Doha’s miscalculations at the core of Gulf crisis
The crisis pitting Qatar against Saudi-led Gulf countries and Egypt is the result of Doha’s miscalculations and missteps.
Qatar did a lot to weaken the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) by engaging in an odd competition with Saudi Arabia. Even though it did not always see eye to eye with Tehran, Qatar’s policy of going against Saudi Arabia served the interests of Iran, which has sought to undermine GCC countries.
Qatar is different from Oman. The sultanate is a special case because it might have had no choice but to cooperate with Iran, considering the countries’ shared borders and control of the Strait of Hormuz.
Less understandable is Qatar’s cooperation with Tehran. Qatar’s argument that sharing a major natural gas field with Iran makes cooperation with Tehran a necessity is weak. Doha may choose to work with Iran in a specific sector but not necessarily in everything. After all, Iran has always worked against the interests of the other Gulf countries and especially those of Saudi Arabia. It ignited sectarian strife in Bahrain and has been occupying three Emirati islands since 1971.
Under the reign of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Doha has failed to provide appropriate rationale for its Iranian policy. In the face of Iran’s obvious animosity towards Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Tamim could have used phrases such as “We’re all in the same boat.” By “all,” he would have meant the Gulf states. He didn’t.
Sheik Tamim inherited from his father, former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, many problems, among them dwindling oil revenues and skyrocketing construction costs of 2022 World Cup facilities. He could not envisage a particular policy that would show that he was aware of the dangers of remaining prisoner of his father’s policy choices and of the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. He could not get out unscathed from the dilemmas created by his close cooperation with Iran in Lebanon and his support for Syrian President Bashar Assad just because the latter has fallen into Saudi disgrace.
For the third time in four years, a Gulf initiative takes the United States by surprise. The first time was when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait backed the 2013 coup against the Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammad Morsi in Egypt. The second was when Operation Decisive Storm began in Yemen despite American objections. The aim was to put an end to Iran’s expansionist plan in the region. Qatar was a partner in Operation Decisive Storm but only nominally.
This third Arab initiative came within the context of favourable conditions in the United States but is definitely not a US-backed initiative. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt took a stand against Qatar that is not necessarily shared by Washington. It was an independent Arab stand dictated by common Gulf interests.
Qatar once could have easily swayed the US government’s stand with the lucrative purchase of US-made F-15 warplanes but not this time. The time for paradoxes and contradictions is over.
Qatar may not have had problems dealing with Washington but it has been mistaken to think having a US military base on its soil provides sufficient cover for Doha to engage in all kinds of policies and practices, including shadowy deals with Iran and its proxies in Syria under the guise of ransoming a party of Qatari hunters kidnapped in Iraq at the end of 2015. The true significance of this deal is not clear but it is obvious that it makes it possible for Iranian sectarian militias and al-Qaeda spin-off organisations to dispose of huge amounts of Qatari money.
Qatar’s essential problem is with its Arab environment. Qatar simply needs to change its behaviour. It must cease its fruitless manoeuvring. This kind of behaviour serves only Turkish and Iranian interests. The regime in Iran is always on the hunt for any point of entry, especially for possible breaches in neighbouring countries and even in faraway countries, such as Lebanon.
Ending the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was achieved despite US objections. The current boycott of Qatar is not necessarily and entirely blessed by the US. We are probably witnessing a change. The Trump administration does not object to bold initiatives taken by those who are wise enough to self-reliantly protect their own interests.