BY PATRICIA TAFT
In a year of rapidly shifting priorities, alliances and politics across the greater Middle East, the small oil and gas-rich nation of Qatar took the greatest fall in the 2018 Fragile States Index (FSI). With a native population of barely 300,000 and a gross annual GDP of nearly US$181 billion, Qatar has faced increasing pressure from its Gulf nation neighbors for several years, culminating in the 2017 blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. While the full financial and political impacts of the ongoing blockade are yet to be fully realized, the move to isolate Qatar by its neighbors has already had wide-ranging regional and international impacts.
The isolation of Qatar, which culminated in the June 2017 blockade, was a long time in coming – although, several key events during the year may have accelerated its course. For years, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have accused Qatar of supporting Iranian interests in the region and encouraging wider regional revolutionary tendencies – from financing Iranian-linked proxies in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq to supporting Egypt’s deposed Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Qatari-based and financed news network, al Jazeera, has also long been a thorn in the sides of Gulf Arab monarchs, for whom its coverage is often seen as critical.
Qatar has also positioned itself as a key facilitator of highly sensitive negotiations between Western interests and hostile or politically toxic groups, including the 2015 hostage transfer between the U.S. and the Taliban for captured the captured American soldier, Bo Bergdahl. In addition to working with the United States, Qatar has also reportedly played a critical role in the release of kidnapped citizens from European and other countries, from journalists to NGO workers to unfortunate day-trippers who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ironically, it was this last scenario, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that may have led the monarchy itself down a collision course that would culminate in its 2017 destiny. As reported by Robert F. Worth in The New York Times Magazine on March 14, 2018, the little-known or publicized story of a royal Qatari bird hunting adventure gone awry in southern Iraq in late 2015 set off a chain of events that few at the time could have anticipated. As reported by Worth, following the capture of nine members of Qatar’s ruling al Thani family, as well as dozens of friends and servants, by an Iranian-affiliated militia group in Iraq’s Muthanna Province in November of 2015, the Qataris would embark on an unprecedented effort to get them back. This effort would span sixteen months and have significant financial and political repercussions for the region as a whole. According to the article,
“The cost to Qatar wound up far exceeding US$360 million, but ultimately cash was less important than the deal’s political dimension. In order to retrieve its hostages, Qatar was made to negotiate a tightly choreographed population exchange in Syria, using the rebel militias it finances to forcibly uproot every resident of four strategically located towns. The transfers advanced Tehran’s larger goal of transforming Syria — along with Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen — into satellite states that will enshrine a dominant Iranian role across the region.”1
At the same time, the winds were shifting in Washington, D.C., with the election of Donald J. Trump as president in late 2016 and a subsequent realignment of American interests back firmly into the camp of the Saudi royal family and, in particular, the brash and ascendant Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. “M.B.S.”, as Prince Salman is widely known, the son of the current king and a self-styled reformer, has pursued a strong alliance with the Trump Administration, particularly Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East advisor, Jared Kushner. After feting Trump in Riyadh in May 2017 and hosting visits from Kushner where the two reportedly spent hours discussing regional politics, the Saudi’s charm offensive appeared to have paid dividends. In a series of tweets following his visit that supposedly took some in his Administration, particularly then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by surprise, Trump endorsed the hard line taken by the Saudis and their allies against Qatar, echoing accusations of Qatari support for Iranian-backed regional terrorist groups. This approach diverged sharply from that of the Obama Administration, which for the previous eight years had tried to avoid coming down firmly on the side of either the Saudis or the Qataris, mindful not only of the volatile regional politics, but also of America’s reliance on Qatar as host to the largest overseas American military base in the region.
These explosive regional and international dynamics are reflected in the 2018 FSI, where Qatar took the hardest hit in the Index for the year, worsening by four points. The indicator that measures External Intervention—or the political, financial and military involvement of other countries in Qatar – was, unsurprisingly, the indicator to have deteriorated the most. Although Qatar’s vast oil and gas wealth has thus far buffeted the country from the immediate financial impacts of the blockade, its ongoing isolation in the region may come at much higher, and wider, costs. This, too, is reflected in the 2018 FSI as well as in the overall trends for the country which, over the past five years, has at times seen a deterioration in the scores that measure State Legitimacy as well as Human Rights and Rule of Law. While most of the native-born Qatari population appears to remain firmly supportive of the al Thani family, the monarchy has often come under fierce criticism for its disenfranchisement and poor treatment of foreign-born workers, a driving force of the Qatari economy. Moreover, as more is revealed about Qatar’s alleged role in depopulating towns in Syria in advance of Iranian interests, it is likely the country will continue to see worsening trends across other indicators.
Overall, the 2017 Qatari blockade and its regional implications may be a harbinger of much worse yet to come. In an April 2, 2018 article in The New Yorker profiling the ambitions of M.B.S., former American diplomats and regional scholars posit that the blockade of Qatar may only be one move in a larger effort by the Saudis and Emiratis to depose the Emir of Qatar and neuter Qatari influence in the region.2 As reported in the article, this could well include a military invasion and seizure of Qatar’s vast natural gas reserves and oilfields. Such an event would have far reaching implications not only for Middle East, but potentially draw in NATO allies such as Turkey, which has a strong relationship with Qatar and a military base in Doha. Already, in the short term, the conditions set out by the Saudis and their allies to end the blockade are seen as untenable, insisting that Qatar formally disavow Iran, sever all ties to its proxy forces, and shutter al Jazeera.
Internationally, with the seeming support of the Trump Administration for Saudi efforts to roll back Iranian influence in the region and punish Qatar, a peaceful end to the blockade seems unlikely. While Qatar’s wealth may have spared the country from greater instability in 2017, the future for the tiny Gulf nation, and that of the region, appears very fragile indeed.
1. Worth, Robert. 2018: Kidnapped Royalty Become Pawns in Iran’s Deadly Plot. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/14/magazine/how-a-ransom-for-royal-falconers-reshaped-the-middle-east.html
2. Filkins, Dexter. 2018. A Saudi Prince’s Quest to Remake the Middle East. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/09/a-saudi-princes-quest-to-remake-the-middle-east