Why did Saudi Arabia cut ties with Qatar?

A map of Qatar is seen in this picture illustration

A map of Qatar is seen in this picture illustration

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are both members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional bloc of all Arab Gulf countries except Iraq, that was formed in 1981. They share several common geopolitical interests as well. In Syria, both the Saudis and Qataris support their respective proxies who work towards a common goal — overthrowing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. In Yemen, Qatar is part of the Saudi-led coalition that has been bombing the country for over two years. Qatar is also a member of the Islamic Military Alliance, also known as the Arab NATO, a counter-terror military alliance of Sunni countries. Even as bilateral economic and strategic ties remain so strong, why did Saudi Arabia and four of its allies suspend diplomatic ties with Qatar on Monday, triggering a major crisis in the Gulf?

Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood

Qatar has in recent years nurtured a strong ambition of following an independent foreign policy. Unlike the UAE or Bahrain, Qatar has refused to act like just another satellite in the Saudi geopolitical orbit. The fault-lines came out in the open when Qatar welcomed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime in 2011. The Saudis were furious at the turn of events in Egypt. For them, stability in the region is most important. Saudi Arabia and its allies see the Brotherhood as a revolutionary movement that threatens the regional stability whereas Qatar continued to deepen its engagement with the members of the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt was toppled in 2013 through a coup by Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, the Saudis welcomed the development. But Qatar and the royal family-funded television station al-Jazeera went against the Sisi regime. A diplomatic crisis broke out in 2014 when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE temporarily suspended diplomatic ties with Qatar.


Another flashpoint is Qatar’s ties with Iran. Historically, Doha has played off both sides of the Iran-Saudi rivalry. True, its policies were tilted towards the Saudis, but Qatar was keen not to undermine its ties with Iran completely. For example, when Saudi Arabia and some of its allies cut diplomatic ties with Iran following the crisis erupted after the Kingdom executed Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016, Qatar recalled its ambassador, but refused to cut ties. The Saudis were upset with Qatar’s Tehran ties, at a time when they were trying to rally Sunni countries behind themselves to counter Tehran’s influence. The Saudis say Qatar is pursuing its own interests, either through supporting the Brotherhood or its ties with Iran, at the expense of the GCC.


Trump's visit to Riyadh

The immediate trigger of the Saudi decision is a series of developments that occurred after President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh last month where he endorsed the Saudi leadership and called for a joint front against Iran. Three days after the visit was concluded, the Qatar News Agency carried comments by ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, questioning the mounting anti-Iran sentiment. According to the report, the Emir called Hezbollah “a legitimate resistance movement” and Iran “a big power” in the region. However, officials quickly deleted those comments and said the news agency was hacked. But this had already triggered an all-out attack against Qatar and its rulers in state-run Saudi and UAE media. The crisis got worsened when Sheikh Tamim held a telephone conversation with the re-elected Iranian leader, Hassan Rouhani, a few days later the news agency controversy. The Saudis saw this as an act of defiance.

Stress on stability

By taking this extreme step of cutting off diplomatic and people-to-people ties with Qatar, Riyadh may be hoping to make the country teach a lesson. The message is clear — Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Gulf, stability is sacrosanct and Iran is a common enemy. The Saudis and their allies want Qatar to toe this line. But what the Saudis can do next if Qatar continues to disobey them? It may be a tiny country in the Gulf, but Qatar is also an economic powerhouse. It’s the world’s largest LNG exporter and hosts a thriving financial industry. Its military significance is also notable given that the U.S. CENTCOM is headquartered in the country. The air command of the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State is also in Qatar. This means stakes are too high for the U.S. to take a side in this diplomatic conflict, unlike the Saudi-Iran Cold War where the Trump administration has clearly thrown its weight behind the Saudis.

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Printable version | May 23, 2022 2:58:19 am |