Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and the Maldives — spearheaded by Saudi Arabia — have severed almost all of their ties with Qatar. The move comes just days after hacked emails from the Hotmail account of a wealthy, prominent UAE ambassador, Yousef Al-Otaiba, showed that a number of countries were conspiring to denigrate relations with Qatar (and Iran).
The official justification for Saudi Arabia’s rift with Qatar is that the latter country aligns with terrorists and threatens national security. However, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been alleged to support ISIS, and Saudi Arabia’s history of support for terrorist organizations surpasses that of almost any other state in the world (with the exception of probably the U.S.). In fact, the British Home Office is currently refusing to release a report on terrorist funding — commissioned by former Prime Minister David Cameron — because it focuses too heavily on Saudi Arabia.
So what could really be behind this deterioration between Qatar and its former allies?
Unsurprisingly, the real issue at play consists of a Pandora’s Box of money, oil, natural gas, and geopolitics.
Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. It is for this reason that many analysts believe Qatar was heavily involved in attempting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Assad had scrapped a potential deal with Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, opting for a natural gas pipeline deal that would involve Iran and Iraq, instead.
In April 2017, Qatar lifted a self-imposed ban on developing the world’s biggest natural gas field, which it shares with Iran, in an attempt to stave off an expected rise in competition, particularly from Russia.
Iran, too, is home to large natural gas reserves, and after a shortage of domestic gas, the Islamic Republic sought to capitalize on the 2015 nuclear accord by ramping up production on their share of the gas reserve. In November 2016, Iran signed a deal with France’s Total to develop this project. Iran is expected to surpass Qatar’s gas production by next year, and Qatar has been left with no choice but to join in the venture, though they deny Iran prompted their response to lift the ban.
“What we are doing today is something completely new and we will in future of course … share information on this with them [Iran],” Qatar Petroleum’s Chief Executive Saad al-Kaabi said, as reported by Haaretz.
Qatar has no current plans to go to war with Iran, unlike the rest of the Arab Gulf states. Not long after Donald Trump sword-danced his way through the Middle East, raving incessantly about the so-called Iranian threat, Qatari state media released a report that appeared to show Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani give a speech describing his respect for Iran and his support for Hamas. Qatar immediately claimed the report was actually the result of a hack, but the UAE and Saudi Arabia still believe the report to be genuine.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut Qatar from its so-called coalition of countries wreaking havoc on Yemen has come with its political repercussions. Iran immediately expressed support for Qatar in this struggle, as have the Houthi militias operating inside Yemen. The Houthis are already stating they are willing to cooperate with Qatar — even though Qatar was fighting against them for approximately two years.
Qatar is not following the playbook. In Libya, Egypt and Qatar are currently fighting a proxy war as they are both backing different rival camps that are vying to assert power in the war-torn nation. Though Qatar clearly shared NATO’s sentiment in ousting Muammar Gaddafi from Libya and attempting to overthrow Assad in Syria, Qatar’s support for organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood are largely seen as political challenges to the Saudi alliance.
Qatar is home to America’s largest base in the Middle East, with over 11,000 servicemen currently deployed there.
“The United States and the Coalition are grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support of our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security. We have no plans to change our posture in Qatar,”Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. “We encourage all our partners in the region to reduce tensions and work towards common solutions that enable regional security.”
The U.S. cannot afford to intentionally destroy its relationship with Qatar outright, but it can certainly allow its client states in the region to do its bidding for them. As Otaiba’s recently hacked emails show, some very powerful people in Washington support putting pressure on Qatar in order to bring it to its knees and force it to comply with the rest of the region.
Though the U.S. military’s statement appears to be an attempt to mitigate the damage of the fallout, as usual, the one wildcard element that no one can account for when unraveling geopolitical strategies is Donald Trump’s personal Twitter account. Trump has already tweeted his support for the economic blockade on Qatar and even appeared to take credit for the initiative.
But what will the U.S. and the other Gulf states achieve by implementing this policy? So far, all it seems to be doing is pushing Qatar even closer to Iran, and the U.S. may lose yet another vital ally from the anti-Assad alliance, further complicating the battleground as the framework continues to be set for an all-out regional conflict.