For a small peninsular nation surrounded by hostile neighbors, Qatar is holding its own against an economic, military, and diplomatic axis led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Initially, Qatar was once a valued member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), formally called the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, an organization of Persian Gulf monarchies formed in 1981 as a bulwark against the Islamic Republic of Iran. As denoted by its formal title, the GCC is a solely Arab alliance composed of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman, and as such, non-Arab Iran was not welcome as a member.
The GCC, like NATO, on which it is modeled, also began fishing for new members far outside its geographical area. At first, the GCC was interested in enlisting as members the remaining two Arab monarchies, Jordan and Morocco. In 2011, there was interest in having Egypt join the GCC. Yemen’s civil war and the presence in Iraq of a large pro-Iranian Shi’a population have prevented the GCC from accepting either two as members.
However, cracks between Qatar and the Saudis began emerging in 1995, when Qatar’s new emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, decided that Qatar should have a foreign policy independent from that of the Saudis. An early rupture in relations occurred in 2002, when the Saudis withdrew their ambassador from Doha, the Qatari capital, as a way to punish Qatar for its independent streak. Qatar was able to flex its muscles against the Saudis by brandishing its Al-Udeid Airbase, America’s largest military base in the Middle East and the home to the regional headquarters of the US Central Command (CENTCOM).
In 2014, a major crack developed within the GCC. Qatar was accused by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain of supporting groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Lebanese Hezbollah. The Saudis and Emiratis were also upset about the reporting of the so-called “Arab Spring” by Qatar’s state-funded Al Jazeera satellite news network. During a GCC summit, the Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis recalled their ambassadors in Doha.
After Donald Trump’s inauguration as president in Washington, the Saudis and Emiratis, sensing their illegal contributions to the Trump campaign and presidential inauguration should pay some dividends, decided to wage a drastic economic and political war against Qatar. Working against Qatar on behalf of the UAE and Saudis was a lobbying cabal headed by the co-chair of the Republican Party’s Finance Committee and Trump friend, Elliott Broidy, and adviser to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi George Nader. It was later discovered that the UAE ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba, was working in concert with the neo-conservative and Israel Lobby-linked Foundation for the Defense of Democracies – once known as the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) – to whip up anti-Qatar fervor within the Trump administration and Congress. PNAC was the neo-con contrivance that helped lie the United States into war with Iraq.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi-based hackers linked to Erik Prince, the founder of the US mercenary company, Blackwater, began waging a cyber war targeting Qatar computer networks. One target was the Qatar News Agency (QNA) that saw its system hacked. QNA began distributing hacker-written stories falsely attributing remarks by Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The emir was falsely painted as favoring Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and, ironically, Israel. These bogus QNA wire stories were reported as true by Abu Dhabi-based Sky News Arabia and Dubai-based and Saudi-owned Al Arabiya.
On June 5, 2017, a month after the Saudis hosted Trump at the Riyadh Summit of Muslim nations, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar. The GCC members also instituted a ban on direct flights between GCC nations and Qatar and Qataris and their businesses were banned from operating within the GCC. Saudi and UAE ports refused docking privileges for Qatari merchant vessels. Qatar’s sole land border, its frontier with Saudi Arabia, was closed. Saudi banks refused to handle Qatari riyals and the UAE cut postal service with Qatar. Qataris were also banned from visiting GCC countries unless they had a spouse as legal residents in the other member states.
The Saudis also began backing a pretender to the Qatari throne as a sign it wanted nothing less than “regime change” in Doha. Qatar has its own “Game of Thrones” cards to play in the UAE, where a growing rivalry separates UAE president-in-waiting, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), and UAE Vice President and Dubai Ruler, Emir Mohammed Rashid bin Maktoum. In June 2018, there was a meeting in Abu Dhabi of the Saudi-UAE Joint Coordination Council. All of the top members of the Saudi and Abu Dhabi royal clans were present, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Absent was the Dubai emir, a royal slap in MBZ’s face that did not go unnoticed in either Doha or Tehran.
Eventually, the Saudi-UAE axis, with the quiet encouragement of Israel, convinced Jordan; Mauritania; Djibouti; Senegal; Maldives; Comoros; the Tobruk-based government of General Khalifa Haftar in Libya; Saudi Arabia’s puppet regime in Yemen; and the semi-autonomous Somali regions of Puntland, Hirshabelle, and Galmudug to sever diplomatic relations with Qatar.
Ironically, the Saudis and Emiratis accused Qatar of backing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), when, in fact, ISIL received more backing from the Saudis and Emiratis than Qatar.
Through the efforts of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the attempt to foment a rupture in US-Qatari relations was forestalled.
Qatar appears to be defending itself against UAE cyber-warfare operations. The UAE’s patronization of cyber-warfare operations involving Broidy’s Virginia-based Circinus LLC, which maintains an operation in Abu Dhabi involving Arabic-, Farsi-, and Hebrew-speaking information operations analysts, and an Abu Dhabi company called DarkMatter, which recruits intelligence analysts from the US National Security Agency (NSA) for cyber-operations contracts in Abu Dhabi. Broidy’s paranoia concerning his operations on behalf of the UAE have grown to the point where his legal representative falsely accused this author of being a covert agent for the government of Qatar.
The diplomatic warfare between the Saudi-UAE axis and Qatar had some farcical moments. In June 2017, the Saudi state media erroneously reported that Mauritius had severed relations with Qatar. In fact, the Saudis had mistaken Mauritius for Mauritania. It was Mauritania, an Arab League member, that broke relations with Qatar. The Mauritius government was forced to issue a demarche refuting the Saudi claim and pointed out its relations with Qatar were unaffected. Pakistan, likewise, refuted claims by Saudi media that it planned on cutting relations with Qatar.
On the diplomatic front, Qatar regained diplomatic ties with countries the Saudis had encouraged to sever relations with Doha. These included Chad, Maldives, and Senegal. Qatar restored ties with the Somali federal administration in Mogadishu after the UAE was ordered to withdraw its personnel from the country. Qatar also managed to establish close military ties with Mali and Burkina Faso, despite Saudi-UAE efforts to curtail such relations. Qatar continues to back the Tripoli-based government of Fayez al-Sarraj, the Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, against the forces of the Tobruk-based Haftar government. A similar stand-off exists in Khartoum between the Saudi-backed military government that took over from Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir after his recent ouster in a coup and a Qatar-backed anti-Saudi/Emirati opposition bloc. Qatar is also holding its own in a diplomatic battle for influence against the UAE in Madagascar, Algeria, Tunisia, Kenya, and Ethiopia.
In November 2017, the UAE was widely ridiculed after its chief of security called for the Saudi-UAE axis to bomb Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha. The last person to call for the bombing of Al Jazeera’s Doha headquarters was George W. Bush, who discussed the idea with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on April 16, 2004. Blair talked Bush out of the idea.
The Saudi-UAE multi-front war against Qatar has faltered since 2017. Turkey, Iran, and Oman have helped limit the effects of the axis’s sea, land, and air blockade of Qatar. The Saudi and UAE ban on receiving Al Jazeera broadcasts have been defeated by satellite dishes that directly receive Al Jazeera signals in defiance of the law. HSBC and Goldman Sachs have defied Saudi and UAE warnings to curtail their financial services with Qatar. Qatar Petroleum has concluded lucrative deals with oil-producing Angola and Nigeria, edging out Saudi Aramco competition.
Turkey established a military base in Qatar, which was construed as a direct warning to the Saudis and Emiratis not to think about any military action against Qatar. France delivered 26 Rafale jet fighters to Qatar despite warnings to Paris from the Saudis.
To emphasize the point that Qatar is far from being vanquished by the Saudis, its lobbyists in Paris have lobbied the Parisian municipal government to name a street in the French capital for the late Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was brutally tortured, murdered, and dismembered in the Saudi Consulate-General in Istanbul in October 2018. For the Qataris, a “rue Jamal Khashoggi” in Paris would deal to the Saudi-UAE axis what the French call a “coup de grâce.”