Aug 14, 2018 | 08:30 GMT

6 mins read

The Blockade on Qatar Opens the Door for Competition

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (L) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 15.
  • Because Qatar has so far weathered the blockade against it without conceding to the demands of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, the standoff will probably continue indefinitely.
  • The United States' neutrality in the dispute has helped Doha stay afloat, but as the blockade drags on, Qatar will continue to pursue relationships with other regional and world powers such as Turkey, Iran, China and Russia. 
  • The emergence of competing influences in the strategic Persian Gulf will compel the United States to re-assert its own sway in Qatar, unless Doha acts in a manner that alienates Washington, for instance by redoubling its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

More than a year in, the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain is no closer to achieving its goals. The participating countries embarked on the diplomatic and economic siege in a bid to change the Qatari government's behavior, including its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization they consider a potent revolutionary threat to their continuity. It hasn't worked out that way, however. Qatar has weathered the storm with its economy and government intact, thanks in large part to U.S. support. Considering the effort's negligible progress, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has mused that the blockade could continue indefinitely, becoming, like the United States' multidecade blockade of Cuba, the new status quo. And if things keep going as they have been — without causing enough harm to the U.S. alliance in the Persian Gulf to prompt Washington to intercede — Salman's prediction may well come to fruition. 

Yet the longer the blockade lasts, the greater the chances that Qatar will slip up in its relations with the United States and drive Washington to join the blockade. To hedge its bets, Doha will pursue closer ties with Turkey, Iran, Russia and China, enabling these powers to gain more influence over a region in which they all have a vital interest.

The Big Picture

To suppress security threats and maintain its influence in the Middle East — and, by extension, its access to regional energy resources — the United States depends on its partners in the Persian Gulf. But the continuing blockade on Qatar by fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, along with Egypt, is undermining that strategy, creating a rift in the U.S. alliance system that other world and regional powers can exploit.

A New Support System

When Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began their blockade in May 2017, they did so with the belief that they had the United States' support. The two countries, together with Bahrain and Egypt, worked to turn Washington against Doha, and seemed to be succeeding for a little while last year as U.S. President Donald Trump took aim at Qatar on Twitter. Eager to avoid repeating the past — in 1971, Qatar lost a crucial backer when the United Kingdom withdrew from the country against its wishes — Doha set out in search of help from other powers, starting with Turkey.

Of the outside powers involved, Turkey has benefited the most from the blockade on Qatar. Ankara laid aside its nearly centurylong differences with Doha and quickly stepped in to fill the security role Washington's initial support for the blockade left vacant, setting up a permanent military base. Though Turkey is a NATO member, it opened the base outside the pact's framework, marking a milestone for its independent security posture in the region. The base will help Turkey protect Qatar against Saudi Arabia and, in turn, enable Ankara to position itself as a defender of small Sunni countries against Riyadh's hegemony.

If Qatar's success in surviving the stalemate emboldens it to resume or intensify the behaviors that prompted the current state of affairs, it could drive the United States to side with the blockading country.

Iran also has turned the blockade to its advantage. The country was one of the first to come through with supplies of basic provisions for Qatar, which imports most of the foodstuffs its population consumes. Like Turkey, Iran used its support for Qatar to undermine Saudi Arabia's claims as the protector of the Arab Sunni world. Tehran's assistance to Doha, moreover, helped preserve their partnership over the Pars natural gas fields and secured the Islamic republic one of the precious few connections it has to the outside world now that U.S. sanctions are coming back into effect. It also made Qatar sympathetic to Tehran's concerns. With years of experience dealing with the United States, the tiny Gulf state has the skills and access to act as Iran's go-between, an invaluable asset for Tehran given the dearth of contacts between the U.S. and Iranian governments.

In addition to regional powers, Qatar turned to world powers in its efforts to diversify its foreign policy options. Doha, for example, forged stronger defense ties with China, purchasing an SY-400 short-range ballistic missile system in 2017, while appealing to Russia to sell it the vaunted S-400 missile system (which Riyadh is now in talks with Moscow to buy). Qatar's aim is not to challenge Saudi Arabia's military capabilities — something its comparatively small population will prevent it from doing regardless — but to cultivate new relationships with major defense suppliers in case the United States changes its stance on the blockade. China and Russia, meanwhile, will be wary of Qatar's advances for fear of offending the larger blockading countries, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. As Moscow works more closely with Riyadh over energy policy, it will avoid making overt deals with Doha, though if the blockade continues long enough, Russia may eventually sell arms to Qatar.

Raising Eyebrows in Washington

Doha's budding foreign relationships don't sit well with Washington and may even compel the United States to action if it feels its own alliance with Qatar is under threat. For now, the Gulf country's burgeoning ties with Iran are most worrisome for the U.S. government. Washington, however, could turn more of its attention to Doha's connections with Beijing, as China becomes an ever-more credible challenger to U.S. primacy worldwide. The United States has already demonstrated its willingness to use its security influence abroad to try to shut out rival powers, as it has tried to do with Russia over the S-400 system's impending sale to Turkey.

Even so, if Qatar's success in surviving the stalemate emboldens it to resume or intensify the behaviors that prompted the blockade in the first place, it could drive the United States to side with Saudi Arabia. Doha's renewed sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, could spur the Trump administration to reconsider its position on the dispute. Otherwise, the Qatari news network Al Jazeera, no stranger to controversy for its coverage of foreign governments and regional affairs, could put its country back in Trump's crosshairs by running an unfavorable story on the U.S. president. Either development could bring the United States around to the side of the blockading states, giving the other regional and world powers standing by Qatar — most of them U.S. rivals — more opportunities to increase their sway with Doha.

In the meantime,Turkey, Iran, China and Russia won't be able to overtake the United States in Qatar. They can only bide their time and wait for Doha to make a mistake that will alienate Washington or for the United States to reassess its strategic posture in the region. Regardless, the longer the standoff continues, the more diverse Qatar's alliances will become.

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