The Qatar Crisis since 2017: resilience of family identification in a hostile conflict

The Qatar Crisis broke out recently and is still ongoing at the time of writing (January 2020), with little scholarly literature on it. Therefore, it cannot be included as a comprehensive case study like the four in Chapters 4 and 5. However, since it is a case of severe intra-monarchic conflict analogous to the case studies analyzed in Chapter 4, it will shortly be examined in the following section.

On first glance, the Qatar Crisis seems to challenge the monarchic peace hypothesis. Since the clash between Qatar on the one hand and (primarily) Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other broke out in 2017, the level of tension was not limited to rhetorical signaling of determination, as is often found in conflict periods. Instead, in a surprising move, almost all relations between the blockading states and Qatar were cut. There were accusations of spying and sabotage and even veiled threats of military action. It is certainly one of the most serious crises, if not the most serious crisis, among the “royal club” members and the GCC in history.

And yet how the conflict played out instead confirms most theoretical expectations and not just because there are already possible first signs of reconciliation (Ulrichsen 2019). Although the conflict is severe, there is no sight of a military escalation. More importantly, frequent references to family and intragroup norms continue, in a similar way as during the Hawar Islands crisis. This all supports the conclusion that the crisis is temporary and the divide reversible - a spat in the family.


Qatar's relationship with (at least some of) its GCC neighbors was not always harmonic, as evidenced by the Hawar Island dispute. In recent years, tensions have risen again in particular between Qatar on the one hand and an alliance of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on the other. A first outburst of the conflict erupted in 2014, when the latter countries withdrew their diplomats from Doha in protest of Qatari foreign policy. They were returned a few months later, after the Riyadh agreements, the details of which were not disclosed to the public.

Relations seemingly normalized for the next three years. However, in June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt broke off diplomatic and economic

The limits of SPSP 221 relations with Qatar and imposed a sea, air, and land blockade after the expiration of an ultimatum. The four blockading countries labeled themselves the Anti-Terror Quartet and initiated a severe campaign of accusations and sanctions against Qatar. They were joined and supported to various degrees by other (mostly Arab) states, including Jordan. The main driver behind the campaign is the leadership of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with the economically and politically dependent Bahrain and Egypt in tow. Especially the aspiring future rulers, Muhammad bin Salman and Muhammad bin Zayed, also known as MBS and MBZ, were identified by many observers as the main architects of the Qatar-critical policy (Bianco and Stansfield 2018; Sunik 2017). Although the conflict has often been portrayed as one of the GCC against Qatar, Oman and Kuwait have so far remained on the fence and conducted mediation efforts to solve the crisis without joining the blockade. Oman’s foreign minister even visited Emir Tamim in Doha the day of the crisis outbreak (Bianco and Stansfield 2018). The other monarchies are also not convinced: Morocco has also offered to mediate the crisis (al-Jazeera 2017), and Jordan merely downgraded its ties to Qatar but refrained from cutting them off entirely.

The blockade has several precursors, with some developments in 2017 having served as potential triggers (Bianco and Stansfield 2018, 614-615). After a group of falcon hunters from Qatar, including royals and other members of the elite, were captured by militias in Iraq and held for 16 months, Qatar allegedly paid more than US$700 million to Shia militias supported by Iran and jihadists groups to free them in April 2017, which outraged Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Riyadh Summit a month later marked a turning point, as President Trump seemingly aligned with Saudi Arabia’s (and the UAE's) policies at the expense of discordant allies like Qatar. This could have been seen as an encouragement by the two monarchies to push hard against detractors. Shortly after, Qatar News Agency (QNA) published remarks by the Qatari emir expressing support for Iran and Israel as well as Hamas and Hezbollah. Qatar denied the statements and alleged that the website was hacked. An FBI investigation was conducted, and US intelligence agencies later claimed that the UAE was responsible for the hacking as part of a large-scale cyberwar among the monarchies. High-ranking UAE government representatives had been discussing the plan the previous day (DeYoung and Nakashima 2017). In May 2017, the emails of the UAE's ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, were hacked, which raised accusations of Qatari involvement (cf. Kirkpatrick and Frenkel 2017).

Among other things, the Anti-Terror Quartet demanded that Qatar terminate support for the Muslim Brotherhood, to shut down Al Jazeera and other media seen as connected to Qatar like Middle East Eye, and to sever or downgrade relations with Iran and Turkey respectively. Qatar condemned this as an illegitimate infringement on its national sovereignty. Consequently, the blockade of the heavily import-dependent country has continued since. While the quartet has portrayed its actions as part of a fight against international terrorism and interference, it is more likely that it is meant to bring Qatar in line with Saudi and Emirati policies against Iran (cf. Bianco and Stansfield 2018; Ulrichsen 2018).

The campaign has so far failed to achieve any of its goals: the Qatari economy has diversified and lost some of its import dependence while intensifying trade with new partners - Turkey and Iran but also East Asian states and even other Gulf partners such as Oman. The crisis sparked the development of a Qatari national identity and a wave of unprecedented solidarity for the policies of Qatar's leadership that has so far cushioned domestic pressure (Gengler and Al-Khelaifi 2019).

Even in terms of consolidating the Sunni bloc against Iran, it has backfired by destabilizing the GCC and by pushing Qatar closer toward Iran and Turkey. To prioritize liquid natural gas (LNG) production and non-oil revenues but also to signal its detachment from its neighbors, Qatar declared its withdrawal from OPEC in 2019. Since the begimiing of the conflict, Qatar has ceased to be a member of the Yemeni intervention coalition, in which all GCC states except Oman participated from the outset. Qatar has also restored full diplomatic relations with Iran as a reaction to the blockade in August 2017, although the closeness of the relationship is limited by fundamental strategical and geopolitical disagreements between the countries (Cafiero and Paraskevopoulos 2019).

The crisis is exacerbated by the inconsistent position of the United States, the main ally of the Gulf states. While Secretary of Defense Janies Mattis and then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to mediate and emphasized the importance of US-Qatari ties, President Trump clearly sided with Saudi Arabia. However, this position was thwarted only a few months later, when the United States and Qatar signed an anti-terror cooperation agreement in July 2017 (Katzman 2019). Other accounts cite the US role as a deterrent to military escalation (Gengler and Al-Khelaifi 2019).

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