Saudi Arabia Clamps Down on Little Qatar (Or, How Not To Waste Billions Trying To Be Something You’re Not)

What’s a Qatar, and why should you care?  First off, it’s pronounced “Qatr,” with no “-ar” sound, even though that’s how it’s written in English.  If you insist on saying “Qat-AR,” do it in your backwoods.

Anyway, with Qatar having the third largest proven natural gas reserves in the world, this is one tiny country you Need To Know About.  Natural gas is a globally traded commodity and no matter how ignorant you want to be, what happens to Qatar (remember, it’s “Qatr”), matters.  Everybody ’round the world is using natural gas to replace oil, as it burns cleaner and gives more energy for less cost.  If you didn’t know you cared, you do now.

So what’s with all this Saudi Arabian-Qatar shouting and crying in the media lately?  Just a few weeks ago, the Saudi-led bloc made up the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi itself withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, cutting diplomatic relations temporarily with the emirate.  Rumors of embargoes and sieges abound. Why?

Fun fact: if the world’s ice caps do melt, Qatar will cease to exist and this whole article will be moot.

The long story short – Qatar’s gotten too big for its britches

The essential geopolitical tale here is that Qatar has, since 1995, been trying to nudge its way to a higher tier within the power structure of the Middle East, thinking that money could somehow buy their way up to a more secure position.  As they did, they were following this key geopolitical rule: all states seek to near #1 as much as possible because that’s where a state is safest.

With that said, all #1 states seek to be #1 for as long as possible because slipping from said position is dangerous and painful.  As Qatar sought to move up, Saudi Arabia has long sought to keep it down.  That should be an easy task.  Saudi Arabia has a native population of 21 million people; Qatar has just about 300,000.  One need only look at GlobalFirepower’s nation comparison to realize Qatar is outgunned and totally screwed if push ever came to shove.

But the long story long is that of the former Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani

For purposes of simplicity, we’ll call him what he’s officially still called in Qatar – Papa Emir.

Qatar is, in many ways, a dream state to run.  Its small, native population is beyond rich.  With virtually no society prior to the modern era, any leader who does as much as put up a street sign is considered a wild success.  It’s no wonder that Hamad’s father, Khalifa, who ran the country from 1972 until 1995, had plenty of time to blow money in the French Riveria rather than run the government.  Unlike the more complicated story of the nearby United Arab Emirates, Khalifa had no other royal families to balance and so much cash that he delegated much of the state’s governance to his son, Hamad.

Hamad, better educated and worldly, was perhaps not the best choice to leave the keys to the kingdom, because, in 1995, he kicked dad out of power (read that link for the hilarious story of the terribly organized counter-coup) while he was in Switzerland.  Having run the country in his father’s stead for sometime, Hamad simply changed job titles and began his aggressive campaign of turning Qatar into a latter-day Republic of Venice – tiny but influential, small in land but big in stature.

“Gaza welcomes you, Qatari Emir.” Papa Emir visits the Gaza Strip and accomplishes a lot of photographing.

So Papa Emir started to ignore how weak Qatar really was and put himself in the middle of just about everything

Qatar is one of those places that would stop existing in a world without America.  Sandwiched between much bigger Iran and Saudi Arabia, the only reason neither has invaded is because of British protection up until 1971 and American protection from then onward.  The U.S. likes having a divided up Gulf; it can play these powers off against one another and set up bases in one place when one another kicks it out.  Moreover, prior to what just happened in Crimea, supporting these states was part of the larger U.S. principle that Thou Shalt Not Take Over Countries. (And whether that’s still true is a discussion worth having after the dust has settled in Ukraine).

With a large U.S. airbase in Qatar, Papa Emir felt he could take big risks in foreign affairs.  He started by helping propel Al Jazeera to the forefront of Arab media, a rare voice of dissent in a region full of grey, stony-faced state media that kept on reporting “Everything Is Fine” and “Today the Leader Killed Some Bad Guys With His Bare Hands.”  As Crown Prince before his coup, he helped send Qatari forces to fight Iraq in 1991 – resulting in the only Arab-on-Arab battle for that war.

Papa Emir had limited choices for foreign policy.  He could not alienate the Americans, because if they withdrew, life would get very difficult as the Saudis brought their superior power to bear.  But toeing the U.S.-Saudi line was what his father had done; too ambitious for that, Papa Emir decided to be as radical as his situation allowed and started to support the opposition movements growing throughout the region.

This meant the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and anyone else who disliked the status quo but wasn’t al-Qaeda

Papa Emir was in a delicate situation.  He wanted to make his own mark on things, but could not go too far as to upset the Americans, who were key to him staying in power.  In the 2000s, the Muslim Brotherhood was still relatively unknown outside the Arab world and, while not ideal to support, also not a redline that would trigger a U.S. response.

He also sought to turn Doha into a Middle Eastern Geneva, hosting talk after talk and making the rounds as a diplomat trying to sow peace everywhere he went.  Knowing his state could never militarily achieve much, Papa Emir went for headline grabbing diplomatic overtures.  Each success fueled the allure of a nation on the rise and a leader with vision.  It must have felt good.

The Arab Spring became Qatar’s moment in the sun

When the Arab Spring started, Al Jazeera had some of the best reporting on it.  Unlike the rest of the Gulf media outlets, who were all getting orders to Shut The Hell Up, Al Jazeera’s ballsy reporters braved the bullets of Bahrain and the camels of Tahrir as government after government wobbled or fell.  Qatar was there throwing cash and guns at Libya and Syria’s rebels and putting special forces on the ground against Ghaddafi.

2011 was a banner year for Qatar; it looked, briefly, as if Papa Emir’s dreams were coming true and he’d put the country on the right side of history.  When the Brotherhood won Egypt’s presidency, Qatar was there to applaud.

No regrets friendship. Hamad al Thani and Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian President Mohammed Moris back when they both had jobs.

Then the Spring turned to Winter

For Saudi Arabia, all this was worrying.  Riyadh had never been pleased a neighboring, fellow Wahhabist state hadn’t been following its lead, but was downright pissed that Qatar had the gumption to try to undermine its wisdom by supporting groups Saudi had long decided were dangerous.  Saudi Arabia organized a counter-revolution everywhere it suited their interests.  Key to the soul of the Spring was Egypt.

So Papa Emir threw billions at the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Egypt as the West and the IMF stood by. In 2011, Saudi Arabia staunched the revolutionary bleeding in Oman, Bahrain, and Jordan by doling out cash and sending in troops.  By 2013, they were prepared to play hardball for Egypt.

As Mohammed Morsi proved to be a terrible democrat and his Muslim Brotherhood pissed off both the youth movement that had toppled Hosni Mubarak and the army that had let them get away with it, it was only a matter of time before Riyadh’s point of view prevailed.  No amount of money in the world could have saved Morsi from the counter-coup.  And, not long after, Saudi Arabia and its close Gulf allies were there to pick up the Egyptian army’s bills.

It all went downhill from there

Because of the opaque nature of palace politics in Doha, nobody really knows the full story when the popular and supposedly successful Papa Emir stepped down in June 2013.  He had plenty of incentive to do so; none of his grand foreign policy forays had worked out, and the loss of Egypt to a Saudi-aligned regime was really the death knell of Hamad’s plans for foreign policy.

When Papa Emir had seized power in 1995, the Americans had done nothing for two reasons: one was that nothing, for the U.S., changed, and two was that the coup was bloodless and therefore out of the headlines.  If it could happen to dad, it could happen to Hamad as well.  Whatever the reason, it’s likely Hamad did not intend to step down as early as he did, and it’s safe to assume Saudi Arabia had a role in the transition.

Now the jaws are closing on Qatar and political life has gotten tough

Never mind the nightmare traffic jams, exploding restaurants and petrol stations, rampant boredom, or other complaints that result from a country growing too much, too soon.  Having put Qatar on the world stage, Papa Emir has watched in retirement as neighboring powers, foreign media, and international sports organizations all grow increasingly influential in how the state runs its affairs.

When the political atomic bomb that was the Guardian’s expose of World Cup preparations’ working conditions was published last fall, the focus for the new emir, Hamad’s son Tamim, shifted to trying to save what’s left of Qatar’s reputation overseas and fending off challenges from Saudi Arabia.  But when even FIFA, the World Cup organizer, is suddenly getting a seat at powerful tables normally reserved for royals, you know the game has changed and Qatar is, day by day, less and less a master of its own destiny.

That’s pretty natural, of course, and if Papa Emir had known his geopolitics he’d probably have played the game differently

By supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and anti-royalist movements in general, Hamad put Qatar in the crosshairs of Saudi Arabia.  For Saudi, all they had to do was wait for something to go wrong in Qatar’s plans, and they could then mobilize their formidable resources to really drive in the hurt.  Qatar’s plans could only work if everything, 100% of the time, went their way; Saudi Arabia, bigger and with more resources, could afford to take losses Qatar couldn’t.

Saudi Arabia is in no great position itself, and if it is to survive, the royals believe, it must grow ever more ruthless with its enemies.  The Muslim Brotherhood as a force in the Persian Gulf is nearly broken, but its final redoubt in Doha must be undone to finish the threat once and for all.  This should eliminate the challenge posed by the holier-than-thou Sunni Islamists who Saudi Arabia has come to see as their most dangerous enemies.

With the U.S. and Iran perhaps approaching a modern detente, Saudi Arabia must buy as much security as possible while it still has the power to do so.  Corralling Qatar into its camp removes a thorn that could go septic.  For Saudi Arabia, it’s one of the few things still in their power to do.

Invasion may not be an option, but Saudi Arabia’s army can still seal the borders pretty quick.

But they’ve got limited ways to do it

Saudi Arabia cannot invade Qatar so long as the U.S. base remains, and the U.S. will have incentive to stick around until Iran is no longer seen as a threat to the region’s oil supplies.  That’s years, if not decades, off, even if this nuclear deal goes through.

But Saudi Arabia can manipulate, bribe, and threaten the fractious al-Thanis, some of whom perhaps might harbor the ambition to become emir.  Failing that, it can close the borders; an extreme move, but one that would put Doha’s people on notice that its government is not running the show responsibly.  With so many construction materials needed in the World Cup boom, a blockade could be disastrous both to Hamad’s legacy and to Qatar’s dream of rivaling Dubai for glitz and tourism.

Little countries should know their place

So goes the state media of the United Arab Emirates.  But it’s not wrong; Qatar overplayed its hand when it thought money could buy success.  As the Gulf state with the smallest native population, its natural place, despite its cash reserves, is as the bottom of the Persian Gulf pecking order.  If Emir Tamim can remember that, he might just be able to have a good laugh as Saudi Arabia’s many problems multiply over the next decade.  Little Qatar might still end up being a winner, but only if it plays by the rules.