Gulf Cooperation Council

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.

Little Bahrain and Its Very Big Problems

Sex! Drugs! ATM bombs!  A long-running violent uprising against the government!  What’s not to love?

When I first visited Bahrain in February 2011, just a few weeks before the mass uprising that would happen later that month, immigration stamped my passport with a big, “BUSINESS FRIENDLY BAHRAIN” before waving me through the mostly empty airport.

When I returned two years later in February 2013, there was no mention or either business or friendliness as they scanned my passport for evidence I might have been a human rights worker or a journalist come to document the government’s thuggery.

While before 2011, Bahrain was known for its liberal mores and as a decaying 80s party spot (or, if from outside the region, not known at all), it’s now synonymous with sectarianism, fighting, Molotov cocktails, and weekends protests.  Bahrain might be a tiny place, but its problems are far bigger than its geography implies.

Welcome to Bahrain: the party island where the party might actually kill you

Think “Persian Gulf” and you think austere Saudi beards or out-of-control, ultra modern Dubai music videos.  Bahrain is somewhere in between and has the distinction of being one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the Gulf.  As such, it’s got less of the cultural immaturity of other new  Gulf states still finding their footing in the modern age and more of the hang-ups of a country that’s been around to have serious internal grudges.  Underneath Bahrain’s land are two resources that guaranteed it a place at the heart of the Gulf: an oasis and easy-to-grab oil.

Until the 1930s, the Bahraini oasis and its relative isolation from attack made it one of the biggest ports in the region.  One group, the Qarmatians, in their brief but awesome run as rulers of the island, set up a republic, sacked Mecca, and stole Islam’s Black Stone from the Kaaba before they ran out of energy and fell apart.  After that spate of piracy, Bahrain spent most of its history under domination from imperial powers, ranging from Iran to Portugal to finally Britain in the 19th century who were keen to ensure that no Persian Gulf Tortuga established itself there.

All by its lonesome.

To get an idea of how key Bahrain was in the pre-oil era (and to understand just how unimportant the Gulf in general was before oil), it was the residence of Britain’s colonial Political Agent, who, as a sort of latter day Roman proconsul, managed the Gulf on Britain’s behalf.  In other words, while Bahrain was the most important place for the empire in the Gulf, it was so unimportant in the grand scheme of things that Britain assigned just one dude and a small staff to it.

It was under Britain that oil was first found in the 1930s, sparking the oil rush in the Persian Gulf in general.  That oil rush, along with its long history as a settled place, helped Bahrain develop culturally into the closest the Persian Gulf has to a modern nation-state.  Trade unions set up; political parties were established; the British worried about communists taking over the government.  By the time the British withdrew in 1971, Bahrain’s power struggles were already in play.  To ensure things remained complicated, as the British left, the Americans sailed in.

Throw in some sectarianism and you get the drift

As a tiny place, Bahrain’s struggles were always local.  In the 1970s, Bahrain’s central government struggled to tame the many forces that sought different visions for the country.  In the beginning, while the Shi’a/Sunni divide existed as a result of Bahrain being a borderland between Shi’a Iran and Sunni Arabia, it was further subdivided between those who sought a republic, a communist utopia, a democracy, a traditional sheikhdom, and all kinds of other political models.  While in the 1970s the wider Gulf wasn’t much worried about politics as they started to build their societies, in Bahrain power was in flux.

Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution threw another wildcard into the mix, introducing Shi’a political Islam as yet another future for Bahrain.  In 1981, some Shi’a attempted a coup to seize the country.  From then onwards, the leftists, Arab nationalists, republicans and democrats started to choose sides between the two sects.  The USSR’s death in 1991 pretty much ended the Bahrani communist party (along with every other minor communist party worldwide) and the left merged to become part of proto-modernist secular movement seeking some kind of democracy.  With Shi’a political parties pushing for one set of things, modernists and secularists pushing for another, and Sunni traditionalists propping up the government, the result was a series of ploys, plots, riots, and lies as each side jostled for the best power position.

The 1980s weren’t all bad, though.  Lebanon’s civil war sent many banks scurrying to Manama to set up shop as Beirut cannibalized itself.  Much of the capital was built during this time (and shows today) and the country set itself up as a party spot for bored businessmen stuck in Saudi Arabia or other dire Gulf states.  Before Dubai took the model and went nuts, it was Bahrain that you wanted to party in.

But for all the fun of the 1980s, the 1990s were a decade of stagnation, occasional bombings, and intifada.  Opposition groups rightly pointed out that loyalists were getting the plum pickings of oil revenues and jobs and formed a coalition of Islamists, secularists, and democrats who sought to turn Bahrain into a more accountable constitutional monarchy.  The government decided that was a terrible idea and cracked down.  From 1994-2001, Bahrain wobbled.  Hardly anyone outside the region noticed as the roar of the stock market and the killing fields of Bosnia crowded out what news came from Manama.

To put an end to the uprising, the Emir, Hamad al Khalifa, offered a series of compromises that changed the country from an emirate ruled by an emir to a kingdom run by a himself.  This was accompanied by a few concessions that gave power to a handful of opposition figures.  It was bullshit and everyone knew it, but exhausted after seven years of protesting and willing, in typical Gulf style, to give anything a go once, the switch bought several years of relative quiet.  Until Mubarak fled in 2011 and the Bahraini opposition thought to have another run at revolution.

Crowded, hot, and angry.

Being caught between Saudi Arabia’s paranoia, Iran’s ambitions, and a part of the world that’s having trouble growing up is not a nice place to be

For Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is a bell weather for its own Eastern Province where quite a few Shi’a live – and where quite a few Shi’a are not happy with King Abdullah.  Once upon a time Bahrain served as a base that marauded Arabia.  That might have been a thousand years ago, but Bahrain’s geographical location could let it do so yet again if it were to fall out of Saudi Arabia’s orbit.

Meanwhile, Iran officially would love everyone to embrace its Islamic Revolution.  A natural expansion point is Bahrain with its Shi’a majority.  Iran has said again and again that it’s not involved in the simmering rising.  But it’s reasonable to assume, like much governments say, that’s a lie. Iran has every incentive in the world to destabilize Bahrain.

Meanwhile, other Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates feel deeply insecure in a region where they historically have been dominated by either powers based out of western Arabia, Iraq or Iran.  With vast natural resource reserves, these states have double downed on alliances with the United States in hopes that that will provide border security while ruthlessly crushing internal dissent.  No one state may wobble; they are all built on the same foundations of sand.

Saudi Arabia brings the fun. The Saudi-Bahrain bridge takes about twenty or so minutes to cross.

And the Bahraini opposition has hardly given up

Bahrain is the only place in the region where the Arab Spring is alive and fighting.  As a small country with a relatively low population, it teeters on a knife’s edge, and only outside support has kept the current king in power.  Demographics matter and not in regards to the majority/minority game.  In a small country with a small population, the actions of a few hardcore activists carry more weight than in bigger places.  When a few hundred protesters seal off a neighborhood in Bahrain, that’s 10% of the country.  When a few thousand decide armed struggle is the way forward, that’s a country-wide civil war.

With Saudi forces in place and UAE police back-up, Bahrain’s outnumbered government can hold the line.  Bahrain is more or less occupied by these forces and the United States naval base.  While U.S. soldiers have nothing to do with the Shi’a uprising, they do force Iran to keep its support to a level that the king and his allies can handle.  The last thing Iran needs is to provoke the U.S. in the delicate on-going nuclear negotiations.

Bahrain’s rebellion smolders.  I was there two weeks back; I saw a neighborhood sealed off by police and army units while an attack helicopter circled, proof enough that things have not gone as quiet as the world media’s silence implies.

But a splintered opposition makes it all the harder to achieve real change

Bahrain, like all the Gulf states, went immediately for the sectarian card as soon as the Arab Spring began.  Any opposition to Gulf regimes was a Shi’a/Iranian plot to destroy Islam and the country.  This wedge has worked for now.  Sunni secularists don’t protest with Shi’a Islamists like they once did.  Fear and hatred has grown between the communities, stoked by a relentless state media that has witch-hunted protesters on Facebook.   Shi’a, meanwhile, have split between the old guard that favors a constitutional monarchy and radical, younger groups that want full democracy, Shi’a theocracy, or something in between.  For the young Shi’a now having grown up with street battles and burning tires, the al Khalifa royal family has no future in their country.  “Death to Hamad” is their battle cry.

Alas, Bahrain will not likely decide what happens to it

Left alone, on a long enough timeline, the al Khalifa family would eventually be pushed into the sea.  But they have big friends.  Powerful geopolitical interests of much bigger states wish to see the status quo continue.

To lose Bahrain could provoke a full-fledged rebellion in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and threaten world oil markets.  No Gulf state or Western power wants that.  To that end, Saudi Arabia’s military provides the edge needed to keep the demographic destiny of Bahrain from taking place.  The West will look aside; saving Bahrain’s opposition from the king’s guns is not worth the trade off of potential chaos in what would certainly be a flawed democracy.

Iran, meanwhile, can use Bahrain as a pressure point but not as a potential conquest.  Such a thing would be a red line guaranteed to trigger a U.S. counterattack that would destroy the Islamic Republic.  So Iran may support its choice opposition a bit, but not so much they throw the balance off and create uncontrollable chaos.

The king could reform the government and mollify the opposition as he once did.  But alas he does not control his own fate and is a fine demonstration of when leaders don’t really matter. To go too far will upset key allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, both of whom hate and fear democracy.  With royal factions in Manama who feel the same way, if King Hamad tries to go all enlightened on everyone’s ass, these anti-democrats will have Saudi military support in any coup they launch.  No matter what kind of man he is, King Hamad will not be allowed to be the first Gulf ruler to introduce democracy.

With underground democrats multiplying and organizing, the absolutists in the region’s royal courts must hold the line firmer than ever before.  Once upon a time, a ruler might have been asked why there was no democracy in his country and reply, “Islam,” and be convincing.  But no more.  The  carrots of heaven and free stuff have worn thin; now they must try the stick of the secret police prisons.

If state power weakens in Saudi Arabia, as it likely will if oil prices continue to flatten, Bahrain is the first raggedy edge that would unravel the entire political fabric of the Persian Gulf.  When that fire is lit, it will burn brightly.  There are better ways than this; nobody seems much interested in them.