Before June 23, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said the U.S. government was “mystified” by Saudi Arabia and its allies’ lack of justification for their isolation of Qatar. The State Department apparently sees the value of a united front against ISIS and other threats in the region, even as President Trump took some credit for actions against Qatar, saying it should eliminate Qatari financing of terrorists. The Arab states that have blockaded Qatar then dramatically released a list of 13 demands that must be met by a deadline that was extended 48 hours on July 3. The Kuwaiti Emir who is acting as a mediator in this conflict delivered them to Qatar, but they could just as easily have been nailed to the wooden doors of the Qatari diwan, or main government building.
Some of the items on the list are clear enough, but others are surprising or pose questions. Pundits and foreign policy commentators correctly anticipated that some of the demands touch on terrorist financing and Al-Jazeera broadcasts, but few predicted the others, such as those dealing with issues of citizenship or the Turkish military base in Qatar.
To demystify the dispute between these key U.S. allies requires us to dig deeper into the region’s past. Gulf and Qatari history holds the key to how the United States should respond to the Qatar Crisis.
Let’s consider, first, the demands that Qatar scale down diplomatic ties with Iran. Qatar shares a hugely lucrative offshore gas field, the North Field, with Iran. But there is far more to the story here than oil and gas. Unlike Bahrain and the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia, with large, majority populations of Arabic-speaking Shi‘a, the number of Qatari Shi‘a citizens is close to zero. This lack of sectarian diversity is actually quite rare in the Gulf. Most Qataris are Sunnis, and most follow the so-called Wahhabi school of Islam that has morphed into a form of Wahhabism of the Sea or Wahhabism-lite. Historically, Qatar embraced Wahhabism in order to preempt attempts by the Saudi Wahhabis to invade. British reports from the early 20th century marveled at Qatar’s unlikely “continued existence” amidst much more powerful neighbors. Qatar’s lack of an internal “Shi‘a” resistance has ironically made it much easier for it to reach out to Iran as a balance against Saudi interference.
What about the demand that Qatar close the Turkish military base on its soil and “halt any joint military cooperation with Turkey.” In my book, Qatar, A Modern History, I outline the vital and surprising role that the Turks played in the early years of Qatar. In the 19th century the man considered by the State of Qatar to be its founder, Sheikh Jassim bin Muhammad al Thani Qatar allowed for the building of a small Turkish military base on Qatari soil. He was even given titles by the Sublime Porte in Istanbul and declared a member of the Ottoman Turkish elite. The British, in contrast, supported Jassim’s father, also considered a founder of Qatar, and maintained control over the seas. Jassim eventually pushed the Ottomans out of Qatar when they wanted to exert more direct control. This 1893 battle of Wajbah to expel the Turks is a core part of the national narrative of Qatar, Qatar National Day commemorates this event, but it appears the Turks may be allowed back. Qatar sees Turkey as yet another counterweight to the influence of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This certainly spooks Qatar’s Arab neighbors, perhaps even more than the ever-present tussle with Iran. There have been many historical instances of Arab states warily maintaining a balance of power with Iran, but not against Iran and Turkey.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have also demanded that Qatar stop granting citizenship to “wanted nationals” from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The benefits of Qatari citizenship are substantial, and sometimes more generous than those offered in neighboring states, which often must divide their oil revenue over a much larger population. What most commentators in the West often do not realize is that citizenship is largely not an individual concept based on notions of legal equality, but rather tied to claims to land, power, and influence—not only over individuals but also over entire tribes and families. Tradition, identity, and tribe are still very important in Gulf societies. These families and tribes form a hidden network—an informal means of governance through the visitation of royal families and sheikhs and through marriage. Although this demand in particular may seem to Western eyes to be tied to terrorist financing, it goes much deeper than that. Appealing to dissidents and disenfranchised lineage groups that had, in the past, freely moved between the once-porous borders of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE was a well-known tactic. In fact, whole families used to move from one port or merchant-ruler to another, transferring loyalties and legal guardianship. Saudi Arabia was keen to lay claim to land in the diyar, or “grazing lands” of its own tribes even though Qatar made similar claims. More recently, in the early 1990s there were a couple of border disputes between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Members of the Murrah Bedouin clan, who hail from both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, for a time, lost their Qatari citizenship due to these border disputes. But Qatar could use its wealth to attract citizens, as much as it might use the threat of losing citizenship and all of its perks, perks that are greater for most Qataris than they are for most Saudis.
Perhaps the most dramatic demand is shutting down the Al-Jazeera Network, as well as the media outlets Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye. Although Qatar was part of the coalition effort in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE certainly did not appreciate the way Al-Jazeera covered the humanitarian consequences of that conflict. Taking down Al-Jazeera—established shortly after Hamid bin Khalifa, the “Father Emir” and predecessor of the current Qatari Emir Tamim, overthrew his father in 1995—would be extremely difficult for Qatar. For the states making the demand, however, their reasoning is simple. Before Al-Jazeera, Gulf rulers were used to ironing out their disputes behind closed doors. Even relationships between rulers and citizens were often established during face-to-face, unrecorded encounters in diwans and majalis (the tribal councils).
So much of Gulf history after the British left in the early 1970s is simply unknown because of this informal, unwritten way of doing things in the Gulf. Al-Jazeera broke the secret club wide open, shedding light on a process that was, at least culturally, intended to be a black box. Al-Jazeera, however, is only one symptom of a larger problem for the Gulf and, perhaps, for traditional rulers around the world. The Internet has made information and news free, accessible, and archived. Past grievances or even personal peccadilloes which could have been worked out before, “family feud” style, are now all out in the open. Wikileaks and Russian hacking, even more than Al-Jazeera, is the source of much consternation, embarrassment, and, now, open conflict. When personalities control polities, “web presence” and issues of honor are no longer strictly an individual matter.
Will the United States Learn from History?
Severe and serious conflict and competition between rival Gulf rulers has been the norm, not the exception, of most Gulf history. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer may have been half-correct when he said the dispute over Qatar was a “family feud.” Most of the rulers are part of a very exclusive club, and many are even related or share similar lineage, cultural, and religious norms. Gulf expert Mike Herb aptly titled his book on contemporary Gulf politics “All in the Family.” Nonetheless, to call it merely a “family feud” underestimates the potential seriousness of the situation. Also, as countless historical examples of “Brother against Brother” show, it is often the conflicts within groups sharing similar points of view and even similar interests and cultures that are the most dangerous. Most importantly, the division between U.S. allies in the region, and even the inflammation of hostilities between Iran and the Sunni Gulf nations, only plays into the hands of ISIS and other groups inspired by extreme ideologies.
The United States would do well to remember some of the lessons learned by the last global hegemon with strategic interests in the Gulf: the British Empire. First, it is important to understand some of the geographical reasons for the current geopolitics of the Gulf: a series of seemingly small and relatively autonomous princedoms organized around ports. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the autonomy, focus on commerce, and relative cosmopolitanism of the Gulf is a natural outgrowth of formidable geographical barriers to imperialists or regional hegemonic powers.
Disconnected from a large agrarian base, Gulf rulers have always been dependent on merchants and trade, not taxes. They have often been merchants themselves, selling pearls in India, for example. These merchant-rulers maintained autonomy amidst surrounding imperial powers due to the inhospitable geography, high cliffs, intolerable temperatures, and forbidding deserts and swamps that make the Gulf so difficult to control. The biggest threat to a merchant-ruler of the Gulf was often his neighbor or his rival. The Gulf is littered with the skeletons of once great but now-abandoned port cities such as Siraf. Ports along the Gulf have been, like Dubai and Doha today, quick to rise, but also quick to fall. They were vulnerable to the changing trends of trade and competition, as one merchant ruler lowers taxes and customs to lure merchants away from his rivals. Sea raiding, similar to the desert raids, or razzias, that were long a feature of Arab nomadic societies and even cultural lore, was classified by the British as “piracy.” Gulf rulers, in contrast, saw it as a way of restoring balance and distributing resources to the most effective and most powerful rulers and groups. In fact, the current ruler of the emirate of Sharjah, Sultan bin Mohammed al Qassimi, who received his degree at Durham University, disputes the use of the word “piracy.” From the British perspective, raiding and fluid shifts of power from one tribal ruler to another was a source of too much instability within the Gulf, forcing the British to police the seas and to find responsible parties with which to deal. While the discovery of oil would later increase the British presence somewhat, the British in the 19th century did not wish to rule the Gulf outright. There were relatively few natural resources, other than a few pearl banks. In one of the worst predictions in the history of earth science, most geologists determined that oil would not exist in great quantities in Arabia. Instead, the British needed to find a way to keep the Gulf secure and free of raids, rivalries, and instabilities that threatened the vital routes between Iraq and India through the Strait of Hormuz.
Although there were a few times when the system broke down, the British managed to decrease the incidence of sea raiding while maintaining treaties (hence the word “trucial”) with different sheikhs. The British guaranteed the right of each ruler’s power as long as that ruler took responsibility for the people within his general domain (borders were fluid at this point) and did not raid his neighbors or passing ships. In 1868, for example, the British gathered all the notables and chiefs they could find in Qatar on the same ship and declared Muhammad al-Thani as the ruler; he was both the one in charge and the one responsible should there be raiding from the shores of Qatar. The British even established elaborate rituals and honors for different rulers, including “gun salutes” and other symbolic gestures to express its relative approval or disapproval. Rarely, however, did the British interfere in domestic decisions.
Of course, disputes still arose between merchant-rulers, but they could no longer be resolved the old-fashioned way. Instead, the British would come in their frigate to mediate and demand an end to violence. Except in extreme cases, the British never chose one merchant ruler over another, since they knew this would throw the entire system into chaos, or at least into a configuration that was not favorable to its important interests in India. The British even made sure to include the Gulf rulers personally in the process and in trade; to be sure they would benefit from maintaining the status quo, they later signed oil concessions and treaties with the rulers individually. The British were especially concerned that smaller sheikdoms such as Qatar did not fall to the influence of larger neighbors. The father of Saudi Arabia’s current King, Abdalaziz al Saud, was already consolidating his power in the east of Arabia. Qatar was something of a tasty target. Sometimes the focus on naval power limited what the British could do. The British Political Resident in 1923, wrote the following, “I think it would be a pity if Qatar disappeared as a separate entity; from out point of view it is convenient to have rulers of the coastal districts on the coast, but I do not see any practicable means of preventing peaceful penetration of the country by Ikhwan (Wahhabis) and Ben Saud’s adherents.”
Qatar did survive the rise of Saudi Arabia, which became a united country a decade later. The Qataris had decided to adopt Wahhabism themselves, snuffing out some of the religious inspiration for taking them over. While there are valid criticisms of British interventions in the Gulf, it could hardly be argued that the consequences were as extreme or negative as Britain’s other colonial adventures. If anything, the British, with the cooperation of Sheikhs who were not direct servants of the crown but semi-autonomous actors, did provide a measure of stability necessary for the modern Gulf States, with all of their prosperity, to take shape. Unlike some other petrol states, the Gulf rulers have actually invested some of their wealth in infrastructure and social and educational development.
If we fast-forward to the early 1970s, many in the Gulf had grown used to the guarantee of British security. Some sources even relate that rulers secretly wished for the British to stay. Instead of a great anti-colonial triumph, the withdrawal of postwar Britain, which could no longer afford maintain its imperial interests, caused anxiety. One might have predicted a new era of discord, raiding, and instability. Instead, while Gulf rulers formally declared their independence and established formal recognition by the United Nations, the United States quietly and quickly took over the role of the British in guaranteeing the security of the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. From the Carter Doctrine, ensuring the freedom of the Gulf from Soviet influence, to the First Gulf War, which protected the Gulf States from Saddam Hussein, the United States attempted to fulfill its role as the guarantor of security.
The British were most successful in the Gulf when they did everything they could not to take sides and devoted their resources to resolving conflicts. The absence of conflict itself, not necessarily who was in charge or who was responsible for what, was the most important goal. Unfortunately, ideology, the fear of terrorism, and the search for state-sponsors of terrorism made U.S. Gulf policy an object of domestic politics. Ironically, the United States picking sides in the region has only emboldened the terrorists, who thrive on conflict. As the British knew, conflict itself was the enemy—and there are enemies on all sides in this conflict who are taking advantage of the chaos. By sowing discord between Arab Sunni monarchs and even between Shi‘a and Sunni, radical groups are only gaining in power and prestige, even despite their military setbacks on the ground. Even if ISIS is militarily defeated, future extremist iterations could just as easily make the case for the establishment of a united Caliphate.
Qatar may try to negotiate better terms; it has a lot of practice negotiating the conflicts of others. But it is unlikely that they will concede entirely. The demand for monthly audits and interventions of Qatari policy appeared to play directly into the fears expressed by the Qatari foreign ministry that this was an attempt to assert “guardianship” of Qatar. Before 1995 the Saudis managed much of Qatari foreign policy. Before 1971, Britain was in charge of external affairs as a “protector” and guardian. Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim and the Al-Thani family believe that Qatar has grown far past the guardianship stage of state formation. Even Qataris from outside the Al-Thani tribe are also far more nationalistic. Although anything is possible, it would be quite a concession for the Qataris to give up their sense of independence. This may lead to escalation of tensions.
While some commentators have said this crisis shows the weakness of the United States in the region, I believe the opposite is true. The United States still holds most of the cards when it comes to the naval and strategic security of the region. Instead of fomenting tensions, the United States must work to unite all major players, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, the government in Iraq, and even Russia, against the common threat of ISIS ideology. Oman and Kuwait should also be supported as helpful mediators. To do so, however, the U.S. must work carefully to re-establish its reputation as a mediator and guarantor of security even as the U.S. cracks down on terrorist financing and the spread of extremist ideologies of all kinds. Not maintaining this status could lead to another open wound at the very heart of Eurasia.
Only with history and the context it provides can we understand the full weight and significance of the Qatar Crisis.