, and Qatar is being pushed to make one specific move before normalization can be achieved. Considering statements from Iran, Turkey and others, however, there might be no one specific goal in mind. This may well be a diplomatic siege of sorts, where months go by as soft power is employed to coerce compliance from the Qatari government.
This issue isn’t one of right or wrong; certainly, Saudi accusations regarding terror financing reek of the pot and the kettle. There is of course the classic sectarian element – Sunni Qatar is an outlier in supporting predominantly Shi’a Iran. What we have instead is a broader and deeper conflict rooted in multiple levels of ideology. Whether we see a resolution in the short term or the long term, it’s not likely that the fundamental issues underlying this move will see any substantial and deep-seated changes.