Qatar, the Gulf Crisis and the realignment of the Middle East

There is no end in sight to the 2017 battle between Doha and it's neighboring states.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha on October 7, 2020 (photo credit: TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/VIA REUTERS)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha on October 7, 2020
The 2017 blockade of Qatar came out of nowhere on a summer day in June, when Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates decided to cut ties with the tiny oil-rich Gulf state. It isn’t until three years later that a definitive account of the incident, which realigned the Middle East, is provided in the form of Qatar and the Gulf Crisis, by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Dating from the sheikhdoms that governed the Arabian Peninsula before the discovery of oil, and looking forward to Qatar’s planned hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022, Ulrichsen discusses the grievances by other Gulf states that led to the blockade as well as the “hearts and minds” campaign waged by Qatar as rights- and facts-based responses to the criticisms leveled against it by its neighbors.
The 2017 blockade wasn’t the first time Qatar faced dramatic action from its neighbors. In 1937, Bahrain’s ruler declared an embargo on trade with and travel to Qatar due to a territorial dispute over a town called Zubarah. Though the issue was ostensibly resolved, in the 1980s the emir of Bahrain “kept a map in his office displaying Zubarah as part of Bahrain, albeit with a line crossed very lightly through it.”
Ulrichsen notes that Qatar’s status as the detested regional upstart dates back decades, with numerous approaches taken by the Saudis and others to destabilize the country, including a failed coup attempt in 1996, and libelous articles published in Saudi-owned newspapers concerning members of the Qatari ruling family and political class cozying up to Israel.
While the blockade was ostensibly a response to Qatar’s alleged support of terrorist activities, Ulrichsen (and more than a few international observers) suggest that the international action had more to do with Qatar emerging as a regional mediating power, thus usurping Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar-owned Al Jazeera’s role in the Arab Spring and the issues caused by the United States’ massive military presence at Qatar’s Al Ubeid Air Base.
Time and again, Ulrichsen points out that the Trump administration played an antagonizing role rather than a stabilizing one.
“President Trump’s decision on 6 June 2017 to tweet in support of the blockade of Qatar sent shock waves not only to members of his government, notably to the secretaries of state and defense, but also to America’s security partners in the Gulf for whom belief in the USA as the ultimate guarantor of their security was a pillar of their post-1990 Kuwait invasion strategic assumption,” Ulrichsen writes. “In three tweets, to which the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reacted with visible shock, Trump upended three decades of assumptions about the US role in the Gulf.”
He suggests that Trump’s hands-off approach set a standard for both the region and the world. “The blockade of Qatar stands out as an international manifestation of the ‘free-for-all’ attitude to global affairs unleashed by Trump’s election,” he adds later.
And where does the blockade – which has persisted for more than three years, and prevented Qatari citizens from performing Hajj, restricted flight patterns and destinations of Qatar Airways, and required the country to airlift thousands of cattle from Europe to meet the country’s dairy demand – go from here, more than three years after it began?
“The blockade has become stuck at a political level where the Saudi and Emirati leadership – and especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed – appear reluctant to make the first move to offer concessions or progress to a negotiated compromise,” Ulrichsen writes. He and others believe that a stalemate is the most likely outcome for the foreseeable future, even with Qatar on track to host a massive international event in just under two years.
Qatar and the Gulf Crisis is the first book to make it to market about the blockade and its aftermath, and it would take quite a formidable opponent to knock it off its perch as the definitive account on the subject.
Ben Fisher is a freelance writer from Seattle, WA. He worked for the Jerusalem Post from 2015-2017.
By Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Oxford University Press
224 pages; $37.24