The United States’ largest military base in the Middle East is located in Qatar. The U.S.-Qatar military relationship is extremely important. Qatar provides the U.S. military exceptional access to two major Qatari military installations, Al Udaid Air Base and Camp As-Saliyeh – perhaps CENTCOM’s most important operating installations outside of Iraq. Qatar charges no rent. As of 2017, some 10,000 US troops were stationed at the Al Udeid Air Base. These bases are integral to the ongoing fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. . Qatar has provided assistance in U.S.-led airstrikes on militant Islamist forces in Iraq and Syria.
Though Qatar was generally unaffected by the Arab Spring revolts, there have been calls for reform, greater transparency, and fewer restrictions on civil society. Insulated by its wealth and development initiatives, the country, nonetheless, limits free expression as well as political, trade, and non-governmental associations.
Qatar has received criticism for its treatment of migrant workers. The issue has gained prominence in international media due to a proliferation of human rights violations associated with the country hosting the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup. Migrant labor has been used to construct the necessary facilities and infrastructure; accusations of non-payment, seizing of legal documents, and unsanitary housing conditions have plagued the project, and there have been multiple reports of worker deaths due to unsafe work environments, especially related to the country’s high summer temperatures. The State of Qatar has stated it is committed to workers’ rights and that it is the contractors responsible for carrying out the work who have committed the violations.
Qatar-Gulf Cooperation Council Disputes
In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha for violating the GCC principle against interfering in members’ domestic affairs. That rift was resolved in November that year when emir (leader) Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani gave in to a number of demands, including the departure of several Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members along with dissidents from the UAE. Furthermore, Qatar closed the Al Jazeera Egypt bureau and agreed to greater intelligence and policing cooperation with GCC states. Previously, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Qatar for 5 years in 2002 citing Al Jazeera coverage.
GCC-Qatar relations remained tense, but normalized, up until May 2017. whenQatari social media and news sites attributed to the country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, quotes praising the Islamist organization, Hamas, and calling Iran an “Islamic power.” The Washington Post reported that, “citing the emir’s reported comments, the Saudis, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt immediately banned all Qatari media.” In June, the bloc cut off all economic and diplomatic ties with tiny Qatar, and expelled all Qatari nationals from their countries in response to the country’s alleged funding and support of non-state Islamist terrorist actors who threatened the stability of the Middle East. Furthermore, the countries suspended air, land, and sea travel to and from the country. At the time, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that the rift could undermine U.S. counter-terrorism efforts against the Islamic State. His attempt to remain neutral in the dispute has been challenged by President Trump’s open support for the anti-Qatar bloc.
The emir denied having made the comments and blamed hackers. An investigation by U.S. intelligence officials uncovered that the United Arab Emirates had orchestrated the hacking of Qatari state media sites in order to post the incendiary false quotes attributed to the emir that resulted in the embargo. UAE leadership rejected the findings.
In April, prior to the false attribution, Qatar was widely pilloried for facilitating the exchange of a group of Qatari hostages that included members of the royal family with Islamist terrorist groups in Iraq. Rather than working through official diplomatic channels with Baghdad, Qatar was alleged to have negotiated directly with militia leaders and secured the hostages’ release through a payment of $500 million dollars to Iran, Hezbollah and other Shiite groups who support Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Qatar denied trying to pay ransom money to secure the release of the 26 Qataris but the saga brought attention to and reignited resentment of Qatar’s unorthodox foreign policy.
Qatar sits on significant valuable natural gas reserves, as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s oil resources, which has allowed it to pursue an independent path financially and politically. This path has been pursued since the 1990s when the former emir stepped up the country’s exports of liquefied natural gas. One author notes that “Qatar generates four times more export revenue from natural gas than it does from oil, and doesn’t need to follow Saudi’s dictates the way it would if its survival were predicated on it.” Qatar shares these resources, primarily via gas fields located in the Persian Gulf — and is generally on good terms — with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s premier rival. Qatar’s apparent disregard of gulf protocol is a persistent irritant to the region’s elites.
Qatar is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, aregional,intergovernmentalpolitical and economic union established in 1981 consisting of allArab states of the Persian Gulf, except forIraq. Qatar has regularly been accused of engaging in activities and supporting policies that have caused tension with the other GCC member states. Much of this stems from Qatar’s tendency of welcoming members of religious opposition groups. Historically, in an attempt to distinguish itself from powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia, Qatar used its wealth and power to give refuge to foreign, educated Arabs who had been ousted by their own countries. Historically, these exiles were used to help expand Qatar’s educational system and other ministries.
In the 1950s onward, this educated elite was drawn from Palestinian intelligentsia refugees and from the Arab world’s premier learning center, Al Azhar University in Cairo, where the Muslim Brotherhood was a new and popular movement that wanted to counter modernism and pan-Arabism with traditional religious-based education and government. This was a threat to the trend of Egyptian nationalism and so many Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders were kicked out of the country. Qatar hosted these actors while taking advantage of their knowledge and expertise in state institutions, particularly schools. Importing foreign players enabled small Qatar to play an out-sized regional role; this recruitment allowed Qatar to develop an education system independent of Saudi Arabia and enabled Qatar’s elites to play politics, supporting different pan-regional causes at different times. Because of Qatar’s largesse, a mutually beneficial partnership developed that ensured these actors would not interfere with the country’s domestic affairs. This reputation as a place of refuge for political exiles has continued to this day with Qatar seemingly tolerant of all perspectives, carving out for itself the role an open-minded and pluralistic mediator of regional conflict. Over time, Qatar has become increasingly willing to work with extremist groups that most other governments have rejected as perpetrators of terror.
Qatar’s neighbors see the country’s engagement with troublesome foes like the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia’s Islamists, Iran, Hamas and others as provocative and destabilizing. Thus, the upheaval of mid-2017 should be considered within this historical context in mind.
Following the June embargo on Qatar for its alleged support of terrorism and inciteful state media, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain presented Qatar with a list of 13 demands to be met by July 3rd in order for the embargo to end. Among its conditions the list called for the country to nearly sever ties with Iran and Turkey, cease all funding of and ties to “terrorist organizations,” and shut down the powerful Al Jazeera network completely. Qatar’s leaders condemned the requests as an assault on the country’s sovereignty and refused to buckle to external pressure. Some states, principally Turkey and Iran, have come to Qatar’s aid by contributing goods and services usually provided by its neighbors. Other countries including the Kuwait and the United States have offered to mediate the conflict. While the anti-Qatar bloc eased up on some of its demands, Qatar shows no sign of compromising its policies and pursuits. One report stated that “Saudi Arabia and the UAE particularly view Qatar’s support for Muslim Brotherhood affiliates as lethally threatening to their own regimes.” In 2013, when Egypt outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, Qatar stepped in to harbor its ousted leaders. Qatar also hosts the leadership of Hamas which is considered the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and administers the Gaza Strip. Hamas is seen as being an impediment to peace talks between the Arabs and the Israelis.
Another point of contention is Qatar’s state media apparatus. Most notable is outspoken Al Jazeera but it is not the only network. Al Jazeera is known for giving airtime to controversial subjects and speakers. It has regularly covered Muslim Brotherhood officials and events. Al Jazeera was seen as supporting the Arab Spring uprisings through its extensive media coverage, much to the consternation of leaders determined to quash the rebellions.
The resolution of the diplomatic crisis remains uncertain. Qatar could leave or be kicked out of the GCC. The chances are slim that the country will acquiesce to the bloc’s demands to step in line with the status quo; Qatar has powerful allies and a list of valuable assets on its side. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is the indisputable powerhouse of the Gulf States with influential partners and an emboldened leadership. Non-Arab and non-state actors also have a role to play but to what extent they will do so is unpredictable. Each side has the resources, determination, and power to sustain the conflict indefinitely. Nonetheless, economic implications of this crisis are already being felt by Qatar, and many expect that the situation will alter regional power balances for the future.
The Atlantic: “The Muslim Brotherhood Is the Root of the Qatar Crisis” (July 2017)
The Atlantic: “Qatar: The Gulf’s Problem Child” (June 2017)
The Atlantic: “What’s the Problem With Al Jazeera?” (June 2017)
BBC NEWS: “Qatar crisis: What you need to know” (July 2017)
The Guardian: “Qatar given 10 days to meet 13 sweeping demands by Saudi Arabia” (June 2017)
Middle East Policy Journal: “Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood: Pragmatism or Preference?” (David Roberts, Fall 2014)
The New York Times:“Qatar’s Support of Islamists Alienates Allies Near and Far”(Sept 2014)
Newsweek: “Qatar: From Strong Ally to Hostile Neighbor, the Gulf Rift Explained” (June 2017)
The Washington Post: “No end in sight to Arab crisis as Qatar rejects demands amid blockade” (July 2017)