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By Afro-Middle East Centre
Saudi-Qatari tensions and implications for the Persian Gulf

Tensions between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on the one side, and Qatar on the other have intensified after the three states recalled their ambassadors from Qatar. This paper examines these dynamics as they unfold within the Gulf Cooperation Council, and discusses the implications for the Gulf region.

27 March 2014

Tensions are increasing between Qatar on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the other. In the latest dispute, which began on 5 March, the three states recalled their ambassadors from Qatar, demanding that it ends its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and that it stops interfering in their internal affairs. Qatar shot back that the disagreement had to do with concerns in countries outside the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose members are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. Subsequently, the pressure on Qatar, led by Saudi Arabia, intensified. There have been Saudi threats to seal off Qatar’s only land border, imposing sanctions and closing its airspace to Qatari planes. Saudi Arabia also demanded that Qatar shuts down the Al Jazeera network and two prominent research centres in Doha. These tensions are clearly very serious, and Saudi Prince Saud Al Faisal underlined their gravity by saying that the group of three countries has rejected international mediation, and that the only way to resolve the dispute is for Qatar to amend its policies. This diplomatic crisis comes in the wake of other serious GCC crises that could potentially realign geostrategic alliances in the Persian Gulf and the entire Middle East region.

Saudi Arabia and the future of GCC

Within the GCC, there is a growing rift not only between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, but also between the latter three countries and, separately, Kuwait and Oman. This division was highlighted recently when Oman publicly disagreed with Saudi Arabia over creating a greater union out of the GCC alliance, an idea that was first proposed by the Saudi king, Abdullah, in 2011, and repeated in December 2013 by Saudi state minister for foreign affairs, Nizar Madani. Oman’s foreign affairs minister, Yusuf bin Alawi, rejected the idea, arguing that the GCC was an economic and security alliance that had to preserve the independence of its six members.

Oman’s stance on the union was a clear message that it would regard attempts to form a union as a threat to Oman’s sovereignty. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, however, insist that union is inevitable.

Saudi Arabia has another reason to be irritated with its smaller neighbour. Since 2011, Oman has played host to secret negotiations between the USA and Iran, thus facilitating warming relations between the two rival states that led to the November 2013 Geneva nuclear deal between Tehran and the P5+1 (USA, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany). Saudi Arabia’s animosity towards Iran is no secret; in fact, its attempts to form a union out of the GCC states may be interpreted as a response to Iran’s increasingly favourable reception in the West. Since its inception in 1981, the GCC has been rooted in Gulf Arab fears of a revolutionary Iranian state; hence its continual efforts to solidify security arrangements between member states. From the Saudi perspective, Oman – by declining to form a union with Saudi Arabia, maintaining warm relations with Iran and actively assisting in its rehabilitation – is not only thwarting Saudi Arabia’s desire for regional hegemony, but is also presenting it with a security risk.

The GCC states face other problems too. Saudi Arabia is keen to form a GCC security pact that will unite member states against any external threat (read Iran), and allow for better coordination on internal security issues, a renewed concern in the wake of the Middle East North Africa uprisings. Saudi Arabia has already taken steps to proscribe its citizens from engaging in militant activities outside the country. In addition, Saudi Arabia is eager to secure this pact because Saudi ruling elites face a threat from the country’s Shi’a population, which has been exacerbated by the Syrian conflict and Bahraini uprisings. However, Saudi desires to bind the GCC member states through the security pact are being thwarted by Kuwait, the only member state that has not ratified it. Although Kuwait’s interior minister signed the agreement in November 2012, parliament has to approve it before it can be ratified. Kuwait has the most vibrant, democratic environment among GCC countries, allowing its parliamentarians, and civil society groups, to resist the security agreement. This means that the GCC might be prevented from performing a basic function: an enhanced and integrated security architecture between member states.

This raises problems for Saudi Arabia, not only because it wants to use the GCC to manage regional dissent, but also because Kuwait’s reasons for resisting the agreement will likely resonate with Qatar. Kuwait’s concern is that the agreement, besides providing for cooperation between states to crush internal dissent, allows a member state to request another to extradite the latter’s citizens if the former regards them as acting against its security interests. Besides the potential for grave human rights’ violations, this aspect of the agreement has direct bearing on the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia accuses the Qatari government of meddling in its internal security affairs and giving refuge to members of the Muslim Brotherhood – which Saudi Arabia regards as a terrorist organisation - such as the prominent cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi government.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar: A history of disputes

Tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia must, therefore, be seen alongside other regional disagreements. The two states are the most prominent actors within the GCC, and their disputes are likely to cause other fault lines within the region to widen quite rapidly.

Although the current Qatar-Saudi Arabia dispute stems from different positions the two states have taken in relation to opposition groups throughout the region in the context of the MENA uprisings, tensions between them date back to 1913, when Abdul Aziz, the founder of the Saudi state, occupied then annexed Qatar. It was only under British pressure that Saudi Arabia recognised Qatar’s borders. These tensions have not faded, as was evident from a remark made last year by Prince Bandar bin Sultan – former Saudi ambassador to the USA and head of Saudi General Intelligence agency – that Qatar is not a proper country, and is ‘nothing but 300 people and a TV channel’.

Over the last twenty years, when Saudi Arabia did not have to deal with Iraq as a contender for regional hegemony, it has treated Qatar as a constant source of irritation. In 1992, for example, Saudi Arabia sent forces into Qatar and seized the al-Khafous border post. A few years later, in 1995, the Qatari government alleged that Saudi Arabia was fomenting a coup in alliance with a local clan. It is this context of mutual hostility that provides a backdrop to their more recent disagreements.

That Qatar, as a riposte, might harbour plans to split Saudi Arabia was revealed in a leaked phone conversation that allegedly took place in January 2011 between Qatar’s then foreign and prime minister, Hammad bin Jassim, and former Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. Jassim allegedly claimed that Saudi Arabia would unravel at his hands, and, after the king’s death, would be partitioned, with Qatar seizing the eastern province of Qatif.

In light of this brief history, it is clear that Saudi-Qatari tensions are not simply a matter of foreign policy differences. Each country believes it has reason to assume that the other is fundamentally hostile, thus posing a national security threat. When national security means regime security, as it does here, disagreements are bound to get personal and induce major strategic shifts in regional alliances, unless the leaders can de-escalate tensions and build trust. One opportunity for doing so presented itself in their joint opposition to Syria’s Assad regime. However, given the wrangling for control in Syrian opposition ranks, the opportunity was lost. Differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have plagued the process of building a strong Syrian opposition, and with President Bashar al-Assad more firmly in control than a year ago, the larger set of differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have become more pronounced. With no rapprochement in sight, Saudi Arabia is threatening Qatar’s expulsion from the GCC, and the formation of a GCC union with only four members (excluding Qatar and Oman).

Qatar between three poles of power

With the very existence of the GCC threatened, the possibility of Saudi Arabia and Qatar instigating regime change and secessionist movements in each other’s territory, and a rising Iran, the Persian Gulf is likely to see a change in the balance of power. Iran’s ascendancy is contributing to a Saudi desire to consolidate its strength in what it views as a zero-sum game with Iran. In its belligerent attitude towards Qatar, Saudi Arabia is neglecting some basic strategic calculations. The Persian Gulf region has three poles of power, two of which (Iran and Saudi Arabia) are in the region, and the third (USA) is outside. By alienating Qatar, Saudi Arabia is not only giving the emirate reason to ally with Iran, but could also cause the USA to prefer Qatar as a military partner in the Gulf.

While, as has been acknowledged by some influential Saudi politicians, US-Saudi relations are likely to experience a downgrade due to projected shale gas production in the USA, the Middle East will continue to be important for the USA for military reasons. With Qatar housing the US Central Command at its Al Udeid Air Base, it is more of a military asset to USA than Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s value as a US military ally is complicated by its own policies. The Saudi dual strategy of offering military support to the USA, while exporting Muslim militancy on the other hand, has already backfired for both countries. For the USA, it led to the 911 catastrophe, and subsequent exhaustive and expensive wars, while for Saudi Arabia it gave rise to massive internal and regional security threats.

Qatar, with a smaller and less disaffected population, represents a safer bet as a military ally for the USA. Furthermore, while Saudi Arabia portrays itself as the ‘protector of the two holy sites (in Makkah and Madinah)’, Qatar has no such pretensions to any religious leadership in the Muslim world. This leaves Qatar (and the USA) less prone to the attack that it is acting hypocritically. Qatar has also managed the Islamic form of republicanism championed by the Muslim Brotherhood much better than Saudi Arabia has. By supporting it in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia (instead of treating it as a threat), Qatar reduced the chances of a republican critique of its monarchical form of Islam, and made itself indispensable as a supporter of Islamic populism. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood is in or out of power, it knows that it can count on Qatari support, helping to maintain an image of Qatar among some in the Middle East as a state supporting people’s struggles. Such strategic gains make Qatar a better ally for the USA than Saudi Arabia, both militarily and diplomatically, especially in light of recent US demands for democratic reforms to regimes across the region. This is not to suggest that the USA will necessarily make a choice between Qatar and Saudi Arabia; it will prefer both countries in its stable. However, in a context where Saudi Arabia is increasingly charting a path independent from the USA on a number of issues, the USA might see Qatar as more reliable and predictable.

Another calculation that Saudi Arabia seems to have ignored is that Qatar might now find more reason for rebuilding and deepening an alliance with Iran. Qatari-Iranian disagreement over Syria notwithstanding, the two countries had good relations before the Syrian uprising began. And, with warmer relations between Iran and Qatar, there is a greater possibility that the Syrian crisis could end in some sort of power-sharing deal between the Assad regime and Muslim Brotherhood element in the opposition. Iran has always been keen on differentiating the Muslim Brotherhood type of Islamic republicanism from the Saudi Wahhabi Islam that discriminates against Shi’as. In Qatar, Iran can find a strategic partner with which it has less serious ideological problems. Qatar and Iran also share the world’s largest gas field, the South Pars/North Dome gas field (across the Persian Gulf), giving the two countries strategic economic reasons to strengthen relations. Indeed, they have been contemplating the establishment of a free trade zone between them. Further, Qatar’s Shi’a population remains significantly happier than Saudi Arabia’s. While not partners in the highest echelons of power, Qatari Shi’as are sufficiently integrated, economically and culturally, to not view their Qatari identity as a misfortune. In Qatar’s case, then, Iran does not feel the need to speak on behalf of an oppressed Shi’a population as it does with Saudi Arabia, an issue that plagues Iran-Saudi relations. Instead, Iranian and Qatari ethnic and sectarian differences present these countries with an opportunity to appear more liberal and friendly than Saudi Arabia.


As tensions increase in Qatar-Saudi relations, the very nature of the GCC is under threat. Furthermore, these tensions could potentially will lead to a realignment of regional forces in the Persian Gulf, and in the Middle East as a whole. Saudi Arabia, in building a bloc behind itself (composed of UAE and Bahrain), is pursuing its anti-Qatar policy at its own expense – giving reasons to Qatar, Iran and the USA to align more closely with each other and with smaller Gulf states like Kuwait and Oman. The just concluded Arab League summit provide no signs that these divisions might be minimised, and it is clear that both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have decided to stubbornly maintain their positions and not compromise. Given this, US president Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia carries immense significance, and could indicate what direction USA will take in responding to this clash, which could see one of these protagonists adjusting its position.

Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC)
27 March 2014
Johannesburg, South Africa
info@amec.org.za, www.amec.org.za

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