Neighbors |

What Was Behind Qatar's Eight-month Rift With Other Gulf States and Why Is It Over Now?

A look at what the discord and its aftermath are all about. Hint: It involves ISIS and Al Jazeera.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Secretary-General Hassan Al-Thawadi (3rd L) of Qatar's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the nation's 2022 World Cup organising committee, speaks during a news conference, Sept. 22, 2014.
Secretary-General Hassan Al-Thawadi (3rd L) of Qatar's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the nation's 2022 World Cup organising committee, speaks during a news conference, Sept. 22, 2014.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Saudi Arabia has racked up another diplomatic success that is likely to strengthen the alliance of countries opposing the Islamic State group.

Two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia succeeded in getting Qatar to promise to stop interfering in other Arab countries’ internal affairs, end its verbal attacks on Egypt and bring its foreign policy on the Middle East into line with that of the other Gulf states. In exchange, the other Gulf states — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman — decided to return their ambassadors to Qatar and resume cooperation with it.

Saudi Arabia’s victory enables Qatar to return to the bosom of the Gulf Cooperation Council after an eight-month rift.

The main reason for the break with Qatar was its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Brotherhood’s offshoots in Libya, Tunisia and Gaza — the latter of which is better known as Hamas — alongside its refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the new Egyptian government headed by Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who ousted the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi from the presidency and defined the organization as a terrorist movement.

The Gulf states were also worried by Qatar’s close relations with Iran and its support for Islamist rebel militias in Syria that competed against the Saudi-backed rebel militias. In addition, Qatar managed to infuriate most other Arab countries via its Al Jazeera television station, whose coverage includes scathing criticism of other Arab governments, especially that of Egypt.

The Al Jazeera newsroom in Doha, Qatar.Credit: Reuters

This tiny country of about 500,000 citizens (plus 1.5 million foreign workers), a former British protectorate that received full independence in 1971, has been conducting an independent foreign policy ever since Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani ousted his father in 1995 and instituted a series of reforms, including setting up the state-owned Al Jazeera, which has revolutionized Arab news coverage.

Qatar, which maintains some diplomatic ties with Israel, is considered a strange bird in Arab politics. On one hand, it supports Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and has given shelter to some of their senior officials — which is why Israel terms it a “state supporter of terrorism” and Egypt considers it a “hostile state.” On the other hand, Doha has close relations with the West.

For instance, Qatar hosts the U.S. Army’s main air base in the Middle East, and this month it signed a $23 billion deal to buy assault helicopters and missiles from Britain. It has also signed several major arms purchasing deals with America, for $9.9 billion worth of equipment in 2012 and $11 billion this year.

Because it can

Why does such a tiny country need so much weaponry? That’s precisely the question that troubles its neighbors. The answer apparently lies in the old cliché: It has so many weapons because it can afford them.

Qatar’s enormous wealth, along with the platform Al Jazeera provides, are the levers it uses to exert diplomatic influence in the region. These levers enable it to compete against bigger countries not just in the Middle East, but worldwide. Its soft-power policy, which includes buying soccer teams, importing Western universities and investing in museums, has given it a liberal image that has earned it special status in the West while sparking anger and loathing in the Middle East.

The question is why Qatar agreed to swallow its pride and acquiesce to Saudi Arabia’s demands as the price of readmission to the Gulf states club. Aside from the pressure Washington exerted on both countries to cooperate for the sake of the war on the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, Qatar evidently realized that absent good relations with Cairo and Riyadh, its ability to exert influence on key regional matters — from the Palestinian issue to the Syrian civil war and the ramifications of the expected nuclear agreement with Iran — would be undermined.

Having reconciled with Qatar, Saudi Arabia is now urging Egypt to do the same. Though al-Sissi has said he will judge Qatar by its deeds rather than its words, it seems he is planning to thaw relations between the countries soon.

As a first step, Cairo plans to release at least two of the Al Jazeera journalists who have been jailed for months on charges of incitement and undermining the regime. In exchange, it expects Qatar to provide grants and investments to support Egypt’s economy, which is drowning in debt. Qatar gave billions of dollars to Egypt during Morsi’s reign, but turned off the tap when al-Sissi took power in July 2013.

In light of the new spirit of reconciliation wafting from these countries, Egyptian columnist Adel El-Sanhory wondered, “Will we reconcile with Syria after we’ve reconciled with Qatar?” He didn’t say explicitly that the Arab states should reconcile with Syrian President Bashar Assad. But his question apparently reflects the mood in Egypt’s presidential palace.

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