Exporting the Gulf Crisis
Two years since it began, the so-called Gulf crisis looks more permanent than ever. Many observers expected a quick resolution when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt broke ties with Qatar in June 2017. After all, a similar spat had quickly faded in 2014.
But this time the crisis is different, for reasons that have eluded policymakers, stymied mediation, and created dangerous ripple effects throughout the region. Like past disagreements, this one is built with layers of personality, ambition, and insecurity. What’s new is the moralistic narrative each side has sought to write, depicting themselves as righteous leaders of a new kind of region.
Understanding this story is key to understanding the true fallout of the crisis, which isn’t on the Arabian peninsula. War has not broken out among Gulf nations, but the feuding sides have taken their fight to more distant battlefields — mostly throughout the greater Middle East and on the Horn of Africa.
The story goes like this: On one side, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt say they are pushing the region on the only viable path toward stability and growth. They favor governments like their own, ones that take a firm hand in suppressing dissent, particularly Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. They place their faith in an idea that economic growth will confer its own sort of legitimacy and that their aid can help weather difficult transitions in the meantime. Qatar, meanwhile, sees itself as the rights-driven bulwark against a Saudi-led order that blockades a neighbour and helps suppress demands for change throughout the region. Although its own government is as autocratic as those in Riyadh and the Abu Dhabi, Doha has backed traditional underdogs, including a wide network of Islamists, populists, and critics of other Gulf monarchies. Such allies can also help Qatar exact a strategic cost on the states that are blockading it by stirring resistance or promoting negative media coverage. Zero-sum logic defines both sides: A loss for their opponent is a win for them.
One doesn’t need to believe the premise of this story to understand how it is shaping reality. First, it has made the dispute remarkably intractible. Feuding Gulf states see existential issues of regional leadership at stake — the kind that don’t lend themselves to tactical compromise or accommodation. Assertive young new decision-makers on all sides are loath to back down when their oil-rich states can afford the cost of stalemate.
Second, the narrative explains in part why these states are exporting their conflict: They hope to outmaneuver their rival in the broader region. The dispute colors and exacerbates ongoing conflicts close-by and farther afield, most acutely today in Libya and Sudan.
The origins of the Gulf crisis predate its official birth date of June 5, 2017. Qatar never sat comfortably as a small state at the foot of Saudi Arabia, though neither did the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman. But the 2011 Arab uprisings put the two axes of today’s Gulf dispute on clearly opposite sides. Many initial beneficiaries of the unrest were Islamists, who counted among the only opposition actors able to organise under past repression. Qatar, which had built ties with many of these movements, rode and fed the wave to promote their allies and claim the high moral ground of revolution. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, in contrast, were wary, principally for their own and their allies’ survival but also for the regional order of which they were a part. (Riyadh, which decades ago had welcomed Brotherhood exiles fleeing Soviet-allied Egypt, had come full-circle well before 2011 and now viewed its domestic ‘Awakening’ movement as a threat.)
Both sides saw themselves as sitting on the right side of history — with a unique chance to shape it. The traditional heavyweights in the Middle East — Egypt, Syria, and Iraq — were consumed in turmoil and the United States had signalled a pivot away from the region. The first iteration of today’s Gulf crisis began to play out: In Egypt, Qatar supported the country’s first elected president, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, only to see him ousted with the backing of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In Libya, Doha and Abu Dhabi were initially on the same side of a NATO-led effort that ousted President Muammar Qaddafi, but they backed rival armed groups to do so. Qatar and Saudi Arabia (and allied clerics on both sides) came out in support of Syria’s uprising, but they armed and financed separate rival factions contributing to a devastating split in the opposition. And so on.
Doha presented itself as backing change, and painted Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as counter-revolutionaries. Saudi and Emirati officials claim their pushback was necessary to avoid chaos, namely an activist Islamist rise that threatened their model of government and conflicted with their quietist interpretations of Islam. They feared a security vacuum that Iran could exploit or fill. Both sides saw a longer game too: By investing in new governments and ascendant rebel groups, they were making investments that could pay considerable strategic and economic dividends.
These disputes were only exacerbated when the rift burst into the open in 2017. The two sides are no longer bound by the nominal courtesies of fraternity in their scramble for like-minded friends in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. Instead, they are broadcasting their respective worldviews and selling them with promises of investment, aid, and cash. In return, they expect some deference to their geopolitical ambition.
Fragile states have been the least equipped to withstand intra-Gulf competition. Today in Somalia, Qatar and its closest regional ally Turkey support the federal government in Mogadishu, while the Emiratis have backed governments in Somalia’s federal states, reigniting a longstanding dispute about the balance of power between the country’s center and periphery.
In Libya, the Gulf rift has coloured a new escalation of fighting around Tripoli. In April, the Eastern-based Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, launched a long-threatened push for the capital. Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, which argue he is the only leader who can rein in all shades of political Islamists, from peaceful to violent, ranging from the Brotherhood to al-Qaeda. In their view, that includes militias allied to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord — parts of which have benefited from Qatari and Turkish aid. Just recently, groups allied to the Government of National Accord said they have received new vehicles and weapons by ship from Ankara.
Nearby Sudan, meanwhile, sits at the doorstep of change, making it particularly vulnerable to external competition. President Omar al Bashir had been adept at playing both sides of the Gulf rift off one another for aid. But Abu Dhabi and Riyadh never trusted Bashir and declined to bail him out when his days appeared numbered this April after months of protests against his rule. They hoped a transition led by close military allies could firmly swing Khartoum toward their side. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledged $3 billion to support the military transitional council and argued the uprising was a rejection of Sudan’s Muslim Brotherhood, which formed part of Bashir’s regime and has deep ties to Doha and Ankara. For now, Qatar and Turkey appear to have opted to let events unfold, though few expect them to sit on the sidelines if their longtime allies are pushed out. At a minimum, pro-Qatari and Turkish media outlets are amplifying the narrative that the transitional council is a Saudi-Emirati puppet — something of which many protestors already are persuaded.
In far more places, competing sides of the Gulf rift are laying the seeds of potential future conflict with aggressive new outreach. Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia, Chad, and South Sudan are among the long list of countries where both sides of the dispute are courting the government, the opposition, local leaders, or some combination — invariably against each other.
Political competition is one thing, but the existential narratives emerging from the Gulf crisis impose yes-or-no answers in places with a long history of finding compromise solutions. It eliminates the possibility of negotiation and political flexibility. In Libya and Sudan, countless actors will need to accommodate one another in order for a stable transition to take hold. This sort of process may be deeply uncomfortable to Gulf states — which can then act as spoilers.
Despite the regional fall out, Washington has adjusted to the new Gulf reality with something of a shrug. Never acknowledging the depth of the disagreement, Washington has instead sought to quarantine its policy goals from being affected. The rift, for example, has bizarrely accelerated intra-Gulf cooperation on counter-terrorist financing. Countries now have stronger agreements with the United States and better information sharing amongst themselves. The Pentagon also secured an agreement that all Gulf states will participate in joint military exercises, without exception.
This narrow diplomacy turns a blind eye to the true consequences. As is now apparent in Tripoli and Khartoum, the Gulf crisis is not only, or even primarily, playing out in the Arabian Peninsula. And even if Washington may believe it can afford to live with the Gulf split, the region cannot. What happens there may yet redound badly for all.
Elizabeth Dickinson is senior analyst for the Arabian Peninsula at International Crisis Group. She was previously a journalist in the Gulf, a region where she has lived for nearly a decade.
Image: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Francis O’Brien