Two opposing coalitions in the Middle East define a rivalry that threatens to tear the region apart. As competition for dominance intensifies, the confrontation between Iran’s network of state and non-state actors, and a counter-front of traditional Western allies – centred on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel – has become the region’s central battle line.
The formation of an anti-Iran alliance comprising Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other states has dramatically changed the Middle East order. The alliance has sought to enlist the help of the United States, convincing President Donald Trump that the campaign against Tehran can only succeed if it marginalises Qatar. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt initially obtained Trump’s permission to do so during his May 2017 visit to Riyadh, before imposing a sea, land, and air embargo on Qatar. One of their key demands has been that Doha end its relationship with Tehran. However, the embargo has been counterproductive, boosting Iranian influence, further polarising Gulf Arab states, and destabilising the region.
As such, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) faces an existential crisis. Established in 1981 as a security framework through which its members could balance Iranian power, the GCC is today split into two blocs. One comprises Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain; the other, states that refuse to accept the embargo as a way to resolve intra-GCC disputes: Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. This fracture now extends to the broader Sunni world: Turkey sides with Qatar, while Egypt nominally sides with Saudi Arabia (other Sunni-majority states, such as Pakistan, have sought to remain more overtly neutral). The division has seriously weakened the West’s allies, complicated US efforts to address the Syrian conflict, and undermined the Arab and Sunni unity that Saudi Arabia requires to counter Iran.
Moreover, the Qatar crisis has affected the sectarian make-up of Middle East conflicts, pushing the region into new depths of chaos and uncertainty. Having long seen its rivalry with Iran as a sectarian conflict, Saudi Arabia has made several attempts to benefit from what it regards as its position as a religious capital by appealing to the Muslim world’s Sunni majority. Shortly before the onset of the Qatar crisis, Riyadh and Ankara were working closely to establish what they called a “strategic cooperation council”. As Sunni-majority states, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were hoping to create a Sunni alliance that balanced the power of the predominantly Shia Iran. But with Turkey taking Qatar’s side in the embargo – and Sunni-majority states such as Kuwait, Morocco, and Oman staying on the sidelines – the opportunity to form a Sunni alliance has largely evaporated, leaving in its place a new conflict within the Sunni community.
These internal divisions have affected Riyadh’s much-touted efforts to lead the fight against terrorism. In December 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – then defence minister – announced the formation of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), comprising 41 Sunni-majority states under the leadership of Saudi Arabia. Iran, Syria, and Iraq were all excluded from the alliance. The Qatar crisis has brought many of the long-standing politic0-ideological divisions among IMCTC members to the surface, inhibiting the alliance.
All of this casts doubt on the future of the pan-Sunni alliance, while strengthening Iran’s hand. Indeed, Iran is the major beneficiary of the ongoing Qatar crisis. Qatar has been forced to rapidly develop its economic ties with Iran to circumvent the Saudi-led embargo. Politically, the crisis has given Iran more room to manoeuvre in the Gulf, particularly in reaching out to Qatar and Kuwait.
One of the most damaging results of the Qatar crisis has been the mistrust between Doha and Riyadh that it has created. The US played an important role in preventing a serious escalation in the crisis, which would have probably included military action against Qatar. However, Qatar continues to fear that Saudi Arabia harbours ambitions for regime change in Doha, and there have been tense stand-offs between the Emirati and Qatari air forces. Therefore, it will not be easy for Qatar to abandon Iran – a country that opened its doors to Doha at a difficult time – or to fully trust that Saudi Arabia will forgo further economic or military steps against it in the future.
This raises serious questions about the extent to which Qatar would be willing to cooperate with the anti-Iran alliance. It is also unclear how an anti-Iran alliance can succeed without Qatari cooperation, especially in attempting to enlist the aid of important Middle East powers such as Turkey.
Ibrahim Fraihat is an international conflict resolution professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and Georgetown University. He previously served as senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, and taught international conflict resolution at George Washington University and George Mason University.