The financial district of Doha, Qatar.
The regional turbulence spawned by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and others in severing diplomatic relations with Qatar serves to highlight a rupture within the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The siege of Doha encompasses formal restriction on food and medicines — draconian by modern standards of political conflict. Additionally, there is a gag on speech construed as sympathetic to Qatar on social media.
What has Qatar done to provoke such fury?
Despite strident hyperbole and a punitive embargo, the clash, between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side and Qatar on the other, is of long-standing repute. What changed is an emboldened Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, taking note of President Trump’s rhetoric to get tougher on extremism. Then consider that the impetus behind isolating the tiny oil-rich kingdom rested upon accusing Doha of “harboring a multitude of terrorist and sectarian groups that aim to create instability in the region.”
This gambit has long been coming. By charging Qatar with an ancillary role in supporting terror networks, the Saudi-UAE axis intends to procure the legitimacy necessary to eliminate a pesky barrier in the path toward confronting their most potent rivals in the region: the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.
A population south of three million, Qatar punches above its weight: having effectively converted financial clout derived from vast gas reserves to chart an independent foreign policy. Its media platform, Al Jazeera, has been the lynchpin of its soft power projection on the international stage, and a thorn in the side of the Saudis. Over the past decade, it became a prominent mediator in a number of regional conflicts, and its enthusiastic backing for the Muslim Brotherhood was rooted in a calculus that anticipated it as a burgeoning political force.
Doha was initially tolerated as a rebellious ally, but the Arab Spring dramatically altered regional machinations. As autocrats began to succumb, Gulf monarchies saw regime preservation as their most prominent security concern. And so a Saudi-UAE coalition became the vanguard for counter-revolution in the aftermath of sweeping popular gains by the Muslim Brotherhood.
First was Egypt. Following the election of Morsi, of the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, the UAE would sponsor General Sisi’s brutal coup, shelling out billions to ferment it. For the Saudis, their support was predicated upon the symbolic consequence of a Brotherhood triumph; the lethal concoction of democracy and Islamism ultimately undermining the theocratic Kingdom’s legitimacy in the long run.
Then came Libya. The UAE, alongside Sisi’s Egypt, intervened to prop up the anti-Brotherhood force led by renegade general Khalifa Haftar, following his military campaign “Operation Dignity.” Even in post-revolutionary Tunisia, subversion was the order of the day, which saw the Brotherhood-affiliate Ennahda movement even yield its democratic mandate to unify the country.
By persecuting forces that wed democracy under the banner of Islam, it has only allowed political projects that arise to become ardent vessels for “disaster Islamists” like ISIS to exploit. Indeed, for those claiming to be “fighting terrorism,” the balance sheet reveals far more resources channeled toward combating democratic Islamism than ISIS.
However, this is perfectly congruent with the despotic order that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seek to maintain. Iranian ascendency, played out in conflict theaters of Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, only exacerbate further anxiety. Qatar’s proxies and cordiality with Tehran are impermissible within this context, and it’s paying the price.
It’s clear this dynastic spat indicates that GCC membership does not entail cooperation so much as unwavering submission to the diktats of a Saudi-UAE metropole. Given the dispute’s genealogy, illusions of the affluent Gulf’s immunity from regional turmoil cannot be taken seriously any longer.
Amar Diwakar is a writer and research consultant for Global Risk Intelligence. Follow him on Twitter @indignant_sepoy.