The decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to impose a boycott on Qatar this summer was an out-of-character development for the Gulf, where all too much politics is conducted behind closed doors between the ruling families and elites. To go public, the schism between Qatar and the so-called Quartet must have been very serious.
It was the end-point of a dispute that began in the 1990s about Qatar’s foreign policy, which at that point became independent of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and indeed actively competitive with Saudi interests. Doha wanted to alter the Saudi-oriented status quo and did so by empowering groups—almost invariably Islamists—in its cause. Those Islamists not only had agendas running counter to the other Gulf states’ conception of regional order, but which the Quartet regarded as threatening to their internal security.
Immediately after the boycott was announced, a lot of early analysis framed it in terms of Saudi-Iran relations. It is true that Riyadh accused Doha of having an over-warm relationship with Tehran, and demanded the expulsion of members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the wing of the Iranian government charged by the constitution with exporting the Islamist revolution. But other GCC states like Oman retain commercial and diplomatic relations with Iran, and this is not considered a disqualification in the alliance. Qatar shares a gas field with Iran, so has to engage the Islamic Republic, and everyone accepts this.
The crux of the accusations by the Quartet against Qatar was that it was sponsoring terrorism and destabilising radicals around the region, sheltering wanted extremists under the cover of hosting dissidents from neighbouring dictatorships, and allowing these extremists access to media platforms to disseminate their ideology and foment instability inside the Quartet states.
Examining these charges in a recent paper for The Henry Jackson Society, I could find no evidence for some of them, such as the claim of Qatari support for Shia militants that also serve as Iranian proxies in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. That said, thanks to a series of leaked telephone calls, there is clear evidence of contact between Qatar and Bahraini opposition elements that are now living under the protection of the IRGC’s Lebanese branch, Hezbollah. Doha claims that it made these calls at Bahrain’s behest, and it is unclear who is telling the truth. In the case of Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s emir was heard to say that his government had “connections with all the opposition”, and was helping foster an “axis” of groups inside the Kingdom to accede to power when the House of Saud inevitably falls. This is not good neighbourliness.
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