Geopolitics Made Super

Why Saudi Arabia Just Declared A Soft Power War On Qatar


In late 2013, I saw Professor Mehran Kamrava speak about his recently released book, Qatar: Small State, Big Politics at the Georgetown Campus in Doha.  Dr. Kamrava spoke glowingly of the country’s accomplishments, from its al-Jazeera media empire to its diplomatic stature to its 2022 World Cup win.  For Dr. Kamrava, Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani clan had managed to wedge into the international sphere by cleverly doling out their natural gas money into ever-more-successful soft power projects.  Small states, managed wisely, could earn stature their size belied.  

It felt like a stretch even then.  Now, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies show why. As reported by Reuters:

The Arab world’s biggest powers cut ties with Qatar on Monday over alleged support for Islamists and Iran, reopening a festering wound two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump’s demand for Muslim states to fight terrorism.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in a coordinated move. Yemen, Libya’s eastern-based government and the Maldives joined later. Transport links shut down, triggering supply shortages.

In 2015, Qatar suffered a brief chicken famine – the result of a Saudi supply interruption.  When I was there, from 2013-14, some murmured about the great chicken shortage in years past, this one quite intentional, punishment from Saudi Arabia for some offense against Riyadh.

A state that cannot feed cannot lead.  Yet Qatar tried anyway (as I wrote in my 2014 piece on how Saudi Arabia had even then begun to reign in Qatari power).  Now the Saudi hammer is coming down in a full-scale soft power war – closed borders, shut ports, expelled citizens.  The border that brings 90% of the country’s goods is choked close by King Salman.

Saudi Arabia is using everything short of invasion to rattle the ruling al-Thanis of Doha.  They cannot invade; there is a huge American air base that secures their borders.  Yet Qatar has almost no water, no farms, no fishing fleets – and 2.3 million people to feed.

It’s less important to retread the blow-by-blow that led up to the blockade (that’s been done elsewhere anyway) and considerably more important to identify the broad geopolitical impulses that are propelling the main actors.  It is those geopolitical forces that produced those events or gave them meaning.

The bones of contention

There are four main factors that brought about the blockade.  Most of them have to do with the future of the Middle East and more specifically of the Arabian Gulf. They are:

  1. The future of governance in the Arab world
  2. The status of Iran in the Arab world
  3. The status of post-fossil fuel economies
  4. The role of the al-Thanis themselves in the Gulf

First and foremost, this is a conflict over how the Gulf, as well as the Arab world writ large, will be governed post-Arab Spring.

The Gulf is approaching a critical decade.  Nobody’s governing system is close to modern, and nobody can reasonably expect the rentier model to survive much longer.  Oil prices are certain to remain too low to balance budgets and to indulge ever-more-demanding citizens.

So if the rentier state is out, what now?  None of the Gulf states are hoping to democratize themselves out of a job.   So if the old social contract is bunk, what should replace it?

The Arab Spring was the wake-up call.  While Oman saw a few protests and Bahrain still suffers from unrest, the Gulf passed the toughest years pretty much intact.  Yet that’s partially because Gulf societies started state building a generation later than the former Ottoman vilayets and European colonies that overthrew dictator after dictator.  If the Arab Spring fell on many deaf Gulf Arab ears, it’s because Gulf Arabs haven’t had enough experience yet with their governments to learn to hate them.

That can’t be assured forever.  Already there are the mumbles of dissent in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

This wasn’t lost on anyone.  What differed is how each state interpreted the Spring.  Qatar’s al-Thanis believed they needed new allies to continue their rule; the Saudis in Riyadh and al-Nayhans in Abu Dhabi violently disagreed.

Qatar concluded that the only way to survive a future Arab Spring would be to embrace the least dangerous Islamists – specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood.  Such an alliance could, with just the right dash of diplomacy, produce monarchies like Jordan’s, which seats Muslim Brotherhood MPs.  This wasn’t a model Qatar was too eager to use at home, where the al-Thanis presumed their own small population of 300,000 didn’t particularly want or need politics.  But Doha did want to be on the right side of history and to be remembered well if the Muslim Brotherhood, or someone like them, came knocking at the gates of Doha’s palace.

The Saudis and Emiratis, on the other hand, watched in horror as the MB took over Egypt.  They were certain that if Egypt became a Brotherhood stronghold, it was only a matter of time before it converted that country into a Sunni Iran – revolutionary and expansionist, targeting the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf.  Unlike Qatar, which presumed they could make an alliance with the Brotherhood, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw Mohammed Morsi’s presidency as a warning that the Brotherhood would brook no competition, replacing one dictatorship with another.  For them, it was a zero-sum game: rule or be ruled, kill or be killed.  That was a big reason the UAE cracked down on its local MB branch, Al Islah, in unprecedented arrests.

They launched a region-wide counterattack, propping up the deep state counterrevolution in Egypt and fighting a proxy war in Libya against a Muslim Brotherhood-backed faction.

This overlapped with the approach to Iran, which Qatar saw as a gray space and the Saudis and Emiratis saw as a would-be conqueror.  Qatar’s al-Thanis saw an opportunity to negotiate to find a place for Iran in the greater Middle East; the Saudis and Emiratis saw negotiations as a ploy by Tehran to outflank their enemies and strangle them.  It’s really a lot like the difference between the Obama administration and the Trump one: Obama saw a future with Iran’s current regime, the Trump administration does not.  One favored diplomacy, the other sees diplomacy as a ploy and a plot against the United States.

It’s no wonder that the Saudis and Emiratis were thrilled at Trump’s election.

Where to holiday, Dubai or Doha?

Below the surface of the Brotherhood dispute and the Iran conflict simmers economic competition as well.  Don’t forget that Doha is, in many ways, a carbon copy of Dubai, minus the ostentatious record breaking.  It has its own version of a Palm Jumeriah, the Pearl.  It has a downtown core that’s both brand new and soulless; it has ever-larger malls of ever-grander shopping experiences.  It even does the same all-you-can-drink brunches tucked behind secure doors.

About the only thing Doha has that’s different is its old souq, which has anyway been dressed up and nearly transformed into a Disneyland attraction.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi have Emirates and Etihad; Doha has Qatar Airways, always in competition to find ever longer routes with ever more luxurious cabins.

As Dubai and Abu Dhabi both seek to turn themselves into tourist hubs in their bid to escape fossil fuels, Doha’s pretensions annoy them.  Dubai proves it can be done and then Doha scurries to copy.  Only Qatar’s World Cup bid feels original, but even that is a major threat to the UAE’s tourist industry, potentially putting Doha on the map in a way that Dubai does not like.

And so if we see the air, sea, and land blockade as an opportunity to interrupt flights, to slander Qatar Airways, to reduce tourist access to Qatar, even temporarily, we see a bottom line of dirhams and riyals that produces a budgetary calculus in addition to the great power politics.  Should the blockade last long enough, it will delay, even totally disrupt, Doha’s pretentious for its 2022 World Cup.  It will harm Qatar Airways’ brand, associating it with terrorism and insecurity, the things no airline wants on the minds of its customers.  It will keep GCC money away from Doha, forcing sinful Saudis to holiday in Dubai or Bahrain and not in a fellow Wahabi country.

Nobody likes a sore winner

Finally, from the leaks of UAE Ambassador Yosef Otaiba we see an even baser impulse: nobody much likes the al-Thanis, at least not the current crop in charge. Hamad bin Khalifa had long annoyed the Saudis with his pretentions to free speech via al-Jazeera and his refusal to toe the GCC line.  But in years past, that could be tolerated as brotherly disagreements.

When al-Jazeera began to broadcast the reality on the ground in Bahrain – that it was a minority government cracking down on the relatively reasonable demands of the Shi’a majority – it went beyond annoying the Saudis and to threatening them.  Since al-Jazeera never reports on anything embarrassing to Qatar, the Saudis and Emiratis knew full well that al-Jazeera could be controlled but simply wasn’t.

When the Qataris took the World Cup in 2022, it was beneath a sheen of corruption and bribery that haunts the win to this day.  It belied an arrogance and smugness that rubbed other GCC leaders the wrong way, especially given Qatar’s size.  In Gulf politics, one should never underestimate how much it matters that leaders get along on a personal level.

An increasingly incompatible vision of the future


The Saudis and Emiratis believe an ironclad monarchy can shepherd their subjects into 21st-century societies.  For them, their people are a bomb, which they can only defuse by slowly siphoning the gunpowder out of its casing.  They see in Bahrain’s unrest a ghost of Christmas future, a preamble to much worse things to come should Saudi Arabia one day write a social welfare check that bounces.

Bahrain’s mistake was twofold: it didn’t diversity its economy before oil ran low, and it didn’t unify its diverse sects into a Bahraini nation beneath its king.  Those may have been, considering the country’s size, impossible tasks, yet they are lessons for Saudi Arabia, with its sizable Eastern Province Shi’a, and the UAE, with its Arab federation of disparate tribes.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi both believe they can avoid Bahrain’s mistakes,  given enough time.  They hope to forge nations of Saudis and Emiratis from fractured tribes and indolent cradle-to-grave welfare recipients through ambitious education reforms, economic shake-ups, mass deportations of foreign workers, and most of all a nation-building war in Yemen meant to stave off Iran and build a brotherhood of nationalistic soldiers.

The war in Yemen is meant to forge nations where there are none today.
They also believe that if the bomb does go off, no one will save them, especially the Americans.  They’ve read the writing on the wall: shale oil has rendered the old alliances obsolete.  If revolution or civil war breaks out in Saudi, no Marines will come calling at the royals’ behest.

That has a silver lining: if the Americans will not save the rulers of the UAE and Saudi from potential revolt, surely they will do even less as the kings and sheikhs scramble to save themselves.  They have tested this theory to much success in Yemen, where Saudi bombing campaigns and starvation tactics have not stirred the superpower, even under more humanistic President Obama.

They see Qatar as nieve at best, as nefarious at worst.  Qatar’s free speech blathering via al-Jazeera undermines the wobbly regime of Bahrain, the Gulf bell weather who’s fall or collapse would bring about political change neither Riyadh nor Abu Dhabi is ready for.

For the two Mohammeds, this is a dangerous time.  Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth funds are running dry.  The UAE’s are in better shape, but will also run dry much sooner than the Emiratis hoped.   Moreover, Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi knows full well that if Saudi Arabia cracks or buckles, his federation, the only successful federation in Arab history, is supremely unlikely to survive.

The Qataris, meanwhile, seem flat-footed by the whole affair.  Their one security guarantee, the United States, may not save them – after all, Saudi troops dare not pour over the border.  They seemed assured that would face no great consequences for their geopolitical ladder climbing.  Their approach to earning the World Cup for 2022 demonstrated a smug arrogance in world affairs, a willingness to bribe and cajole and to bite off more than they could reasonably chew in pursuit of simply getting to the next rung on some international ranking.

If the Saudis and Emiratis are the iron-jawed fathers who brook no talk at the dinner table, the Qataris are the overindulged teens who just learned that Christ was not born on Christmas.  As much as there is a strategy to Doha’s soft power, it has seemingly been to thumb its nose at as many great powers as possible to build up the stature of an important state.  There was only so much traction that such a strategy could get.

Does anyone know the way to 2030?

We can look to 18th and 19th century Europe for comparison.  Great Britain reformed its monarchy towards guided democracy by finding allies amongst laborers and the middle class, while France’s absolutists alienated everyone but the top and lost their heads.  The Qataris, it seemed, are aiming more towards a British future, while the Emiratis and Saudis seem ready to repeat the mistakes of Louis XVI.

Yet little Qatar’s allies are mighty Saudi’s enemies, and so Qatar does not have the freedom to build new social contracts as Great Britain once did.  There are only around 300,000 Qataris; they cannot hope to defeat the 19 million Saudis, who can maintain this blockade until the United States loses patience.

Even a short squeeze will be harmful, throwing off stadium building schedules and rattling already unsettled investors.  And so that leaves little room for Qatar to make the long-term choices that do, on the surface at least, appear wiser.  They may yet be forced to cable themselves to a ship intent on heading for a geopolitical iceberg.