There are three ways to explain the recent crisis that suddenly erupted in the Sunni Arab world when Saudi Arabia and a group of allies abruptly broke relations with the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar.
One explanation is strategic: that the rift is a Saudi-led bid to rein in the maverick Qatar, end Qatar’s support of Islamist terrorists and close Sunni ranks in the worsening cold war with Shi’ite Iran. The second explanation is Machiavellian: It’s a Saudi maneuver to squelch Qatar’s leadership ambitions and preserve Saudi pre-eminence as the leader of the Sunni camp.
The third, surprisingly, is philosophical: The crisis is essentially a showdown pitting the Saudis’ uncompromising, take-no-prisoners pugnaciousness against Qatar’s preference for big-tent diplomacy.
There’s some truth in all three theories. Which you choose to emphasize tells as much about you as it does the Qatar crisis.
The crisis came to a head on the morning of June 5. Bahrain, an island-nation in the Persian Gulf, announced that it was severing ties with neighboring Qatar. Bahrain accused Qatar of destabilizing the region, supporting terrorism and meddling in its neighbors’ affairs. All trade and transportation between the two neighbors would cease, and each nation’s citizens were to leave the other’s territory.
Minutes later, similar statements emerged, in close coordination, from neighboring Oman and the United Arab Emirates, as well as from Egypt, 1,300 miles to the west. Over the next 24 hours they were joined by Mauritania, the Maldives, Mauritius and what’s left of the governments of Yemen and Libya.
Qatar is one of five small Sunni sheikhdoms, all of them absolute monarchies, that dot the Persian Gulf shore on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula. The other four are Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Together with Saudi Arabia they make up the conservative Gulf Cooperation Council.
Qatar has been periodically at odds with the others, pursuing an independent foreign policy that the neighbors deem dangerous adventurism. Qatar also maintains cordial ties with Iran, the Saudis’ bitter rival. Indeed, it co-owns with Iran the world’s largest undersea natural gas field in the Persian Gulf. That’s what’s meant by “destabilizing the region.”
“Meddling in neighbors’ affairs”: that’s code for the Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera cable network, which broadcasts freewheeling, critical, often inflammatory coverage that the other, more traditionalist Arab regimes resent.
As for “supporting terrorism,” that refers to Qatar’s 2011 decision to back anti-regime protesters when the Arab Spring broke out. A wave of anti-government protests in a half-dozen Arab countries, it started out as a liberal, pro-democracy surge but was quickly co-opted in most places by Islamists, and led by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is a loose network of organizations operating in Muslim countries, seeking, through political means, to impose a purist, fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam. In some countries, the Brotherhood sticks to politics. In others, it’s outlawed because of its extremist platform, and this often makes the Brotherhood resort to violence.
Relatively moderate Brotherhood offshoots are the elected ruling parties in Tunisia and Turkey. An Israeli offshoot holds a handful of Knesset seats. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, by contrast, the Brotherhood is an outlawed terrorist organization. The Egyptian branch was legalized during the Arab Spring and was elected to power in 2012, but its incompetence and intolerance led to its overthrow and banning by the army a year later. Saudi Arabia enforces its own brand of fundamentalism, known as Wahhabism or Salafism. The Brotherhood’s rival brand of fundamentalism is illegal and harshly suppressed.
And then there’s the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch, Hamas, which manages to be both a ruling party and a terrorist organization. Until 2011, Hamas had its international headquarters in Shi’ite-leaning Syria and received funding from Shi’ite Iran. When the Syrian civil war broke out, Hamas sided with the Sunni rebels and lost its Iranian funding and its Syrian home. It was invited to set up shop in Qatar, seriously unsettling Qatar’s relations with the Saudis and Egypt.
That’s not the whole story, though. Since moving to Qatar, Hamas has evolved. Qatar has pressured it to reconcile with Fatah so that the Palestinians can present a common front in negotiations with Israel. The result has been a growing rift between Hamas’s Gaza-based military wing, which wants to reconcile with Iran, and its Qatar-based political wing, which wants to reconcile with Fatah, the Saudis and Egypt, who are pressing for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian accord. The political wing won a major victory May 1, when Hamas published its new charter. It rejects Israel’s right to exist, but accepts the Palestinian “consensus” favoring a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders. It also condemns anti-Semitism.
Finally, you can’t discuss Qatari policy without noting Qatar’s own position on Israel. After Israel and the Palestinians signed the 1993 Oslo Accords, Qatar was one of the six Arab states (out of 22) that opened formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Jordan and Mauritania concluded full relations with Israel and exchanged ambassadors. Morocco and Tunisia exchanged interest sections, a lower form of diplomatic relations. Qatar and Oman exchanged trade offices with Israel. All except Jordan downgraded relations and shut their offices after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, in 2000, and then cut off ties altogether in January 2009, after the first Gaza incursion.
But Qatar didn’t cut all ties. It alone, among Arab states without diplomatic ties, continues to admit Israeli visitors and trade with Israel. It’s allowed Israeli athletes to participate publicly in regional sports events, most recently in a 2016 Middle East beach volleyball championship in Qatar. No less important, its diplomats openly visit Israel. During the 2014 conflict between Israel and Gaza, Qatari diplomats shuttled between Israel and Gaza to negotiate a cease-fire (it was a rival Egyptian cease-fire that was eventually adopted). A year earlier, Qatar chaired the Arab League subcommittee that agreed to amend the league’s 2002 peace initiative and to endorse territorial swaps to preserve Israeli settlement blocs.
What does all that add up to? Are those the actions of a rogue state that can’t decide which side it’s on, as the Saudis say? Or is it a pattern of flexible, creative diplomacy with an eye toward building bridges? I’d argue the latter. And I’d hope the Saudis and their followers would tread cautiously, and avoid wrecking Qatar’s careful work.
J.J. Goldberg is the editor-at-large of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter, @jj_goldberg
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).