Aspiring for Gulf domination has historically entailed vying for control over the Strait of Hormuz along the isles of Bahrain and the oases of Qatif and Hasa (located in the modern-day, oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.) Kuwait, precariously nestled at the top of the Gulf, lies vulnerable to both Iran and Shiite-majority Iraq and is thus more cautious when it comes to dealing with its Persian neighbor. With more than one-third of its population comprised of Shiites, Kuwait’s diverse demographics and imbedded sectarianism compels the Kuwaiti leadership to find a working balance
among its Shiite, Sunni, Islamist and secular factions.
Bahrain, a tiny Shiite-majority island under Sunni rule that is physically tethered to the Saudi kingdom via a causeway allowing easy access to Saudi troops, is at the frontline of the Saudi-Iranian proxy war. It is wholly dependent on Riyadh for its internal security and thus easily falls in line with the Saudi agenda. Oman, lying opposite Iran's control of the Strait of Hormuz at the southeastern tip of the peninsula, understands just as well as Tehran that a close bilateral relationship is vital to its security. The quirky sultanate thus maintains a policy of fierce neutrality
and is consequently a regular diplomatic go-between for Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The United Arab Emirates, curving at the mouth of the Arabian Sea and heavily dependent on the security of the Strait of Hormuz, can also at times exercise an Omani and Kuwaiti-like pragmatism in dealing with Iran, especially when it comes to commercial matters. When Iran was buried under economic sanctions, for example, Dubai was a prime spot for Iranian businessmen to set up shell companies. But the United Arab Emirates also has its deep grievances with Iran and concerns about its growing ambitions. These include Iran’s seizure of three strategic islands near the entrance to the strait in 1971, just a day before the British formally ended its Gulf protectorate to create the United Arab Emirates.
The United Arab Emirates, far more economically and politically secure than Saudi Arabia, is also not interested in living under a Saudi umbrella. The Emiratis largely view the Saudis as clumsily playing catch-up on economic diversification and expect to eventually see Riyadh stumble when social, economic and political pressures overwhelm the House of Saud, leaving space in due time for the United Arab Emirates to make a bid for regional leadership. The Emiratis also have differences with Saudi Arabia
over certain coalition projects, such as the war in Yemen. While Saudi Arabia, which is most exposed to spillover from Yemen, has to entertain a compromise with Islamist groups like Al-Islah to manage Yemen’s divided north, the United Arab Emirates remains steadfast to its anti-Islamist policy and is willing to flout Saudi policy by fanning the flames of Yemen’s southern separatists.
But as a federation of seven emirates, the United Arab Emirates also has its own internal cleavages to manage. Though more socially and politically liberal than Saudi Arabia, large wealth disparities exist between the rich southern emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the five poorer northern emirates. In the early years after its founding, the United Arab Emirates cautiously allowed political Islamists in from other parts of the Arab world. Islamist activists settled in poorer areas and developed influence in the education system with the growth of Al-Islah — the Emirati affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Over time, however, Abu Dhabi and Dubai grew paranoid of Al-Islah’s political ambitions, a fear that was confirmed with the spawning of the Arab Spring in late 2011. Since then, the United Arab Emirates has taken the most hawkish stance of all the GCC states in espousing a zero-tolerance posture toward political Islamists of every stripe at home and abroad in places like Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Qatar, a nub jutting out of the Arabian Peninsula, went the opposite direction. With a small population and a unitary state centralized around Doha, Qatar lacks the internal ethno-religious tensions and political insecurities of its neighbors. This level of security gives Qatar an independent streak with Doha balking at taking orders from either Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Qatar resisted incorporation into the United Arab Emirates in 1971 when the British protectorate ended, preferring to hold out on its own under an American security umbrella. The poor nation survived mainly on fishing and pearl diving for much of its short history until a natural gas boom put Qatar on the map in the late 1990s. As the only major natural gas player in the region, Qatar had a clear path and ideal energy platform to differentiate itself among its neighboring oil heavyweights. As it rose to global LNG dominance, Qatar’s investment portfolio grew globally, and Doha wasted no time in building up its regional clout
to be able to finally punch above its weight in the Gulf.
To the horror of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Qatari money rapidly gave rise to media giant Al Jazeera and has propped up Islamist groups in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Gaza and Yemen. When the Arab Spring briefly brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, it was Qatari (and Turkish) backing that enabled the group to hold ground until the Egyptian military caught its breath and intervened. When Saudi Arabia froze out Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after the Arab Spring, Qatar and Turkey gave fleeing Islamists refuge
. When Saudi and the United Arab Emirates found a vehemently anti-Islamist strongman in Gen. Khalifa Hiftar to shape post-Gadhafi Libya in the east, Qatar threw its weight behind the Islamist-led government and militias in Tripoli. Doha has also preferred to maintain a tight working relationship with Tehran (also critical to Qatar’s ability to exploit its natural gas fields under joint custody with Iran) rather than invite the kind of Iranian meddling that tends to come with latching onto the Saudi bandwagon. Everywhere Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates turned, there was a Qatari counter from within their GCC bloc.
Doha: A Rebel With a Cause
If the GCC had any hope of building a credible and coherent security bloc, Qatar would need to get in line. This is a wrangling effort that goes back decades; in 1995, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates tried to no avail to rein in Qatar when the Qatari emir deposed his father
and declared himself ruler, thus flouting a GCC tradition of dynastic rule. But the first big attempt to snuff out Doha’s rebellious streak in foreign policy matters came in 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha and demanded that Qatar end its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and rein in critical coverage by Al Jazeera on how regional regimes were putting down Arab Spring uprisings. (Kuwait and Oman largely stayed out of the affair.) After eight months of the Saudi-UAE isolation campaign against Qatar, Riyadh convened a summit to settle their differences, and Doha made some nominal assurances to its Gulf neighbors on relocating a few Muslim Brotherhood figures to Turkey and shutting down the Egyptian arm of Al Jazeera. In the end, Qatar largely maintained its maverick policy of backing Islamist political activists and maintaining a pragmatic relationship with Iran. Qatar also proceeded apace with plans for Turkey to establish a permanent military base in the Gulf country, giving Ankara greater ability to reshape politics in the Gulf in favor of political Islamists. Fed up with Doha’s intransigence, the Saudis and Emiratis have spun up a media firestorm over the Qatari emir's comments to try to force Doha into another diplomatic timeout, while Kuwait and Oman try to appeal for calm once again.
This latest media rabble is just the latest exposure of the deep cleavages within the GCC and has the potential to further fray the alliance, undermining any idealistic American agenda to cobble together a so-called Arab NATO. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates both see an opportunity to expose Qatar’s rebellious nature to Trump and use that as leverage to reinforce their own security ties with the United States, while trying to convince Washington to officially brand the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. But even as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates share a common purpose in exposing Qatar, they, too, are competing for leadership of the Sunni Gulf bloc in the longer run. Regardless of how much backing the United States puts into this project, the fault lines of the GCC alliance will continue to flare.
Short-Term Needs v Long-Term Realities
Qatar’s next steps will largely be dictated by how far the United States goes in backing this Saudi and Emirati play against Doha. On the one hand, the United States wants to see a tighter Sunni Arab coalition and can use the threat of reconsidering its military footprint in Qatar to try to bring Doha in line with the Saudi agenda. Doha cannot survive in this neighborhood without an external security guarantor and though Qatari-Turkish military ties are strengthening
, Turkey is still nowhere near a substitute for the U.S. military. While Qatar cannot afford to sacrifice its American security guarantees, Qatar also sees little strategic value in taking an extreme, short-term view toward political Islamists and Iran when both will remain an integral part of the regional fabric for the long term. Even as Iran will have to work hard to hold onto the gains it has made over the past 14 years in the face of rising regional competition, it remains a formidable competitor to the Sunni bloc and retains critical leverage over the Strait of Hormuz.
Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood did not disappear with the Egyptian military coup in 2013. Bulging youth demographics across much of the region, a lack of job opportunities pervading power vacuums in the heart of Mesopotamia and the Gulf, and the boomerang effect of heavy-handed political repression will continue driving large numbers of people toward Islamist organizations and other opposition groups demanding more open political systems. And with Turkey reasserting itself in the Islamic world, Islamist organizations will have a strong state sponsor, along with Qatar, to ensure their survival even as they face an uphill battle in the shorter term. Qatar and Turkey, in other words, are playing the long game in the Middle East, rather than trying to cling desperately to a 20th-century model of the region that is slowly coming apart at the seams. The Trump administration, however, appears more inclined to adopt the Saudi-Emirati short-term perspective in trying to manage the region. What will end up emerging out of this GCC imbroglio is not a viable Arab NATO for the United States to streamline its regional security policy, but a much messier reality for Washington to contend with as it tries to navigate the fractious geopolitics of the Gulf.