The 2017-21 boycott of Qatar was the fourth major regional dispute involving the small Gulf country in recent history. That there have been so many serious breaks in relations might seem surprising given the myriad similarities among the Gulf monarchies at a fundamental level. Yet, beginning in the late-1980s, these very similarities engendered Qatar’s then de facto leader, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to actively strive to differentiate his tiny but growing state. If Oman is the region’s demure outlier, then Qatar is the showy outlier consistently rejecting the Gulf consensus and status quo. This modus operandi became synonymous with the state’s self-conception and identity. Today, Qatar has a stronger sense of itself than ever, and it survived the boycott relatively unscathed. From this perceived position of strength, Qatar could relinquish its hitherto younger, more exuberant, and individualistic ways, recognize geopolitical reality, and work with its neighbors to forge a common future.
The late-1980s and early-1990s were a grim period for Qatari-Saudi relations. Emerging with more wealth and influence, Qatar’s crown prince, Hamad bin Khalifa, was demonstrably driving Qatar’s new policies, ignoring Saudi leadership, and striking out on a firmly independent approach. This culminated in the first round of issues. In 1992, skirmishes on the disputed Qatari-Saudi border led to casualties on both sides. This issue flared once more in 1994, and Saudi Arabia blocked a Qatari plan to build a gas pipeline to Kuwait. Qatar ignored similar attempts to prevent the construction of a pipeline to the United Arab Emirates. After Hamad seized power from his father in 1995, Saudi Arabia and the UAE allegedly supported at least one counter-coup attempt in 1996.
Qatar doubled down. Al Jazeera, the Doha-based news network, emerged in 1996 and it was open season on coverage of the Saudi leadership – the first time that the kingdom’s elite were covered for so long in such salacious depth by popular television media. Qatar also improved – on face value at least – its relations with Iran and Israel, both deeply taboo policies at the time. The final straw was reached in 2002, and a second round of problems ensued. On Al Jazeera’s most controversial talk show “Al Ittijah Al Muakes” (The Opposite Direction), a Saudi exile lambasted King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s peace plan, berating it as “betraying the Palestinian cause.” In an unprecedented move, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador.
Toward the end of 2007, Qatar and Saudi Arabia worked out a compromise. In return for the resumption of diplomatic relations, Qatar agreed to exercise greater control over Al Jazeera’s output and tone down its coverage of Saudi Arabia in particular. The sense emerged, at the time at least, that Saudi leaders had finally become accustomed, or at least reconciled, to Qatar’s maverick policies and boisterous media.
Post Arab Spring Quarrels
The third break in relations occurred in 2014, a few months into Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s tenure as emir. With revolutions spreading around the region and entrenched autocrats of many decades falling to widespread protests, the Middle East was febrile. Qatar – usually on the opposite side of other Gulf monarchies – heavily engaged into the mix. Qatar invariably supported groups on the Islamist spectrum seeking to overturn the status quo. This approach enraged other Gulf monarchies, notably Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain. These states preferred to support the status quo powers and feared, to varying degrees, that Qatar’s stoking of revolutionary fervor was not only destabilizing the wider region but that ultimately this might foment unrest in their own states.
Qatar’s leaders seemed heedless of these concerns and badly misread how disgruntled its Gulf neighbors were. In what was another unprecedented step at the time, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha. That such a dramatic step could be undertaken shook Qatar’s leaders. But it soon emerged that Saudi Arabia was, in essence, a broker between Qatar and the UAE, and relations resumed before the end-of-year Gulf Cooperation Council summit, with the signing of agreements in Riyadh promising, among other things, to respect each other’s security and sovereignty.
The fourth and by far most serious break occurred in 2017 with the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, which is only now seeing a resolution.
There is a reason Qatar is continually targeted by its neighbors. It has long engaged in a litany of norm-challenging policies that cut against regional expectations. Unlike Oman, Qatar never did these things quietly. Moreover, Qatar has frequently pursued these policies against the explicit wishes of its neighbors. As a sovereign nation, Qatar has every right to do this. But all states need to heed some form of geopolitical gravity. Why has Qatar so doggedly pursued policies that so often have such adverse repercussions on its relations with its closest neighbors?
Identity and Miscalculation
Against a backdrop with its Gulf neighbors of a broad homogeneity of historical experience, societal structure, economic model, and tribal background, Qatar’s leadership in the late-1980s wanted to carve out a unique space for the state. In a region of stiff competition from similar regional city-states like Manama, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, Qatar needed a unique selling point. The litany of sporting events, mediation efforts, and cultural gambits sponsored by Qatar’s rulers contributed to this end. And identity matters for locals, too. At the end of the 1980s, Qatar had been independent for less than two decades, during which the state actively avoided notoriety. Distinguishing itself as a regional outlier was one way to contribute to the formation of an emergent national identity or national brand that would cut through to multiple audiences and help Qatari leaders enhance their legitimacy.
Once the pathway was set, Hamad directed the state with a few key allies, like his long-term foreign minister (and later prime minister), Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, for the next quarter of a century. They did not change their minds. Instead, flush with cash as profits from liquified natural gas rolled in in the 2000s, the state had more money than it could reasonably spend in its local economy (lest soaring inflation rise further), which encouraged further foreign forays in terms of mediation and investment. Moreover, like other monarchies, Qatar took advantage of U.S. regional basing, hosting the command-and-control node of U.S. power projection for the U.S. Central Command on the outskirts of Doha.
With its vast wealth and decisions being unencumbered by either financial opportunity cost or its small, homogenous, and content population, and emboldened by perceived U.S. security guarantees, Qatar’s leaders felt increasingly inured from potential repercussions. Unsurprisingly, the habit of single-mindedly pursuing Qatar’s independent policies became baked into Doha’s modus operandi, heedless of regional protestations. Simultaneously, Qatar was prospering, and the small state was successful forging a reputation for itself as a feisty little, independent state.
Today, Qatar’s leadership feels vindicated in the recently resolved dispute. There is no evidence of any capitulation from Doha and the original demands from the quartet that was boycotting Qatar would seem to have been swept under the regional carpet. Moreover, one of the principal effects of the boycott has been to bolster Qatari nationalism. From this perceived position of strength, Qatar should be able to reenter the Gulf flow.
Qatar does not need to become a demure state following Saudi Arabia’s or the UAE’s policies. But it does need to remember that it is, like all states, a prisoner of its geography. Qatar’s deep diversification of its international relations, including a heavy reliance on its alliance with Turkey, has been a critical part of its resilience during the recent boycott. After such a surprising rupture, no Qatari leader could jettison such an important relationship as with Turkey in the short term. Nevertheless, looking to the longer term, Qatar needs fundamentally to come to terms with its nearest neighbors. It is an immutable reality that, as crucial as extra-regional allies like Turkey or the United States have been, such relations are fundamentally transitory. Now, therefore, is the time for Qatar, newly confident, to refocus its efforts on a more conciliatory and consensus-based approach to working with its Gulf neighbors.