Over the course of the 1990s, Qatar sought a way to rise to prominence and be more than just an adjacent Saudi “satellite state.” Being on the verge of suceeding in this endeavor proved to be a growing source of friction between Doha and Riyadh, resulting in a diplomatic stand-off which might be an ultimate test of Qatar’s strength.
Qatar’s path to success led through the establishment of satellite TV channel Al Jazeera, which revolutionized the Arab (and subsequently world) media landscape, with its daring reporting and coverage of problems that plagued Middle Eastern societies, never shying away from controversy and taboos. Al Jazeera’s reporting caused a number of diplomatic rifts between Qatar and other Middle Eastern states, but behind the scenes, it became the Qatari emir’s most prized diplomatic bargaining capital. For example, despite its exclusively negative portrayal of Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Al Jazeera remains the only Arab channel that hosts Israeli officials and airs their statements and interviews, mirroring the two countries’ low-key cooperation.
And while many diplomatic disputes between increasingly bold and independent Qatar and other regional players always managed to be straightened, the Arab Spring seemed to be the point of no return. It unraveled how different Gulf states, which hold a third of the world’s oil reserves, no longer speak the same language in regards to their internal interests. Qatar’s support for revolutionaries embodied in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood lobby put it at stark odds with Gulf states that avoided the protests (with the exception of Bahrain), but still supported the opposing side.
In 2014, the Gulf Cooperation Council withdrew its ambassadors from Qatar, accusing it of breaching the security agreement, violating unified principles of the organization and “interfering with the internal affairs” of GCC states and supporting organizations that endangered their security and stability. Al Jazeera was also referred to as “hostile media.”
One of the main reasons the council was formed in 1981 was countering the rise of the Shi’ite Islamic Republic in Iran, but three decades later, states like Oman and Qatar prefer to explore new and maintain old ties with Iran, declining to forge a close GCC union. Likewise, after post-revolution democratically elected Mohammad Morsi was ousted in a coup in Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates welcomed the move, while Qatar provided a safe haven to exiled Morsi supporters and continues to host and support Muslim Brotherhood-leading cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The rift in 2014 was solved diplomatically.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain (with Libya, Yemen and Maldives joining) severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and enforced an air, land and naval blockade on the country, with Riyadh accusing Qatar of backing radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS. The move complicated some Western and regional alliances in the Middle East, especially in regards to the effort against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Given that Saudi Arabia has its own history of alleged funding and supporting extremism and terrorism, the given explanation for isolating Qatar seems rather ludicrous, but behind the official statements, some sources named a Qatari news report as one source of the tension. The report in question quoted Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani criticizing Saudi Arabia, praising Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, and describing Qatar’s relations with Israel as “good.” Qatari officials claimed that the website was hacked. Another suggested that the source of friction was a prisoner swap Qatar had negotiated with Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. Among the prisoners were members of the Qatari ruling family, who had been taken hostage by Shi’ite militia group Kitaeb Hezbollah in Iraq in 2015.
Another point of conflict is the Qatari position towards Iranian influence expansion through its involvement in various regional conflicts. Iran wields a significant influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah, in Syria through Hezbollah’s armed support for al-Assad’s regime and in Iraq through a number of Shi’ite militias, many of them entangled in the offensive against ISIS. Iran also supports the Houthi rebels in the bloody civil war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the U.S. support the opposing side. Iran also supports the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni royal family supported by Riyadh. In all of these conflicts, Qatar’s position has been increasingly unambiguously in favor of Tehran, which is no surprise given that Qatar and Iran have joint ownership and management of the world’s largest natural gas field in the Persian Gulf, and have joint agreements for military cooperation.
Iran and Turkey offered unequivocal support to Qatar, with Iran trying to alleviate crisis in Qatar, and Turkey sending troops to the country. The U.S. administration has given conflicting statements about the crisis. For now, Saudi Arabia is waging demands that Qataris cannot realistically meet, with other regional actors watching the developing crisis.