The situation in Qatar is exacerbating intra-Sunni fractures just as tensions with Iran heat up
One week into the Saudi/UAE-led blockade of Qatar, the Gulf crisis shows little sign of abating. Expectations that Doha would quickly fold in the face of intense pressure have proven unfounded. Instead, Qatar is finding ways to circumvent the siege and create its own negotiating leverage.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have issued a list of 10 demands that Qatar must meet to end the crisis, including ending support for alleged terrorist groups, expelling members of Palestinian militant group Hamas and the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, and cutting ties with Iran. The two capitals have also demanded that Doha close down Al-Jazeera, Qatar’s pan-Arab television network. But for the moment these demands have been rejected.
The crisis points to an escalation of the intra-Sunni battle for regional influence, which has been one of the key fault lines driving regional instability since 2011. This has pitted Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar and Turkey in a struggle for regional influence. Worryingly, this is occurring just as the other major fault line - the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional hegemony - is being re-energised. It is a situation that should deeply concern European states, pushing them to step up efforts to dampen the zero sum nature of regional conflict lines rather than encouraging alignment with any of the respective parties.
The common factor in recent developments is the position of US President Donald Trump, who has firmly aligned the US with Saudi Arabia on both issues, giving new impetus to Riyadh’s regional ambitions.
For Trump and his national security team - many of whom are influenced by personal experience fighting Iranian forces in Iraq - the battle against Tehran is the centrepiece of US policy in the Middle East. Although Trump has not yet moved to dismantle the nuclear deal, the US is doubling down on efforts to weaken Iran’s influence. In recent months the Trump administration has assumed a considerably more aggressive stance against Tehran, increased support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iranian-allied groups in Yemen, and directly struck Iranian-backed militias on three separate occasions in eastern Syria.
On Qatar, President Trump has publicly endorsed the Saudi led blockade, despite the longstanding US-Qatari alliance and presence of 10,000 US troops on the peninsula. Indeed, Trump sees the crisis as a demonstration of the success of his recent visit to Riyadh, having urged Saudi Arabia to crack down on extremism in the region.
Riyadh and Washington are now taking the fight to Tehran and Doha more aggressively than ever, based on the premise that coercive power will force the two states to fall into line with the envisaged American-Saudi-led regional order. Yet the trajectory of the past six years points to the hollow allure of escalation and suggests that the widening of the region’s two pivotal fault lines will only intensify polarisation, extremism and bloodshed.
The Arab uprisings and their aftermath have been a series of local conflicts. But they have been burdened with a devastating regional overlay that has significantly amplified violent polarisation.
In the immediate aftermath of the Arab Uprisings regional actors quickly sought to fill the sudden vacuum to further their regional influence. One struggle placed Sunni states against each other, all of them supporting rival Islamist groups to further their own ambitions. The role of the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a central focus of this competition, with Qatar and Turkey seeing it a vehicle to harness the power of the uprisings, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE saw it as a direct threat given its political and, at times, militant leanings.
This rivalry played out acutely in Egypt, with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh actively supporting the military coup that deposed the Qatari- and Turkish-backed Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi. In Libya the two blocs backed opposing parties in the civil war; and in Syria Qatar supported al-Qaeda-linked networks - in contrast to Salafist Islamists supported by Riyadh. All the while Qatar’s Al-Jazeera news channel was a constant thorn in the side of neighbouring Gulf States, feeding a narrative of political agitation.
The uprisings simultaneously opened an active front between Saudi Arabia and Iran in a political struggle for regional dominance that quickly assumed sectarian characteristics. Syria has been ground zero for this conflict. But it also played out in Bahrain, where Riyadh intervened in 2011 to stop a Shia-led uprising that it feared would increase Iranian influence, and in Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition is at war with Iranian-linked Houthi rebels.
In many ways the situation in Qatar is now serving to re-entrench these battle lines and draw the two conflicts more closely together. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s main problem with Qatar relates to Doha’s support for Sunni groups that compete against the former’s regional proxies, as well as the agitating role of Al-Jazeera. Qatar’s ties with Iran have been highlighted as a further grievance, but these are largely economic, mirroring similar ties between Iran and the UAE. In fact Qatar is actively supporting anti-Iranian activities in both Syria and Yemen: Doha reported in early June that six of its soldiers were wounded on the Saudi border with Yemen while fighting for the Saudi-led coalition.
Nonetheless, Iran is now taking advantage of the crisis to build new inroads with Doha, no doubt also hoping to cement intra-Gulf discord. In recent days Tehran has sent a number of food shipments to the emirate in a step that will deeply antagonise Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. There is a real possibility that the crisis could end up strengthening Iran’s position, just as the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen has amplified Iranian influence in the country. Meanwhile, Turkey is also sending troops to Qatar in a show of support that will sour recently improving relations with Riyadh.
Military conflict in Qatar remains unlikely - not least because of the US troop presence. But the situation in Qatar, alongside increasing confrontation with Iran, is solidifying key regional fault lines - with potentially foreboding implications. With pretty much every regional spot of turmoil infected by these divisions, recent developments will close down options for much-needed de-escalatory or diplomatic openings. Whether it be in Libya, Syria or Yemen the outlook for peace is diminishing.
At worst these developments may feed a new cycle of wider escalation. This is particularly pointed with regards to Iran. Rather than back down, Tehran has responded to increased US pressure by going on the offensive, brazenly challenging Washington by repeatedly entering a US-military declared no-go zone in Syria. It also blamed Riyadh for last week’s ISIS-claimed attacks in Tehran, pointing to recent statements from the Saudi leadership about taking the fight into Iran. This has raised fears about a potential direct escalation between the two regional power-houses, a dynamic that could be exacerbated by any perceived Iranian meddling in Qatar.
To this dangerous backdrop Europeans must concentrate meaningful efforts on advancing avenues - with both regional players and the US - to dial down this multi-dimensional conflict before it spirals out of control. While both Iran and Qatar have played deeply detrimental roles across the region in recent years, the path towards desperately needed stability does not lie in encouraging the zero sum ambitions feeding recent developments.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.