Foreign policy restraint?
Despite the enormous political and economic costs, a military escalation of the conflict is unlikely in the near future - conflict measures were so far limited to media campaigns and economic sanctions, although as mentioned earlier, there was some speculation that a military invasion was planned but averted due to US and Turkish deterrence. At this point, it is unclear how serious this threat was. Publicly, Tillerson affirmed that "throughout the dispute, all parties have explicitly committed to not resort to violence or military action” (Emmons 2018). Given that the US was split on the Qatar question, with the president being (initially) firmly on the side of the quartet, the US role as a deterrent would be in serious doubt. It is therefore unlikely that such plans, if they existed, were designed to be actionable at all. Since it never occurred, it is also unclear what intensity it would have taken. A war was always extremely unlikely: it is more realistic that the planned military action would not have been more serious than the 1992 Saudi-Qatari confrontation that resulted in an MID.
Other than that, the most aggressive measure has been Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it intends to build a canal on the Saudi Arabia-Qatar border, thereby turning the peninsula into an island (Perper 2018). Despite numerous announcements and the initiation of a bidding process, there seems to have
The limits of SPSP 223 been no movement in this area. Other provocations that have so far not translated into actions include the veiled threat in a TV segment on Saudi-linked Al Arabiya simulating the shooting down of a plane bearing the logo of Qatar Airways (O'Connor 2017).
Apart from threats of escalation and potential violence, other steps include delegitimation and even subversion. For example, the quartet has pushed several Qatari royals as alternative rulers to Emir Tamim, like Abdallah bin Ali Al Thani and Sultan bin Suhaym Al Thani, both close relatives to former emirs. These attempts have led nowhere, because the Qatari public rallied around its ruler and because at least one of the candidates seemed to be coerced into acting, along with Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi (Gengler and Al-Khelaifi 2019, 402-403).
The conflict is rarely referred to in existential terms, a level of hostility that seems to be reserved for actual enemies, such as Iran, which is often demonized.3 Instead, the blockading countries seem to see the blockade as a disciplinary measure for Qatar - not an opportunity to ostracize or destroy it. This is also reflected in statements by the UAE, which announced that they would lift the blockade should the World Cup be withdrawn from Qatar, because the country would then have suffered enough (Gambrell 2017b).
Without question, these provocations are serious. But they seem far from "unique”, as some observers claim, despite seemingly being more public than previous were spats (Bianco and Stansfield 2018). Nonetheless, even the highly emotionalized media wars - with Qatari-aligned media maligning every UAE and Saudi policy misstep and putting the spotlight on their problems, like the Kliashoggi killing (Mekhennet and Miller 2018), and vice versa - recall the intense episode of the Hawar conflict with its walkouts, public disagreements, espionage, and subversion accusations. All of these methods closely mirror those used by the conflicting sides in the historical Bahrain-Qatar conflict illustrated earlier, up to the cutting of ties and buildup of alternative leadership. However, then and now, they stopped short of calls for regime change (instead of leadership change), framing the conflict in terms of incompatibility and retaining the family rhetoric.