In July 2017, the Arab Gulf region entered the most significant period of political and diplomatic turmoil in its recent history, when a coalition of four Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain – cut ties with Doha. At the heart of the crisis was a long-standing concern by leaders in these four countries toward Qatar’s divergent foreign policy, particularly in the wake of political vacuums caused by the Arab Spring.
Each country had its specific concerns. The UAE had grown especially concerned toward Doha’s support for political Islamist groups (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) across the Middle East and North Africa. They fear that encouraged extremist and supra-national ideologies posed a direct threat to the region’s stability and challenged the kind of secular governance it sought to promote.
Saudi Arabia had grown concerned over Qatar’s ties to Iran, which it views as a supporter of non-state militia actors across the region, including the al-Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary forces in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. Egypt’s concerns over the resurgent power of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Bahrain’s enduring fears over Iranian influence, also prompted them to join the coalition. Egypt and Bahrain had also expressed concerns over Doha’s decision to shelter opposition members from both countries: including members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Doha responded to the diplomatic row by inviting Turkish troops to maintain a presence on its soil. This move further alarmed the four Arab countries who viewed it as a direct provocation: Ankara had built its foreign policy around support for the kind of Islamist groups across the region whose power they sought to curtail. A rising Qatari-Turkish alliance would only provide these groups with expanded state support to further their control over the region.
Qatar moves closer to Ankara
Two weeks later, the four countries presented Doha with a list of 13 demands as preconditions to restoring ties. These demands highlighted the core foreign policies that they sought to convince Doha to transform, including scaling back cooperation with Iran, ending ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, removing Turkish troops from their soil, and shuttering state broadcaster Al Jazeera. Qatar refused to comply with the demands, instead electing to ramp up its cooperation with Ankara and Tehran.
On the economic front, Doha’s trade ties with both countries soared as Qatar sought alternatives to the Gulf markets on which it had previously relied. Qatar’s foreign policy also moved closer to Ankara, as the two began to coordinate in Libya, where they supported the Government of National Accord. In the following years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cooperated to compete against the Qatari and Turkish footprint across the region, including Sudan, Somalia, and Egypt, as the region drifted into two competing camps.
The Al-Ula Declaration
In January 2021, the dispute between Qatar and its neighbors came to a formal end by signing the Al-Ula Declaration, which restored diplomatic ties. Encouraged by the Trump administration, restoring these ties is a positive step to resolve the Gulf region’s myriad security and economic challenges. Some of the most prominent challenges include economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, prospects for joint security coordination in the wake of the US retreat from the Middle East region, and the prospect of facilitating a joint foreign policy toward Iran.
Qatar’s foreign policy continuity
While the Al-Ula Declaration has restored diplomatic ties between the four Arab countries and Qatar, it has not resolved the core foreign policy differences. Doha has not signaled its willingness to amend the aspects of its foreign policy that have brought it into conflict with its Gulf neighbors, most notably its support for Islamist actors that its neighbors view as a direct threat. This continued divergence between Qatar and its neighbors threatens to upend any advances made in diplomacy between them.
The surprising speed of the Afghanistan takeover by the Taliban in August 2021 provided Qatar with a central role in coordinating between the United States, other Western states, and the Taliban, particularly in the context of urgent evacuation efforts by these states. Qatar was well-positioned to play this role owing to its existing ties with the Taliban, which it had cultivated by hosting a Taliban office in Doha and brokering peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in 2020.
There is no doubt that Qatar’s role as a mediator helped facilitate diplomatic and evacuation efforts. However, it has also granted the Taliban legitimacy as a political actor. The group has shown no signs of moving away from the worst and most abusive practices, including denying women the right to education and enforcing brutal punishment such as stoning and public executions.
A path forward
The year 2021 has emerged as a year of de-escalation, characterized by talks between regional actors who had cut ties with one another, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, and in the case of the four Arab Gulf countries and Qatar, the restoration of these ties. The tension between other prominent actors, including Egypt and Turkey, has also thawed. However, a long-lasting reconciliation in the Gulf remains challenging to achieve without a more concrete transformation in the kinds of policies that have led to regional disruption.
To secure a lasting peace with its Gulf Arab neighbors, Qatar should cultivate a foreign policy that does not rely on bolstering Islamist actors and extremist ideologies and threaten its neighbors. Focusing on a more expansive kind of mediation and diplomacy beyond extremist elements and toward other parties and factions would be an essential step to enable Doha to maintain its role as a mediator.
Such a step would also enable it to promote the kind of secular, moderate, state-driven ideologies and policies that would place it in harmony with its Gulf Arab neighbors. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members can then coordinate and act harmoniously in developing joint policies to tackle common economic, social, and political challenges on the horizon.
Hanin Ghaddar | 10 Oct 2021
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