Power Shift in the Middle East?
When it erupted in June 2017, the “Qatar crisis” drew immediate speculation that the emirate’s enemies, who accuse it of sponsoring terrorism and destabilising the region, were preparing for some sort of military action.
After all, since the inconclusive resolution to an earlier dispute with Qatar in 2014, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been determined to take a bolder and more assertive stance, bloodily intervening in Yemen and, according to recently leaked emails purportedly sent by the UAE’s ambassador in Washington, at one point even coming “pretty close to doing something in Qatar”.
Whereas Barack Obama was highly unlikely to ever support such action against Doha, later hinting that he would no longer reflexively side with Saudi Arabia in its squabbles, Donald Trump’s administration seemed at first to re-open the door to more drastic measures.
Trump pointedly chose Saudi Arabia for his first official overseas visit, on which he signed several big-ticket arms deals. And just hours after Riyadh severed relations with Doha, he tweeted that, when it comes to terrorism funding, “all reference was pointing to Qatar” and that “perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism”.
But the White House was soon apprised of the full extent of the US’s military facilities in Qatar, including the difficult-to-move forward headquarters of US Central Command (CENTCOM), and the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, hurriedly attempted to strike a more conciliatory tone. For a moment, it seemed any immediate danger to Doha had subsided. Indeed, as recently reported, Trump had apparently given an emphatic “no” to any military action, preferring to leave the quarrelling Gulf states to their own devices.
Nonetheless, even as the days dragged into weeks and then months, it seemed that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with their allies in the “Anti-Terror Quartet”, Bahrain and Egypt, were gaining the upper hand.
While Qatar received aid and public support from both Turkey and Iran, the Quartet-led economic blockade was undoubtedly beginning to bite. By the end of July, Doha had already had to plough more than US$40bn of its US$340bn sovereign wealth fund into local banks, while simultaneously selling off stakes in several foreign companies. Facing further downgrades by ratings agencies and now a negative credit outlook, Qatar’s position is still very shaky; the Quartet can probably afford to sit it out and wait for Doha to come to the table.
The accompanying mud-slinging contest being fought out in the international media by the two camps seems unlikely to tip the balance any time soon. The Quartet’s siege-like position seems relatively strong and its members are apparently impervious or indifferent to reputational assaults. That much was clear from their recent ministerial meeting in New York, where they concluded there would be no dialogue with Qatar until all “demands and principles” were met.
And yet, there are now strong signs that Riyadh has also begun preparing a parallel “Plan B”: a campaign to promote the replacement of Doha’s current ruler, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, with a more compliant, pro-Quartet client.
With the Saudi crown prince, and king-in-waiting, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud probably impatient for quicker results than the blockade can deliver, a coup d’état must be appealing. The Saudis need some sort of decisive victory to distract from their disastrous Yemen campaign – and Salman is currently embarked on a “night of the long knives” at home, locking up a whole range of political opponents in the name of reform and “returning to moderate Islam”. A diplomatic (or forceful) victory abroad would be just the thing to defuse the domestic tension.
Even if it is bloodless, beyond the White House such a coup might not fully suit the US’s broader interests – its military facilities could be affected and a delicate balancing game between Saudi Arabia and Iran could be disrupted. But barring any high-profile defections in the Qatari military, or a sudden collapse in the current emir’s popularity – perhaps triggered by severe economic hardship – a coup does not yet seem a credible prospect.
Any moves that have been made in public aren’t cutting much ice. September saw a strange “Qatar opposition” conference held in London – it only seemed to feature one prominent Qatari and mostly featured Western speaker-circuit regulars espousing vague notions of bringing democracy to Doha. Whatever its intended purpose, the conference made close to zero discernible impact.
In another odd move, the Saudis recently decided to publicly endorse and elevate two hitherto obscure Qatari ruling family members: the uncle-nephew team of Abdullah bin Ali al-Thani and Sultan bin Suhaim al-Thani. Based in London and Paris, they have only a distant claim to the throne and rarely feature in Qatari public life. Until Abdullah’s apparently successful “negotiation” to allow Qatari pilgrims to travel to Mecca this summer, most in Doha had either never heard of him or simply forgotten who he was.
If anything, this particular Saudi strategy is backfiring. In his first televised interview since the crisis began, Emir Tamim struck a defiant and confident tone. Indubitably, most Qataris seem well aware that a Doha under the control of such characters would probably end up little more than a Bahrain-like Saudi vassal state, with all of the attendant downsides: complete loss of control over foreign affairs, censorship, and of course significant repression.