On June 4th, Saudi Arabia cut its diplomatic relations with Qatar. Later, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and a number of other countries joined the effort as well. This was quickly extended to a cut of all ties – including economic relations and airline flights.
This crisis is just the latest event in the long saga of discord between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. As a result of Qatar’s geographic location, it is constantly under pressure from both Iran and Saudi Arabia to join their spheres of influence. In addition, Qatar is economically tied to both countries. Qatar’s primary export is natural gas, and it shares the world’s largest natural gas field with Iran. Meanwhile, it is also a member of the Saudi-led GCC, an economic union based on oil production.
When it comes to trade, Qatar is satisfied with its privileged position and is willing to trade with both Saudi Arabia and Iran (despite the fact that the two countries are competing regional powers). However, when it comes to foreign policy, Qatar must choose between either Saudi Arabia or Iran. Qatar openly support and funds Hamas, an Iranian proxy. It also maintains good relations with Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy (in Lebanon) which specifically opposes Saudi-backed parties.
Confusingly, Qatar also trades with Israel, despite the fact that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia recognize it (in fact, neither does Qatar itself), and the fact that both Hezbollah and Hamas oppose Israel’s existence. What is even more bizarre is the fact that Qatar was part of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen (until being expelled as part of the recent crisis), with the explicit goal of defeating the Iranian-backed Houthis. However, Saudi Arabia also accused Qatar of supporting the Houthis, which it actually did in the past.
The most serious foreign policy dispute between Saudi Arabia (as well as a few other Gulf states) and Qatar is Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 to promote implementing Islamic law in the government. It was inspired, however, not by medieval Muslim scholars, but by modernists (within the framework of Islam, of course), such as Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida. They blamed the problems in the Islamic world on a lack of Islam in the government, and sought to rectify this issue.
This goal, however, stands in direct contrast to the Gulf monarchies. Although nominally Islamic (in fact, they derive their authority from Islamic teachings), the Muslim Brotherhood believes that they don’t go far enough in replacing secular legal systems with Islamic law. This is because, although Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states previously supported the Muslim Brotherhood, they also were willing to allow US troops to “occupy Muslim land” during the Gulf War.
For Qatar, the Egyptian revolution of 2011, when the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power through democratic means, was a fantastic opportunity. For decades, Qatar promoted a form of “Islamic popular sovereignty”. Essentially, the Qatari government, while not democratic, propagated the idea that people should be able to make their governments more Islamic.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood saw Qatar’s form of Islamic law as a success, worthy of emulation in Egypt. As such, Qatar began supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, over objections from Saudi Arabia. In addition, by funding Islamist adventures abroad, Qatar was able to convince the Muslim Brotherhood (which opposes every government it isn’t a part of) to stop operating in Qatar. This means that while dissent in Qatar exists, it is almost never related to Islamism.
The latest incident isn’t the first time a Saudi-led group of states broke diplomatic relations with Qatar. The last time this happened, in 2014, the crisis was over within eight months and the GCC returned to normal operations.
This crisis was set off as distinct political groups began to emerge within the GCC. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates sided with Saudi Arabia in that they opposed Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Iranian proxies in Libya. Then, as now, Kuwait and Oman maintained a position of pragmatic neutrality.
Since the 2014 crisis, things have been relatively quiet between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. However, tensions came to head after Qatar News Agency (QNA), Qatar’s state-owned media source, was hacked. The hackers were able to post articles on QNA’s website and TV channel which referenced Sheikh Tamim (Qatar’s ruling emir) as calling Iran an “Islamic power” and saying Qatar’s relations with Israel were “good” while he was participating in a military ceremony. Qatar later released a statement saying that what was “published has no basis whatsoever”, and promised to “hold all those [who] committed [this] accountable”. The fact that these statements were fake made no difference to Saudi Arabia, which used them as an excuse to begin the latest crisis.
In both cases, the Saudi Arabian government was well aware that ultimately, Qatar would be forced to make concessions in order to return to the status quo before the crisis. If Qatar left the GCC, it would lose its competitive advantage in trading with other Gulf states (including the more pro-Qatar Kuwait and Oman). In addition, it would negatively impact Qatar’s export of natural gas (the resource it is dependent on) and the oil trade. As such, Saudi Arabia knows that it can “punish” Qatar for having a foreign policy different from its own, while also being certain that it will be Qatar which will eventually have to make amends to rejoin the pro-Saudi “inner circle”.