Qatar is defiant one year after its neighbors cut relations. It has tried to compensate for the loss of business and connections with its former Gulf allies by reaching out to Turkey and Iran.
It has also spent huge sums on lobbying in Washington to curry favor with the US administration. But if it had gotten what it wanted, the sanctions from Saudi Arabia and its allies would have ended long ago. Instead, Qatar has had to shift from its previous policy of supporting groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, to concerning itself with problems at home. This has generally been welcomed by Israel.
On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia – followed by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – cut ties with Qatar. In the first 48 hours, rumors abounded that the unprecedented decision could be the prelude to a coup in Qatar or military action. In 2011, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies carried out joint operations to stymie protests in Bahrain and to confront Houthi rebels in Yemen. They had also pressured Qatar over earlier reporting by its Al Jazeera.
Absent military action or an internal decision to remove Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Gulf states had to rely on pressure. They sent a list of 13 demands in late June 2017. Qatar didn’t blink. Instead, Doha reached out to then-US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, according to people familiar with the crisis. Riyadh’s actions had taken the Pentagon and State Department by surprise. The US maintains a large base at Al Udeid in Qatar. Tillerson rushed to the region to try to patch things up. He was still trying when Trump fired him in March 2018.
According to Ghanem Nuseibeh, a London-based risk consultant with Cornerstone Global Associates, Qatar has suffered significantly as a result of the sanctions. “Its economy has had major hits. Politically, its global reputation has suffered as Qatar’s name has become associated with terrorism on a wide global level.” He says the crisis will continue and that Qatar’s alliance with Turkey and Iran will put it at odds with the global community and its neighbors.
“The economic pressure the sanctions have put on Qatar have undoubtedly dented its ability to influence things globally, despite significant spending on lobbying in the West. Al Jazeera, for example, is facing severe financial constraints,” he says.
THAT QATAR takes the crisis seriously is clear from Al Jazeera’s reporting on June 5. The network is funded by the government and toes the monarchy’s line. On June 5, its homepage splashed a quote from the foreign minister claiming, “Saudi threat violates international law.” An accompanying article claimed the emirate “has demonstrated an impressive ability to turn the crises into an opportunity in terms of improving food security, social cohesion and economic sustainability.” Al Jazeera’s news coverage has shifted during the crisis. Reporting on Doha’s allies has shifted. Turkey is described as “widely considered as the beacon of democracy and pluralism in the Muslim world.”
For its part, Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya has ignored the one-year anniversary in its reporting. This could indicate that Riyadh feel confident in its eventual victory over Doha, or that it hopes to ignore the continuing crisis.
One of the bizarre outcomes of the Qatar crisis has been the way it affected relations between the Gulf, the US Jewish community and Israel. In the fall of 2017, Doha began major outreach to pro-Israel Jewish Americans. Several of them went to Doha, including the Zionist Organization of America’s Mort Klein and Alan Dershowitz. Qatar focused on the pro-Israel community. Its logic in doing so was unclear. Doha had been accused by its adversaries, including Riyadh, of support for terrorism, including Hamas and Hezbollah. Qatar may have thought that pro-Israel Jewish Americans were close to Trump and this would help them get an “in.”
But they already had connections to Trump through Tillerson and others. In January 2018, the foreign minister and defense minister of the emirate went to Washington and signed agreements as well as meeting Mattis and Tillerson as part of a US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue event.
Qatar also spent heavily in Washington on lobbying. This included advertising campaigns and millions on fees for consultants. According to public filings under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, one the people it approached earliest was former US attorney-general John Ashcroft.
Doha’s diplomatic and lobbying efforts appear to have staved off the crisis from growing. But it has affected the emirate’s ability to play the role it did prior to 2017. In the years of the Arab Spring, the former emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, used the country’s wealth to support revolutions such as the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
“The Qatari support for Islamists throughout the Middle East as a strategy to establish itself as a regional power broker now looks increasingly threadbare,” wrote the BBC in 2013 when Morsi was pushed from power by the military. While Doha sunk $10 billion in Egypt, according to the BBC, it also sent hundreds of millions to Gaza to build infrastructure. For Israel, this was a Janus-faced approach. Qatar hosted Hamas leaders, but propping up Gaza’s economy probably meant less of a chance for a crisis on Israel’s border. Qatar said the money was going to the people, not Hamas, and Israel played a key role in monitoring the transfers.
Now, a year into the crisis, the result has been positive for Jerusalem. Qatar has reached out to pro-Israel voices. That also means it wants to please those voices by pretending to change its ways. That means cold water for Hamas. It also means that Israel, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi increasingly share concerns over the Iranian threat in the Gulf and elsewhere. If anything, the Qatar crisis has showed the stark differences between the choices of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to publicly condemn extremism, while Qatar and its friends continue to work with flirt, quietly or openly, with groups like Hamas.
Seth Frantzman is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum