A new manual for the Gulf is emerging as the stalemate between the Saudi-led bloc and Qatar pushes countries in the region to form new alliances.
There is no longer any doubt that the crisis between the three Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain), in addition to Egypt, on the one hand, and Qatar, on the other, is a manufactured crisis that was planned and implemented after getting the green light from the White House following Donald Trump’s historic visit to the Saudi capital.
What’s new in this crisis is the unusual and innovative method – in the Arab world, and in the Gulf in particular – in the way it was triggered, starting with the ‘hacking’ of the Qatar News Agency website.
There are undeclared reasons for the current Gulf crisis, the most important of which is the build-up of divergent opinions on the strategic interests of the states that are party to the crisis, through managing each of these countries in relation to specific regional files according to their vision for the region.
For over two decades Qatar has been accused of overstepping boundaries in the Gulf by pursuing an independent foreign policy that is often incompatible with the foreign policies of its Gulf neighbours. It is accused of relying on the ‘paper of the Arab peoples’, until it became an influential player in the region.
On the other hand, other Gulf countries have relied on ‘building an internal, national orientation’ that has strengthened their capability to adopt an approach that enables them to form political alliances, which contribute to regional and international influence – even to the point of foreign military intervention.
For the past decade and a half (1995–2010), Qatar’s foreign policy had been neutral, with a focus on resolving conflicts as a key principle, enforcing Article 7 of the Qatari constitution, which stipulates that “the foreign policy of the State shall be based on the principle of the consolidation of international peace and security, by promoting peaceful settlement of international disputes”.
When the so-called Arab Spring broke out in 2010, Qatar shunned the impartiality that had previously characterised it based on one of its constitution’s articles which stipulates “supporting the peoples’ right to self-determination”.
Therefore, Doha adopted a position in favour of Arabs standing up to their tyrannical rulers, and in support of these peoples’ demands for freedom and dignity.
This shift in the course of Qatar’s foreign policy—from neutrality to influence—resulted in Doha playing a leading role in the changes and transformations witnessed in the region at the time. They filled the void created by the absence of conventional regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
The events of the Arab Spring on the one hand, and the preoccupation of some regional powers with domestic concerns on the other hand, opened the door for Doha to enter the fray in an attemp to take over leadership of the region in that period.
King Salman’s ascension to the top of the power structure in Saudi Arabia in January 2015, and the arrival of the descendants of the founding King Abdulaziz Al Saud to the top ranks in the Kingdom’s leadership—through the appointment of emirs Muhammad bin Nayef as Crown Prince, and Muhammad bin Salman as Deputy Crown Prince—changed the equation and shifted balance in the region.
This shift was made even clearer following the formation of the Riyadh-led Arab coalition in March 2015, and the declaration of war in Yemen against the loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the allied Houthi group supported by Iran. The war in Yemen is often viewed as simply a ‘proxy war’ between two regional rivals—Iran and Saudi Arabia—for leadership in the region.
Doha understood the dynamics of the changes that have occurred, and opted to withdraw quietly and to take a step back, leaving leadership to its larger neighbour Saudi Arabia with whom it had good relations on a number of matters in the region, especially Yemen, and coordinating with it on the Syrian issue. This was reflected in the relaxed state of Doha’s foreign policy, especially after Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, carried out the ministerial amendment in early 2016, which included the appointment of Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani as foreign minister. He is a figure known for his serenity and inclination towards the path of dialogue and mediation that Doha successfully followed during the first decade of the millennium.
Despite the change in Qatar’s foreign policy, it did not rise to the level of a “departure” from its established principles and independent nature.
It is clear to experts and observers that the new Saudi leadership’s ambitions go beyond national borders, especially when it comes to conflicts of interest, where all options are on the table – including the military option. This nearly happened in the case of the Qatari crisis, but the Kuwaiti intervention to mediate stopped it. This was revealed by the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, in statements made during a press conference held in Washington with his US counterpart in September.
These dynamics in the Arabian Gulf are pushing for the reshaping of alliances and blocs in the Middle East as a whole. In light of the Gulf–Qatari crisis, Turkish–Iranian rapproachement has begun to emerge, which may prompt Doha to come closer to this axis and encourage it to review its positions on some regional issues, particularly those related to Syria.
If the above hypothesis is valid, Iran is the biggest beneficiary of the Gulf crisis. The outcomes of this crisis proved that the dispute between regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, is political, not ideological, as both Turkey and Qatar belong to the so-called ‘Sunni Muslim camp’, which is led by Riyadh. This did not prevent the rapproachement between Doha and Ankara with Iran in the shadow of that crisis, although Tehran leads the supposed ‘Shi’a Muslim camp’.
The reshaping of the New Gulf is intertwined with the implications of possible changes after the arrival of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is expected to reach the top of the power structure in Saudi Arabia, and the subsequent domestic reforms which will undoubtedly affect the Gulf and regional states.