The Houthis see the attacks in the Red Sea as part of a broader political project that goes back decades.
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On March 7, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani named Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani the new prime minister, the centerpiece of a Cabinet reshuffle that marks the country’s first major internal realignment since the 2021 agreement in Al-Ula that ended the boycott of Qatar. Mohammed bin Abdulrahman, who retains his Foreign Ministry portfolio, had also served as deputy prime minister since 2017. He replaces Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz al-Thani, who had held the post of prime minister since 2020 while also serving as minister of interior. Some analysts viewed Khalid as the last link in government to “the father emir,” Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who abdicated in 2013 to pave the way for his son Tamim. The new prime minister, at 42, is the same age as the emir and of the same generation as the newly appointed minister of interior, Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, who most recently headed up the security effort when Qatar hosted the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Helping Qatar Rebuild Its Global Image at a Moment of Inflection
As the key diplomat who helped steer Qatar through the nearly four-year crisis in relations with fellow Gulf states Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, as well as Egypt, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman is viewed as a pivotal figure who can help Qatar rebuild its global image now that it has mended fences with its former Gulf antagonists. Put another way, the appointment is a sign Qatar will be significantly more “outward looking,” building on the huge success the World Cup represented.
Qatar’s reshuffle comes at a moment of inflection and uncertainty in Gulf dynamics – one influential Emirati analyst speculates about a new “Arab axis,” for example. But it is also a moment with significant promise. Two years out from the Al-Ula agreement, the settling process of Qatar’s relations with its Gulf neighbors continues unevenly and with different trajectories open in the future. The Abraham Accords with Israel have upended decades of diplomatic and strategic verities, with Qatar, along with its more powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia, on the outside looking in. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has transformed Qatar – for a generation to come – into the key swing gas supplier for a beleaguered Europe abruptly cut off from Russian energy supplies. Recently reestablished Saudi-Iranian diplomatic ties point to the looming, shifting influence of Iran in the Gulf, which all the countries in the region, including Qatar, struggle to manage. The effort to manage Iran’s influence also points to Qatar’s relations with the United States, given Doha’s key intermediary role in recent years.
Relations With Key Gulf Countries
In terms of post-Al-Ula relations with other Gulf states, the report card for Qatar is mixed but with above-average marks. The UAE recently unblocked several Qatari websites, including those of media powerhouse Al Jazeera in Arabic and English, that had been blocked since the row with Qatar erupted in 2017. The media easing came just days after the visit to Doha of Emirati senior royal and entrusted National Security Advisor Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan and other senior officials. Although few details have leaked into public view, that visit is seen as an effort to add strategic and trade detail to Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s early December 2022 visit to Qatar and the ceremonial visit of Dubai ruler and Emirati Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum to the opening ceremony of the World Cup in November. In the other direction, Mohammed bin Zayed hosted Tamim in Abu Dhabi – along with the leaders of Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, and Oman, but notably, not Saudi Arabia – for a January summit on “Prosperity and Stability in the Region.” A telephone call in recent days between Mohammed bin Zayed and Tamim – confirming the UAE would withdraw its bid for 2026 World Bank-International Monetary Fund meetings in favor of Qatar – capped off this nearly frenetic level of contacts aimed at entrenching the normalization of relations.
Downsized Ideological Agenda
On the Saudi side of the ledger, Qatar has already notched a significant improvement in relations. Many observers saw the Al-Ula agreement largely as a bilateral Saudi-Qatari instrument that left the other Gulf antagonists scrambling to reimagine relations with Qatar. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Tamim shook hands and wore the other country’s national colors at the opening ceremony of the World Cup, underscoring bilateral and Gulf solidarity and mutually reinforcing the two states’ nationalisms. Some analysts noted that the 2017 split with Qatar coincided with a crackdown on dissent in Saudi Arabia, with individuals arrested under accusations of harboring then-treasonous pro-Qatari sentiments. However, one prominent analyst views the current improvement in relations with Qatar in the context of a resurgent Saudi Arabia, confident in its positioning to lead the broader region. From this perspective, the long split and Al-Ula reconciliation have helped facilitate this Saudi reemergence. And while Qatar has emerged with immense wealth, soft power, and pivotal energy resources, it has discarded its previously dominant ideological agenda, having reduced support for its Islamist partners and seemingly “downsized its ambitions” for leadership in the region. For now, at least, Doha no longer appears to have the strategic capability or ambition to compete with Saudi Arabia.
In this uncertain period with, at least for now, muted strategic ambitions in the region, Qatar appears satisfied to be wooed by its two influential, competing Gulf neighbors as it continues its sustained fence-mending. To round out the picture, Qatar’s relations with its other Gulf antagonist, Bahrain, are only slowly and haltingly improving. A recent call from Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to Tamim points to warming relations, but significant frictions remain. Besides Manama’s resentment that Doha has slow-rolled normalization with the least powerful of the three original Gulf antagonists, there are still legacy issues that have created problems for the relationship, including maritime boundary disputes and accusations of meddling in each other’s internal affairs.
An Unlikely Signatory to the Abraham Accords … for Now
The Cabinet reshuffle is unlikely to lead – any time soon – to Qatar joining the Abraham Accords. Qatar has for years, even decades, found ways to deal with Israel while strengthening relations with the Palestinians, including by paying civil servants’ salaries in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. But it has made clear it would continue to champion the Palestinian cause, evident most recently in the manner in which it hosted the World Cup, and steer clear of the Abraham Accords. Operating, as it appears for now, in Saudi Arabia’s strategic shadow, Qatar will be able to maintain such a stance without significant pressure so long as Riyadh similarly refuses to reach a formal agreement with Israel. When that day comes, as many predict it will, Qatar may find it necessary to revise its position.
The United States Welcomes Cabinet Reshuffle, Qatari Assistance
Unsurprisingly, given the current positive tenor of U.S.-Qatari relations, the United States welcomed Qatar’s Cabinet reshuffle, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing gratitude for Washington’s “enduring partnership” with Doha. Recent media accounts report critical Qatari efforts as an intermediary in support of a sensitive (and yet to be concluded) Iranian-U.S. prisoner swap – an exchange some analysts see as a precursor to intensified efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal in some form. Additionally, Tamim visited Tehran in May 2022 and Mohammed bin Abdulrahman traveled to Tehran in January 2022, standing beside Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian at a press conference and meeting hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi. U.S. officials have also made clear how much they appreciated Qatari support during and in the wake of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, as Doha received thousands of foreign troops and civilians in 2021, after having for years facilitated and hosted the sensitive U.S. negotiations with the Taliban that presaged the withdrawal. U.S. gratitude was on full display during the foreign minister’s February visit to Washington, just after his foray to Tehran. Influential U.S. military figures, at leadership levels of U.S. Central Command and in the Pentagon, have long been convinced of Qatar’s importance and lauded the contributions Doha has made in hosting CENTCOM’s forward headquarters and other U.S. forces at Al Udeid air base.
Cabinet reshuffles in the Gulf are a fairly regular occurrence. In a region without political parties and other indicia of the hurly-burly of contested electoral politics, reshuffles help signal mild political change and transition for the future. While the significance of the reshuffle in Qatar should not be overstated, the move to form a new Cabinet is helpful in understanding some of the pressures on Qatar, some of the possibilities on its horizons, and some of the broader dynamics in the Gulf. The latter, of course, include relations among former antagonists, relations with the United States, developments among Iran, the Gulf states, and the United States, and even give a glimpse of strategic competition between key Gulf states in the coming decade.
Ambassador William Roebuck is the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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