Our Middle East foreign policy depends on strong, smooth relations among our Gulf allies. Now all cooperation is at risk.
By Ilan Goldenberg
The announcement Sunday night by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain that they would cut diplomatic relations and close borders and airspace to Qatar was the culmination of a long-running feud among the Gulf states. The surprising escalation of simmering tensions represents an embarrassing setback—and a formidable new challenge—for President Trump, who was in the region only two weeks ago proclaiming unprecedented success in unifying the Arab world against both Sunni extremism and Iranian meddling.
Qatar has long been the black sheep of the Gulf Cooperation Council. With the start of protests across the Arab world in 2011, the Qataris supported Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated movements, while the Emiratis and Saudis viewed them as a major threat to regional stability. In Egypt, Qatar supported the the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi while the other Gulf states supported Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who overthrew the Brotherhood and initiated a broad crackdown against it. In Syria, Qatar irresponsibly flowed weapons and money into the civil war with little vetting of opposition forces, leading to the rise of an extremist opposition.
The Saudis and Qataris have also clashed on Iran. Saudi Arabia views Iran’s Islamic Republic as an implacable enemy, while the Qataris have always taken a more agnostic approach largely driven by the fact that they share a huge gas field with Iran. And despite their small size, the Qataris have attempted to punch above their weight in pursuing all of these policies—an approach that has chafed on their bigger neighbors.
Still, the timing of the break is odd. The Qataris have joined Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the coalition to to fight the war in Yemen, and relations had been improving in the last couple of years. The proximate trigger appears to be a false report of an incendiary speech by the emir of Qatar, which was picked up by Saudi and Emirati media. Other reports have indicated that the Gulf states were furious with Qatar over ransom payments made to al-Qaida operatives and Iranian security officials to win the release of members of the Qatari royal family held hostage. But this does not explain why after years of tensions Saudi Arabia and Egypt have chosen this moment to break with Qatar.