Stephen Russo, Guest Contributor
21 August 2017
It is likely that Saudi Arabia will continue to isolate Qatar, if Qatar does not agree to the arrangement laid out by the rest of the GCC, due to the fact Saudi Arabia feels threatened by Qatar’s alliance with Iran and its wavering stance on extremist groups. Saudi Arabia has been the leader of the region for decades, but with Qatar getting closer to Iran and allegations that Qatar is supporting Islamist extremist groups, Saudi Arabia feels its regional grip loosening. Consequently, the last diplomatic issue, back in 2014, between Qatar and the other Gulf States is feeding the tension during this two-and-a-half-month crisis, along with a historical precedent that can be traced back to the beginning of the new ruling party.
Saudi Arabia has been the most vocal of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states against the alleged actions of the Qatari government and have acted as the voice of the nine nations that have cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar. This was spurred by the alleged pro-Iran speech by the Qatar emir, Sheikh Tamim, which Qatar has repeatedly said was the result of a hacking orchestrated by the UAE. Whether or not this is the case, the 13 demands and six general principles the GCC demanded Qatar follow has not changed, in the two and a half months since the demands were issued, according to the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. These demands mandate Qatar to curb ties with Iran, outside of sanctioned US and international sanctions; sever ties to all terrorist groups; shut down Al-Jazeera, its affiliates, and other Qatar funded news outlets; and many others. However, Saudi Arabia’s tactics seem to be doing the opposite of what it had hoped. Since the crisis began in early June, Qatar has bolstered its alliance with Iran and Turkey, just the type of foreign policy endeavors Saudi Arabia wants to prevent.
While Qatar has denied the allegations that it supports terrorism and that the pro-Iranian speech was the result of a hacking, Saudi Arabia and the other nine countries that have cut off diplomatic ties have stood their ground. With Iran being in the picture, Saudi Arabia is likely to continue to stand its ground. This regional competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been going on for decades. If Qatar increases its relationship with Iran and does not commit to action against extremist groups, Saudi Arabia feels threatened and compelled to defend its image as regional leader. As part of this, Saudi Arabia has met with Iraq’s Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, as a way to mitigate potential Iranian influence in Iraq, which was preceded by the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister’s visit to Baghdad in February, a first for Saudi Arabia since 1990. According to one expert, Hakan Güneş, a scholar and political scientist at Istanbul University, “One of the possible scenarios is that Saudi Arabia may try to neutralize Iran’s influence in order to teach Qatar a lesson…. [T]his standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran has lasted for nearly 40 years. They have spent serious money to win over each other’s zones of influence across the Arab world.”
Similar to this current standoff, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their diplomats from Qatar in 2014. This initial diplomatic standoff is the most recent fuel to the fire between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In response to the first crisis, Qatar signed two agreements with its Gulf neighbors, with mediation from Kuwait. These agreements outlined commitments to avoid intrusion in the internal affairs of other Gulf nations, which included barring financial or political support to anti-government groups in the Gulf region, specifically mentioning the Muslim Brotherhood, and other groups in Egypt and Yemen. In addition, the agreements stated that the nations won’t support “antagonistic” media, specifically mentioning Al-Jazeera. As part of the current diplomatic standoff, Saudi Arabia and its allies on the matter have repeatedly accused Qatar of breaking the agreement and supporting Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has since replied to the allegations stating that Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s recent actions have broken the spirit of the agreement and engaged in an “unprovoked attack on Qatar’s sovereignty.” Further stating that, “[A]t no point did Saudi Arabia or the UAE use the mechanisms in the Riyadh agreement to communicate their concerns to Qatar.” Even further back, since 1995, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been at odds after Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani seized the throne from his pro-Saudi father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, Saudi Arabia has seen Qatar as a hostile neighbor. Qatar has since engaged in independent foreign policy not aligned with Saudi Arabia, by backing groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and media outlets like Al-Jazeera.
Analytic confidence for this analysis was moderate. No specific structured analytic method was used. There was strong agreement between sources with little to no conflict among the sources. Most sources were updated or written within the three months. The analyst’s expertise in Middle East politics is minimal, and the work was done alone. The task complexity was moderately complex.