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Kirill Semenov

Director of the Centre of Islamic Research at the Institute of Innovative Development

On 5 June 2017, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and five other states cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing Doha of supporting terrorist organisations and destabilising the situation in the Middle East.

Qatar’s current conflict with Saudi Arabia and its allies is a recrudescence of old controversies between these Gulf monarchies, dating back to the Arab Spring and subsequent developments.

Qatar’s ties with Tehran may prove unacceptable to the Saudis.

Another factor that prompted Saudi Arabia to make its recent measures against Qatar even harsher than those of 2014 was the general atmosphere in the GCC. Riyadh's attempts to become the primary power of the Islamic world have recently met serious opposition even within the Council, which the Saudi leaders had so far considered their own pet structure.

The campaign against Qatar could have started much earlier, in April 2017. Even so, at that point, Riyadh was not clear how the US administration would feel about such actions. But, after Donald Trump publicly slammed Qatar, it is quite evident that the political and information attack on Doha was given the green light following the American President’s visit to Saudi Arabia in late May 2017.

Players’ Interests and Possible Manoeuvres

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are probably considering a change of Qatar’s leadership. Yet Ankara’s position might interfere with this scenario.

The United States generally wants to once again punish the leadership of the Kingdom for misbehaving. Such a coup might negatively impact the United States’ image, since its military bases are primarily considered as safeguards against external intervention.


Being forced to march lockstep with the Saudis’ policies, Doha never lost its aspiration to re-emerge as a leader of the Islamic world. The Qatari government continued to search for any niches where they could pursue policies and interests independent of Riyadh.

On 5 June 2017, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and five other states cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing Doha of supporting terrorist organisations and destabilising the situation in the Middle East. Senegal and Chad also recalled their ambassadors from Qatar. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain suspended flights to Qatar and shut their land borders with the country. To a large extent, Qatar’s current conflict with Saudi Arabia and its allies is a recrudescence of old controversies between these Gulf monarchies, dating back to the Arab Spring and subsequent developments.

In 2013 and 2014, Qatar was already subject to unprecedented pressure from its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbours and partners, led by Saudi Arabia, following a considerable reinforcement of Doha’s position in the Islamic world, which was turning the state into an independent power challenging Riyadh’s hegemonic ambitions. When the Muslim Brotherhood, allied to Doha, came to power in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and its affiliated groups took a leading role in the Syrian conflict, the Saudis were forced to take steps to mitigate the threats and challenges coming from their ambitious neighbour.

These actions resulted in a silent coup in Qatar. In June 2013, pressured by external forces (primarily the Saudis and the Emirates), along with their allies from the Qatari ruling family, who were dissidents looking to curb the costs of recent risky foreign policy schemes, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was forced to abdicate, handing over power to his son, Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim. July 2013 saw Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar’s most active supporter, deposed. Though the interconnection between the two events and the silent coup in Doha are still disputed, there are reasons to believe that all of these power shifts were orchestrated from a single centre – Riyadh.

Once Sheikh Tamim became Qatar’s Emir, Doha considerably lowered its provisions for the support of allied forces, especially for the Muslim Brotherhood and, under the joint security agreement signed in Riyadh in November 2013, pledged to cut all assistance to the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite this, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's pressure persisted, and in March 2014, the two states recalled their ambassadors from the country. Not even Doha’s extradition of all the Muslim Brotherhood leaders in September 2014 helped resolve the conflict.

It took Qatar another two months to mend its relations with its neighbours by pledging to fully sever its ties and contacts with any forces threatening its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council partners. Moreover, since the Saudis were given the discretion to decide who exactly presented that threat, Qatar’s foreign policy has effectively been controlled by them ever since.

Notably, from the crisis of 2013–2014 and until recently, there has been no particular friction between Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as Doha has actually stopped all political and financial support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliates. The Qataris did continue to back the Syrian rebels, but without any political framework: in fact, they financed some groups politically affiliated with Turkey or Jordan. The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, now deprived of Qatar’s aid, lost its role as the leader of the opposition. By early 2015, the organization had to disband its military unit, the Shields of the Revolution Council. Moreover, Doha took an active role in the Saudi operations in the UAE and Yemen, sending a large portion of its troops, who were warmly welcomed by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Riyadh's attempts to become the primary power of the Islamic world have recently met serious opposition even within the Council, which the Saudi leaders had so far considered their own pet structure.

Yet, even while being forced to march lockstep with the Saudis’ policies, Doha never lost its aspiration to re-emerge as a leader of the Islamic world. The Qatari government continued to search for any niches where they could pursue policies and interests independent of Riyadh. For instance, Qatar continued to invest heavily in the Gaza Strip, strengthening its ties with the Hamas movement controlling the region. Although this Palestinian group could be seen as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, at that point even Riyadh sought actively to co-operate with it, singling it out amongst the other arms of the organization. That is why, at this junction, Qatar’s ties with Hamas did not break the 2014 agreement with the Saudis.

Qatar’s ties with Tehran, on the other hand, may prove unacceptable to the Saudis. Despite Hamas’s and Iran’s differences over Syria, Tehran continued to support the military wing of the group, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, while Qatar sponsored its political leadership. Therefore, the situation appeared as though Tehran and Doha were not competing in Gaza but rather coordinating efforts in support of Hamas.

Qatar’s 2017 steps on the Syrian track were taken by the Saudis as evidence of ties between Tehran/Hezbollah and Doha, while also indicating that Qatar exerted influence over Al-Qaeda, primarily its Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham group (previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra). Evidently, Riyadh believed that Qatar might use its connections with both Iran and Al-Qaeda against the Kingdom’s interests in Syria and Yemen. A cause of special alarm for the international community was the Qatari brokerage of the Syrian population swap deal. In late March of 2017, the Iranian leadership and Hezbollah commanders met with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham to strike a deal whereby the residents of the Shia areas of Fua and Kefraya in Idlib were to be transported to east Aleppo, while Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the rebels were to give up the towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus to the regime represented by the Lebanese Hezbollah.

This chain of events gave Riyadh yet another reason to be weary of Qatar potentially resuming its unfriendly activities and spurred on the Kingdom’s urgent plans that aimed to interfere with Qatar’s plans.

Another factor that prompted Saudi Arabia to make its recent measures against Qatar even harsher than those of 2014 was the general atmosphere in the GCC. In fact, Riyadh's attempts to become the primary power of the Islamic world have recently met serious opposition even within the Council, which the Saudi leaders had so far considered their own pet structure.

For instance, Oman has been actively reinforcing its ties with Iran. Since 2011, it has conducted joint naval training with the Iranian fleet. Moreover, Muscat refused to back Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Saleh and the Houthis in Yemen, instead deciding to take a neutral stance in the conflict, a decision that Riyadh was inclined to view as pro-Houthi.

Another country to have broken from the GCC’s ranks and challenge the Saudis’ leading role was Kuwait. It also refrained from any military involvement in Yemen, trying to mediate the conflict. This action resulted in the Oman and Kuwait monarchs jointly inviting Hassan Rouhani to Muscat and El Kuwait respectively. The visit took place in February 2017, and becoming yet another challenge to Riyadh’s authority. The possibility of Qatar joining this duo threatened Saudi Arabia’s leading role in the GCC, which could split the pact into two triads.

In light of the above, it is quite clear that the campaign against Qatar could have started much earlier, in April 2017. Even so, at that point, Riyadh was not clear how the US administration would feel about such actions. But, after Donald Trump publicly slammed Qatar, it is quite evident that the political and information attack on Doha was given the green light following the American President’s visit to Saudi Arabia in late May 2017. Washington’s stance on the issue may well have been influenced by Israel. Tel Aviv, displeased with Doha’s support of Hamas, had expressed its concerns about a possible rapprochement between Iran and Qatar, especially over their joint support for the Palestinian group.

Players’ Interests and Possible Manoeuvres

As far as future developments are concerned, Qatar’s opponents may have various scenarios in mind. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are probably considering a change of Qatar’s leadership, possibly via military coup with the goal of placing someone fully loyal to the idea of ‘Sunni unity’ under Riyadh’s control into power. The potential candidates would, of course, be members of the same ruling house of Al Thani, but from its other branches. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are probably engineering these plans right now.

But, after Donald Trump publicly slammed Qatar, quite evident that the political and information attack on Doha was given the green light following the American President’s visit to Saudi Arabia in late May 2017.

Yet Ankara’s position might interfere with this scenario. With the Turkish leadership positioning itself as Qatar’s closest ally since the Arab Spring, its credibility would suffer considerably if it let another power shift happen in the country without interfering. The potential of Turkey deploying troops to Qatar could mitigate the threat of a military coup or any other use of hard power by the Saudis or the Emirates. Kuwait and Oman might also provide certain political support to Doha in this context.

The United States generally wants to once again punish the leadership of the Kingdom for misbehaving, all that is asked is to break off all ties to Iran and Hamas. It will view any displacement of Sheikh Tamim via a military coup, even if carried out by internal players, as a result of external (first and foremost Saudi) interference. Such a coup might negatively impact the United States’ image, since its military bases are primarily considered as safeguards against external intervention. Moreover, since Qatar has Al Udeid, one of the largest US bases in the Middle East, Washington will try to manage the Qatari crisis with minimum damage to Doha.


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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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