Qatar–Saudi Arabia diplomatic conflict

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Second Arab Cold War
Part of the Arab Spring, Arab Winter and Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict
Qatar diplomatic crisis.svg
     Qatar (center), whose increased influence since the Arab Spring brought a reaction led by Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

     Countries which have cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar since June 2017; fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members KSA, UAE and Bahrain also cut ties during 2014.      Countries which reduced diplomatic ties with or recalled ambassadors from Qatar after June 2017

     Libyan civil war (map). UN/Qatar-backed government opposed by UAE/Egypt-backed government.
Date2002–present
LocationMiddle East and North Africa, especially Bahrain (from January–March 2011), Egypt (prior to 2013), Yemen (until 2017), Syria and Libya.
Status

No official relations between Arab League countries Qatar and: GCC members Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain (during part of 2014 and 2017–18); Egypt, Jordan, Comoros, Mauritania, and Yemen (2017–2018). Qatar and the GCC-Egyptian quartet backing rival groups in the Syrian Civil War (map) and Libyan Civil War

Main parties post-Arab Spring

 Qatar
 Turkey[1]

 Libya (from 2014)[b]
 Sudan
 Somalia
Muslim Brotherhood

 Saudi Arabia
 United Arab Emirates (from 2013)
 Bahrain (from 2011)
 Egypt (from 2013)
Libya Libyan HoR (from 2014)[c]

Commanders and leaders
Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud

The Qatar–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict, sometimes referred to as the Second Arab Cold War,[7] is the ongoing struggle for regional influence between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchies of Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Qatar–Saudi Arabia relations have been especially strained since the beginning of the Arab Spring,[8] that left a power vacuum both states sought to fill, with Qatar being supportive of the revolutionary wave and Saudi Arabia opposing it. Both states are allies of the United States, and have avoided direct conflict with one another.[9]

Qatar has differences with the Saudi bloc on a number of issues: it broadcasts Al Jazeera, that supports the Arab Spring; it maintains relatively good relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia's key rival; and it has supported the Muslim Brotherhood in the past, that the Saudi bloc views as too democratic.[10] Saudi Arabia frames the conflict with Qatar as a subset of the Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict due to Saudi Arabia's longstanding concern about the country's relationship with Iran and Iranian-backed militant groups.[11] However, Qatar maintains the conflict is an attempt for Saudi Arabia to reassert the hegemony over Qatar it enjoyed during the 20th century.

The Tunisian Revolution of January 2011[12] ousted longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia. Widespread Al Jazeera coverage of the Bahraini uprising of 2011 fueled Saudi suspicions the Qatari government sought to overthrow the Saudi government via soft power. The Saudis then supported a largely successful counterrevolution to the Arab Spring to preserve the monarchy of Bahrain, overthrow the Egyptian democratically-elected president Mohammad Morsi and stymie international support for the post-Gadaffi government in Libya. Since the 2013 Egyptian coup d'état by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, there has been a consistent pattern of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt opposing the designs of Qatar and Turkey, who supported democratic Islamist and Salafi extremist groups, particularly in the Syrian Civil War.

Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar mediated through the GCC during the Yemeni Revolution against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, although Qatar was considered more pro-revolution and KSA more pro-Saleh. Both rivals also backed the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a key ally of Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. Qatari involvement in the Syrian Civil War was initially far greater in 2013 than Saudi involvement, and their backing of rival revolutionary groups benefited the incumbent government of Bashar al-Assad and what would become the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.[13][14] In 2014, the two backed rival sides in the intensified Libyan Civil War and broke off relations temporarily. When Salman of Saudi Arabia ascended to the throne in 2015, the two began to cooperate more in Syria and fought alleged Houthi militias in the Yemeni Civil War.[10] Relations were seen at near a high point when Qatar severed relations with Iran following the 2016 Saudi execution of Nimr al-Nimr.[15]

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, the Maldives, Mauritania, Sudan, Senegal, Djibouti, the Comoros, Jordan, the Tobruk-based Libyan government and the Hadi-led Yemeni government severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and blocked Qatar's airspace and sea routes along with Saudi Arabia blocking the only land crossing over its relations with Iran, Al-Jazeera reporting negative information about other GCC states and Egypt and the country's alleged support of Islamist groups.[16][17] Qatar was also expelled from the anti-Houthi coalition.[18] Qatar's defence minister Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah called the blockade akin to a bloodless declaration of war, and Qatar's finance minister Ali Sharif Al Emadi stated that Qatar is rich enough to withstand the blockade.[19][20] On 24 August 2017, Qatar announced that they would restore full diplomatic relations with Iran.[15] As the diplomatic standoff reached its second year, Saudi Arabia announced it would build a canal that would turn Qatar into an island.[21]

Background[edit]

History[edit]

Since he took power in 1995, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani believed Qatar could find security only by transforming itself from a Saudi appendage to a rival of Saudi Arabia.[22] According to Jim Krane, energy research fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute, "Qatar used to be a kind of Saudi vassal state, but it used the autonomy that its gas wealth created to carve out an independent role for itself... Above all, gas prompted Qatar to promote a regional policy of engagement with Shiite Iran to secure the source of its wealth".[23] Qatar and Iran share ownership of the South Pars/North Dome Gas-Condensate field,[24] by far the world's largest natural gas field, with significant geostrategic influence.[25] To further offset Saudi influence, Qatar is a close ally of the United States, hosting the largest American base in the Middle East, Al Udeid Air Base.[26] Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Doha from 2002 to 2008 to try to pressure Qatar to curb its individualistic tendencies. This approach broadly failed.[27]

Member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Qatar maintains relatively good relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia often frames the issue as a proxy battle between partners and adversaries of Iran.[28] United Arab Emirates politicians claim that "Qatar invests billions of dollars in the U.S. and Europe and then recycles the profits to support Iranian-aligned Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and groups linked to al Qaeda. While Qatar hosts the American military base from which the U.S. directs its regional war against extremism, it also owns media networks responsible for inciting many of the same extremists".[29] Qatar also used its contacts to help negotiate peaceful exchanges of hostages for the safe evacuation of civilians from areas affected by the Syrian Civil War.[10] In 2006, Qatar was the only UN Security Council member to vote against United Nations Security Council Resolution 1696 that called on Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment program.[30]

In April 2017, after a 12-year freeze, Qatar lifted a self-imposed ban on developing the gas field with Iran,[31] that would require cooperation between the two countries.[32] According to David Roberts, a Qatar foreign policy expert at King's College, London, if a conflict erupts between America and Iran, Qatar would literally be caught in the middle. "If you are Qatar, you look across the water and you think, when Iran did have the opportunity to take a few Arab islands, they did it." "Qatar needs to have the ability to peacefully go about their business of sucking all the gas out of that giant field." Iran could make that process very difficult.[33] A senior fellow of Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations concludes that "There's a recognition of the general tendencies of the Gulf states to hedge their bets,"There's always a question in the back of the minds of the leadership--how much faith can they put in the U.S.?"[33]

On 27 May 2017, the newly reelected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani held a phone call with Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Rouhani told Qatar's emir, "The countries of the region need more cooperation and consultations to resolve the crisis in the region and we are ready to cooperate in this field."[34]

Arab Spring and Al Jazeera[edit]

The Qatari al-Jazeera is a media organization owned by the Emir of Qatar. It is the most popular network in the Middle East, and its news network has criticized foreign governments involved in the dispute and been accused of supporting Qatari interests. The Saudi-led coalition against Qatar has demanded that al-Jazeera be shut down.[35]

Terrorism[edit]

Qatar has been accused of sponsoring terrorism.[36] Some countries have faulted Qatar for funding rebel groups in Syria, including al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front,[37] although the Saudis have done the same.[10][38] Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been involved in the CIA–led Timber Sycamore covert operation to train and arm Syrian rebels.[39][40]

Qatar has hosted officials from the Afghan Taliban[41] and Hamas. Qatar defends this move by saying it is trying to act as an intermediary in regional conflicts.[42] For example, Qatar hosted talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in 2016.[43]

On 13 July 2017, Bob Corker, a Republican senator and the chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, stated that the "[t]he amount of support for terrorism by Saudi Arabia dwarfs what Qatar is doing".[44] Former US Defense Secretary and ex-CIA chief Robert Gates stated in May 2017 that he does not "know instances in which Qatar aggressively goes after (terror finance) networks of Hamas, Taliban, Al-Qaeda,"[45] and that "My attitudes toward Al-Udeid and any other facility is that the United States military doesn't have any irreplaceable facility."[46][47] Qatar hosts the largest American base in the Middle East, the Al Udeid Air Base, which has been used by the United States in its campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.[26][48] According to the WSJ, during President Barack Obama's first term, some members of his National Security Council lobbied to pull a U.S. fighter jet squadron out of Al Udeid to protest Qatari support of militant groups in the Middle East.[49]

Timeline[edit]

2002–2008[edit]

In 2002, Saudi Arabia removed their ambassador from Qatar over Al Jazeera's alleged critical stance towards Saudi Arabia. Diplomatic relations were re-established in 2008, after assurances that Al Jazeera would limit its coverage of Saudi Arabia.[50]

2014[edit]

During a March 2014 meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, after which the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain announced the recall of their ambassadors to Qatar,[51][52][53] citing interference with their internal affairs. The situation was eventually defused after Qatar forced Brotherhood members to leave the country eight months later.[54][10][55]

Some economists have interpreted the 2014 Saudi–Qatari rift as the tangible political sign of a growing economic rivalry between oil and natural gas producers, which could "have deep and long-lasting consequences" beyond the Middle East-North Africa area.[56]

2017-2018 Qatar–Saudi Arabia diplomatic crisis[edit]

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Sudan, Senegal, Djibouti, Comoros, Jordan, the Tobruk-based Libyan government and the Hadi-led Yemeni government severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and blocked Qatar's airspace and sea routes along with Saudi Arabia blocking the only land crossing over its relations with Iran, Al-Jazeera reporting negative information about other GCC states and Egypt and the country's alleged support of Islamist groups.[16][17] Qatar was also expelled from the anti-Houthi coalition.[18] Qatar's defence minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah called the blockade akin to a bloodless declaration of war and Qatar's finance minister Ali Sharif Al Emadi stated that Qatar is rich enough to withstand the blockade.[19][20]

The Saudi coalition withdrawing diplomatic relations accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism, of interfering with their internal affairs[57] and of maintaining relations with Iran.[58][59] Qatar denies allegations that it supported terrorism, and pointed out that it has been contributing to the U.S.-led fight against ISIL.[60][61] The countries have also stressed the measures are in response to Qatar's violation of an agreement[62] in 2014 to not undermine the "interests, security and stability" of other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.[63]

The diplomatic crisis came after a speech in May given by Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in which he was alleged to have declared support for Iran, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood, along with calling Iran an "Islamic power" and criticizing Donald Trump's hostile stance toward it.[64] Qatar denied the allegations and claimed that hackers had posted fabricated statements on the state-run Qatar News Agency's website.[65] US investigators believe the news agency was breached by Russian hackers as part of an ongoing fake news campaign designed to cause diplomatic rifts among the United States and its allies in the region. The Kremlin denied involvement, and the government of Qatar claimed the hack instead originated in the boycotting Gulf states not Russia after tracking suspicious cellphone signals.[66][67][68][69] Qatar is planning to sue countries involved in the blockade.[70] The sudden economic isolation forced Qatar to turn to Turkey and Iran for food and water supplies.[71][72] Iran offered to use three of its ports for delivering supplies to Qatar.[73]

Arab media claimed that Qatar has secretly accepted to become part of an Iranian Shia sphere of influence that Tehran is trying to create in the Middle East, and which would include Lebanon (Hezbollah), Syria (Assad), and Iraq (Shia-majority government)[74] and that, in a phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Emir Al Thani said he wanted the ties with Iran to be "stronger than ever before."[75] Qatar claims Iranian-backed Hezbollah is a resistance movement against Israeli occupation, not a terrorist group.[76] Arab media also claimed that a member of Qatar's ruling House of Thani, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Abdullah Al Ahmed Al Thani, tweeted that Qatar's ruler Tamim has "joined forces with Iran against your brothers and set up terrorist groups and published electronic battalions to beat your opponents."[77] Saudi media also alleged that Iran Revolutionary Guards are protecting Qatar's ruler Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani inside his palace.[78]

The Saudi-led bloc of states issued prerequisites to be met by Qatar before restoring diplomatic relations and lifting the blockade. The thirteen demands stipulated that the country must cut relations, military, and intelligence cooperation with Iran, comply with the US and international trade sanctions on Iran, immediately shut down a Turkish military base, and halt military cooperation with Turkey. It was also demanded that Qatar cut any existing ties with all "terrorist, sectarian and ideological organisations" such as ISIL, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front, and Hezbollah, and must concur with any group's addition to the list of terrorist organisations as defined by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt.[79] Other demands were more punitive, requiring reparations and compensation for loss of life and other financial losses caused by Qatar's policies in recent years, the closure of state-funded media outlets like Al Jazeera, Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby Al Jadeed, Mekameleen, and the Middle East Eye.[80]

The bloc sought a guarantee that Qatar will in the future align in all matters with other Gulf states, discuss all its decisions with them, and provide regular reports on its activity (monthly for the first year, quarterly for the second and annual for the following ten years). They also demanded deportation of all political refugees who live in Qatar to their countries of origin, freezing their assets, providing any desired information about their residency, movements and finances, revoking their Qatari citizenship if naturalised, and forbade Qatar from granting citizenship to any more fugitives.[81][82]

Upon rejection of demands by Qatar, the countries involved announced that the blockade would remain in place until Qatar changes its policies.[83][84]

Countries of Contention[edit]

Egypt[edit]

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (left), who led the 2013 Egyptian coup d'état against President Mohamed Morsi (right), who was supported by Qatar
According to Al-Jazeera, the August 2013 Rabaa massacre of more than 1,100 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo, Egypt was planned at the highest levels of el-Sisi's government.[85]

Qatar has supported the Muslim Brotherhood in the past.[55]

Qatar supported the successful ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, which was a landmark moment for Al Jazeera. Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidate Mohamed Morsi became Egypt's first democratically-elected president in 2012, only to be overthrown the next year by a Saudi-supported military coup led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Since the coup, Saudi Arabia see's the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat, as it ideologically opposes the hereditary rule of Al Saud.[55] The government of Egypt has long viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as "enemy number one".[86] In 2011, during the Arab Spring, Qatar supported the Egyptian protesters agitating for change, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.[87] By contrast, Saudi Arabia supported Hosni Mubarak and currently supports Abdel Fattah el-Sisi[88]

In February 2015, Egypt–Qatar relations deteriorated after the Egyptian Air Force conducted airstrikes on suspected ISIL positions in neighboring Libya following the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.[89][90] The airstrikes were condemned by Al Jazeera, who broadcast images of civilian casualties.[90] Additionally, Qatar's foreign ministry expressed reservations over the airstrikes. This prompted Tariq Adel, Egypt's Arab League delegate, to accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism. Egyptian citizens also launched an online campaign denouncing the Qatari government.[91] The Gulf Cooperation Council rejected Egypt's accusations and its secretary general regarded the statements to be false.[92] Shortly after, Qatar recalled its ambassador to Egypt for "consultations".[91]

Syria[edit]

Qatar was initially the main backer of peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad, alongside Turkey. As the Syrian government met protests with deadly force, Qatar continued to be the main supporter of the resulting armed rebellion and eventual full-scale civil war. Saudi Arabia was initially reluctant to support the overthrow of the Assad government, despite its reliance on Iran. When Qatar and Turkey became increasingly influential in Syria, Saudi Arabia joined the conflict to overthrow Assad as he became more dependant on Iran and Russia to cling to power.

During Syrian Civil War, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have supported many different Syrian opposition rebel organisations, but also sometimes the same groups. The main Qatari-supported group was the Al Nusra Front, opposing major Saudi-backed groups Islamic Front / SIF and Jaysh al-Islam. The division benefitted not only Assad, Russia, and Iran, but also what became the Islamic State in 2014. In 2015, increased Saudi-Qatari coordination upon Salman's ascension to the throne led to the creation of the Army of Conquest. This Army captured Idlib Province from the Assad government, which was nearly toppled until Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War later that year.

Libya[edit]

Leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed following 2011 revolution that saw a Qatari and other military intervention on the side of the revolutionary National Transitional Council. Since the civil war escalated in 2014, the Saudi bloc and Qatar have supported rival factions in Libya.[93] Qatar supports the Internationally recognized government of Government of National Accord, while Saudi Arabia supports the Tobruk-based government of House of Representatives.

Palestine[edit]

Qatar has generally supported Hamas, while Saudi Arabia used to support many different Palestinian organisations, such as Hamas and the PLO/Fatah however as Hamas won the 2007 election, the level of funding from Saudi Arabia dropped, while level of funding from Iran increased. Turkey and Qatar are now Hamas's biggest supporters, up until 2011, the start of the Arab Spring, Iran and Syria used to be Hamas's biggest supporters.

Yemen[edit]

Al Jazeera coverage of 2011 protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Mediation by the Gulf Cooperation Council, including both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, ends when Saleh refuses to resign. Saleh ousted in 2012 Yemeni Revolution after returning from Saudi Arabia for medical care. In 2015, Salman of Saudi Arabia ascends to the throne and Houthis take over the capital, leading to a civil war met by Saudi intervention to support the post-Saleh national unity government led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Qatar supported this KSA-led coalition until it was expelled from it during the 2017–18 Qatar diplomatic crisis. Egyptian sources claim that Qatar was also supporting the Houthis government, with financial aid and intelligence aid.[94]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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