Saudi Arabia and Qatar: Tribal Feud with Regional and Global Implications

On the morning of June 5, Saudi Arabia and four of its regional friends decided to sever diplomatic, economic, and transportation ties with Qatar and its ruler Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Such a feud within the Gulf Cooperation Council—which comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman—is not new, especially between Qatar and its most immediate neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. But the severity of the Saudi-engineered boycott of Qatar, the reasons given, and the implied demands for Qatari capitulation are unprecedented and potentially carry serious regional and global implications. The UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, plus the pro-Saudi government in Yemen, the UAE-backed regime in eastern Libya, and the Maldives, lined up behind the Riyadh’s move, using similar language to that in the Saudi official statement announcing the break with Qatar.

The key imponderable is whether the Saudi action, regardless of the veracity of the official justification, aims at regime change in Qatar by replacing Tamim bin Hamad with another Al Thani who could act as a Saudi quisling. If the Saudis indeed intend to depose Sheikh Tamim, the kingdom would not play such a dangerous game without a nod from Washington. Perhaps Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler and Minister of Defense Muhammad bin Salman feel emboldened by President Trump’s recent visit to the kingdom. Regime change in the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms over the past two centuries has been accomplished through overt or covert support from external powers, first by the British and now the Americans.

If the Qatari emir rejects the Saudi demands—including abiding by the GCC “commitments and agreements,” ceasing “hostilities against the Kingdom,” and standing “against terrorist groups and activities”—does Riyadh plan to send troops into Qatar and forcibly remove him from office? Will post-Tamim Qatar join Bahrain in becoming another Saudi vassal state in the GCC? Will the Saudi defense minister use such an aggressive adventure as a diversion from his disastrous and stalemated war in Yemen? What will happen to the huge Al Udeid American airbase and its 10,000 US troops in Qatar? Are the Trump administration and Congress prepared for yet another war in the volatile Gulf region in the name of fighting Iran and terrorism? Is this Saudi adventurism in the neighborhood another sign of the kingdom’s power projection beyond its borders, and does it really frighten Iran and force it to bend to Saudi—and even American—wishes?

The anti-Qatar action is a clumsy demonstration of the kingdom’s desire to challenge Iran for regional hegemony. What makes the Saudi boycott even more puzzling is the fact that, in addition to Qatar, two GCC member states—Kuwait and Oman—maintain working relations with Iran and have not severed relations with Qatar.

Two other points add to the intrigue of the Saudi-Qatari spat. Both states adhere to the Sunni Wahhabi Salafi interpretation of Islam, which has spawned “jihadism” and terrorism across the region and globally. They have also both supported and financed, at least initially, al-Qaeda affiliate groups fighting against the Assad regime in Syria.

A key analytic question is whether the draconian Saudi measures against Qatar will ultimately lead to the GCC’s demise. Such a course of action is not unthinkable. Since the end of the first Gulf war and the eviction of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, GCC members generally have pursued their own separate military, economic, and political national interests regardless of their membership in the GCC. By severing relations with Qatar so publicly, drastically, and unexpectedly—with very little room for diplomatic compromise—Saudi Arabia might be signaling that the GCC has outlived its usefulness.

If Kuwaiti attempts to reconcile differences between Riyadh and Doha, as happened in previous disputes, succeed with the Tamim regime remaining in power and without much capitulation, then the Saudi boycott would amount to no more than a tempest in a teapot, and the Saudi regime would be exposed as no more than a schoolyard bully. If, on the other hand, Qatar gives in to the Saudi demands and Tamim stays in power as a pliant ruling potentate, the kingdom would emerge as an Arab hegemon on the western side of the Gulf, leaving the GCC in tatters. Saudi Arabia would then boast to its neighbors that being closely aligned with the Trump administration pays off.

Regardless of the outcome of Kuwaiti diplomacy, Iran is unlikely to be deterred by Saudi mini-power games and would continue its ascendancy as a regional hegemon unaffected by the tribal squabbles in Arabia. Sunni extremism would remain unabated, regional instability would likely increase, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE would remain bogged down in their futile Yemen war.

Old Tensions

Tensions within the GCC go back to its creation in May 1981. However reluctantly, Gulf Arab emirates acceded to Riyadh’s invitation to enlist because they supported the organization’s three main objectives: help preserve tribal family rule; stifle all anti-regime democratic protests and preserve autocracy; and enlist Western military support to defend the Gulf Arab littoral from the perceived threat of Iran following its 1979 revolution.