The tiny nation of Qatar packs a punch well in excess of its size. It is a mighty energy exporter with the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves, a global financial powerhouse and, increasingly, a locus of political influence in the Islamic world. It remains, however, small — a population of just 2.6 million people — and isolated: It is bounded on three sides by the Persian Gulf and its only land border is with Saudi Arabia. In other words, Qatar is rich, ambitious and vulnerable — a dangerous combination.
It is discovering just how dangerous that combination is in the wake of the June 5 decision by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to cut relations with Qatar, expel its diplomats and nationals, and close ports, airspace and borders to the country.
The move reflects growing displeasure those governments have with Qatar. Two particulars top the list of complaints: a reported $1 billion ransom paid to al-Qaida linked terrorist groups for members of the Qatari royal family kidnapped in Iraq while hunting, and a recent speech supposedly given by the Qatari emir that praised Iran but which was dismissed as a hack of the Qatari state news agency website where it was reported. In fact, though, the Gulf states’ grievances are more fundamental. They complain that Qatar supports dialogue with Shiite Iran — anathema to Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia — and backs groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, which are accused of spreading terrorism throughout the region.
That latter charge is rich, given Saudi Arabia’s support for Wahhabism, an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam that has produced groups like al-Qaida. Qatar counters that it is not sponsoring terrorism but is instead backing popular manifestations of political Islam, a move that would give it greater influence over regional affairs. Qatar’s founding of the Al-Jazeera broadcaster is a pillar of that approach, providing real news to regional audiences that have been starved for such information. Conservative monarchies of the region see that strategy and the implicit embrace of democracy as a direct threat to their survival.
Some blame the United States for the rift. They note that Saudi Arabia and its partners took action hours after U.S. President Donald Trump visited Riyadh and called on regional leaders to join together to fight terrorism. They point to Trump tweets after the blockade was announced, which praised the move and said that “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Gulf states to “de-escalate the situation” because of the “humanitarian consequences to this blockade,” Trump an hour later called Qatar “a funder of terrorism at a very high level … the time has come to call on Qatar to end its funding. They have to end that funding. And its extremist ideology in terms of funding.”
Trump’s comments notwithstanding, the U.S. will not go too hard on Qatar. The country hosts about 10,000 U.S. service personnel at Al-Udeid air base, the headquarters for military air operations for the Middle East. Thus far those operations have not been affected. Moreover, the U.S. uses political contacts in Qatar to reach out to extremist groups throughout the Islamic world — a key element of dialogue and a validation of the Qatari emir’s strategy. Still, the confusion and contradictions are undermining U.S. standing in the region and beyond.
While categorically denying that it supports terrorism, the Qatar government has said that Saudi Arabia and its allies would provide a list of demands within 10 days and that it would be “courageous enough to acknowledge if things need to be amended.” That is a positive step.
Ultimately, this is a struggle for power and influence in the Persian Gulf region. If Saudi Arabia’s chief objective is getting Qatar to distance itself from Iran, its strategy is only tightening that link: Tehran has offered its ports as a conduit for food supplies and its air space for flights to and from the nation. Moreover, the blockade is driving wedges among like-minded regional countries. Turkey has also offered Qatar assistance, and has sped up a military cooperation agreement that will deploy its troops to the state.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-member regional body that includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, is divided and has never been a critical player in regional security. Similarly, Qatar as the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, could do damage to OPEC’s cohesion, but the world is already awash in oil and energy. Still, antagonism between Qatar and its partners undercuts vital efforts to promote regional stability and crack down on terror and extremism. There are some good reasons to complain about Qatar’s behavior, but this act is disproportionate and motivated by as many bad reasons as good.