The Persian Gulf standoff reached a third anniversary this week without reconciliation between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on one side, and Qatar on the other. In his new book Qatar and the Gulf Crisis, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen characterizes the conflict as “the first real international crisis of the ‘alternative facts’ era” – evoking both the central role of the Trump administration and the May 2017 hacking of the Qatar News Agency.
But he also examines long-standing rivalries between dynasties who wield powers not unlike those of early medieval European monarchs. According to Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, the mix of old and new has made the crisis difficult to resolve.
Ulrichsen, who is frequently quoted on Gulf politics in the U.S., British and Arab press, wrote his PhD dissertation at Cambridge on the British in Iraq during World War I. His training as a historian brings welcome perspective and objectivity to his account of the Gulf crisis.
Ulrichsen analyzes President Donald Trump’s initial support for the Saudis and the UAE in their blockade of Qatar in June 2017, a position that shifted toward neutrality within days as a result of the intervention of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – both of whom were later sacked by Trump, albeit for unrelated reasons.
The book examines the key roles played by the “two crown princes” of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Mohammad bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, respectively, in the ongoing impasse and its origins. Back in 2016, the two de facto national leaders anticipated a Hillary Clinton presidency but quickly pivoted, says Ulrichsen in an interview: “They saw a golden opportunity to shape the thinking of the incoming [Trump] administration, given it was so new to government.”
MBZ, the more experienced of the two, spent three hours in Trump Tower in December 2016 with Jared Kushner, the president-elect’s son-in-law, and strategist Stephen Bannon, breaking protocol by not informing the Obama administration of his presence in the U.S. Both princes visited the White House during Trump’s initial months in office, and the new president met them both again on his first foreign trip abroad not, as customary, to Canada or Mexico, but rather to Saudi Arabia in May 2017.
Ulrichsen draws no firm conclusion as to whether Trump, Kushner and Bannon knew what was coming. But, less than three weeks after the president took part in a traditional sword dance in the Saudi king’s palace in his maiden voyage overseas, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt severed diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar on June 5 – despite the first three’s membership with Qatar, Kuwait and Oman of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This was, writes Ulrichsen, the “most significant regional rupture since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.”
Trump’s tweets in support of the blockade the following day shocked Gulf experts, leading to pushback by Mattis and Tillerson, alarmed that Trump would weaken unity against Iran, divide the GCC, and possibly put the Qatar-based headquarters of U.S. Central Command and its biggest air base in the region at risk. Ulrichsen traces a hectic period during which ‘the Quartet’ failed to explain what they expected of Qatar and then, on June 23, issued 13 demands, including ending all ties to Iran and all military cooperation with Turkey, shutting down several news outlets, including al-Jazeera television, and paying compensation.
By then, however, Doha had expanded links with Iran while the Turkish parliament had ratified sending troops to defend Qatar. It looked as if the Saudis and UAE had over-reached. But the die was cast.
“Here we are three years later still dealing with the consequences,” says Ulrichsen. All in all, the blockade misfired. Qatar has survived. It imported more goods from Turkey and elsewhere. It diverted flights through Iranian air space. Qatar has also kept open the gas pipeline supplying the UAE, while opening international arbitration in what Ulrichsen calls “a rule of law approach.”
Rather than the “‘bad boy,” Qatar appeared the victim. This impression was strengthened by the exposure of the hacking just before the blockade of the Qatar News Agency that attributed false and provocative statements to the Qatari emir. A parallel media campaign included “circuitous” funding of an anti-Qatar conference in Washington in May hosted by the pro-Israel Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute.
But Ulrichsen the historian looks back beyond the “alternative-fact” era to the last century when Ibn Saud, who founded Saudi Arabia in 1932 through force of arms, coveted not just Qatar, but also Kuwait, Bahrain and the Trucial States, which became the UAE in 1971. With Saudi by far the largest and most populous state on the Arabian Peninsula, its main rivalry was with the UAE, which it recognized only in 1973.
Modern politics in the region was slowly arriving as Gulf states hosted Islamic reformers from elsewhere. The official, austere Saudi Islam derived from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), which welded together ruling family and clerics, was challenged in the 1950s and 1960s by a Sahwa (‘Islamic awakening’) fostered by exiles from repressive nationalist Arab regimes.
While the Saudis for many decades promoted Islamists internationally, including an Afghan jihad that later spawned al-Qaeda, they developed antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, the mass-based movement that originated in 1920s Egypt. By the time Qatar launched al-Jazeera in 1996, the Saudi state had curbed both independent militants and Islamic liberals within the Kingdom.
Qatar’s path was different. Ulrichsen pinpoints the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as crucial in showing “that a small state, surrounded by larger, more conventionally powerful states, needed friends and networks.” Qatar strengthened its ties to the U.S. while establishing a global profile with al-Jazeera and international sports competitions.
Saudi pressure was persistent but intermittent: Riyadh broke relations in 2002, restored them in 2007, but was then upset by Qatar’s approach to the “Arab Spring,” especially in backing Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2012-13. In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, apparently intending to intimidate Qatar’s new emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. But Kuwaiti mediation smoothed over the crisis within a few months without further escalation.
Ulrichsen argues the Qataris learned lessons from that episode. By 2017, they had massively expanded Hamad port, and, after the initial disruption caused by the blockade, broadened their supply routes to cope with Riyadh’s closure of their only land border. While Qatar is no democracy, Ulrichsen argues that the government’s success bolstered public support for the ruling dynasty and boosted Qatari nationalism.
How, and why, did Qatar stand out from other Gulf states? Its distinctive relationship with Iran is shaped by sharing the world’s largest gas field, which by 2016 made Qatar one of the world’s richest countries with per capita GDP around $70,000.
But Qatar also shares characteristics with the UAE and Bahrain as city states. All the Arab Gulf countries are monarchies rooted in tribal traditions. So, what exactly underlies the three-year stand-off?
Not an easy question, says Ulrichsen. He points to Qatar’s similarities, especially to Abu Dhabi, which has taken the hardest line against Qatar. But he detects differences that may explain growing divergence since the “Arab Spring.”
“In Qatar in the 1990s the Muslim Brotherhood shut itself down through a quid pro quo where they were given a regional platform on Jazeera. In 2011 [when the Arab Spring protests began] Qatar’s population balance was so favorable [a small, affluent citizenry] that there was no real prospect of unrest, whereas Abu Dhabi is just one of seven emirates, including five that lack resources. There is a hinterland you don’t have in Qatar. Historically the Brotherhood was stronger in the northern Emirates, especially Ras al-Khaimah…Mohammed bin Zayed is on record telling U.S. officials, in Wikileaks for example, that if there were elections in the UAE, Islamists would win.”
As foreign-policy discussion heats up in Washington with the approach of November’s election, Ulrichsen is hesitant to offer advice on resolving the intra-GCC conflict. But whoever runs U.S. policy come January should, he suggests, abandon notions of “summits, grand bargains” for “quiet resolution, incremental progress that is issue- and sector-specific.”
In 2017, Mattis and Tillerson persuaded Trump to threaten to halt joint military exercises with all Gulf states if Qatar were excluded, thereby keeping the Qataris within a broad security framework. But progress now won’t be easy. “There’s a holding pattern,” says Ulrichsen. “You might have thought Abqaiq [September’s attack attributed to Iran on a key Saudi oil installation] or COVID-19, might have reconfigured the threat perception. But as neither did, perhaps we’re stuck.”
This reflects in part an inherent problem with ruling dynastic families.
“When individuals are driving policy-making [in such a context], they can leave open grudges and slights that endure,” says Ulrichsen. “Mohammed bin Zayed was willing to pick up the phone [on March 27] and talk to Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but he isn’t willing to do the same with the Qataris.”