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Examining Qatari-Saudi Relations 28, February 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
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German newspaper Die Welt recently reported that Saudi Arabia held a meeting with fellow Gulf States to discuss what should be done to counter increasing Hezbollah activity – but it did not include Qatar in the discussions. The clear implication was that Saudi Arabia’s elite do not appear to trust their Qatari counterparts in respect to sectarian issues. This should not necessarily come as a surprise; Qatar and Saudi Arabia, despite a recent rapprochement, have long-standing issues which may potentially be exacerbated by those very sectarian concerns. Another strand of tension emerging in a region already shot through with concerns and affecting one of the more active and stable countries – Qatar – would not be a welcome development for anyone.

Historically, those ruling in Qatar have always been significantly weaker than their surrounding competitors. As such their key tactic, from the late eighteenth century onwards (from when Qatar’s modern history is typically dated), was to ally with one power against the depredations of another. Qataris sought to ally with whomsoever would give them the most autonomy, often leading them to them change their alliances with frequency and alacrity. The Wahhabi powers, descendants of whom continue to form a key part of the ruling Saudi Arabian political bargain to this day, though their powers have waxed and waned, were perennially caught up in this Qatari bandwagoning game.

As the third and current Saudi state was consolidated under Ibn Saud at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was clear to both the Qataris and the British – then nominal protectors of Qatar – that should Ibn Saud so choose, he could, as one political resident put it, “eat up Qatar in a week.” Unsurprisingly, simple geostrategic calculations of state power dictated that Qatari leaders needed to keep Ibn Saud as an ally, for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as it was soon known, was infinitely more powerful in every measurable metric. The close relationship changed to a more overt, but still implicit, Saudi suzerainty over Qatar after the 1971 British withdrawal from the East of Suez. From 1971 to the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia was the de facto protector of Qatar and while Qatar was technically an autonomous, sovereign nation, in reality its leadership repeatedly looked towards Saudi Arabia for policy direction.

It was in the 1990’s that this relationship began to show a marked deterioration. Firstly, Qatar’s then-Crown Prince, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, appeared to chafe under Saudi suzerainty and wanted to take his country on to a firmly independent trajectory, eschewing Saudi Arabia’s overarching leadership.
Secondly, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia and its eastern oil fields, Saudi Arabia’s scramble to invite in Western coalition forces to defend its Kingdom made it abundantly clear their own armed forces were not sufficient even to protect themselves. The chance that Saudi forces could protect Qatar as well – as had been implicitly understood in the 1971-1990 Saudi-Qatari relationship – was therefore rendered a moot point and a major pillar of their relationship crumbled. In preparation for the coming American action in the Gulf, Qatar signed military agreements with the US in 1991-2 allowing American forces to base themselves in Qatar. The need for any kind of Saudi protection promptly vanished.

With Qatar now so openly intimating its desire for greater autonomy, Saudi Arabia reacted. Rhetoric from both sides increased and led to a border skirmish on 30 September 1992, leaving three soldiers dead. Egyptian mediation temporarily resolved the situation only for tensions to flare up again in 1994.
Thirdly, in the early 1990’s, Saudi Arabia sought to block any Qatari attempts to export its gas by pipeline to the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait, claiming that it would have to transverse Saudi territory in some way. Saudi had also found more gas reserves and was unwilling to facilitate further potential competition in the region.

Finally, after Crown Prince Hamad seized power from his father in 1995 in a peaceful coup, Saudi Arabia, aside from maintaining support for the ousted Emir, is widely believed to have financially supported at least one coup against Hamad. While this pointed, personal action has scarcely been forgotten seventeen years later, some also argue it acted as the final coup de grace, plunging Saudi-Qatari relations into deep freeze.

Qatar reacted in a variety of ways. The broadcaster Al Jazeera was set up in 1996 and soon began to focus relentlessly on Saudi Arabia and Egypt. While the palace is suspected of having encouraged this ploy, there is no evidence of any direct interference, nor would any be needed; Doha is a small place and Al Jazeera knows perfectly well what it can and cannot discuss.

Riyadh – along with all other Arab countries at one point or another – reacted furiously. This was, it must not be forgotten, the first time in the history of the Arab world that there was prolonged media coverage over which the rulers had little control. Ambassadors were routinely recalled, the Qatari Emir was frequently beseeched to try and temper Al Jazeera, and Al Jazeera’s offices were peripatetic in their presence in countries across the Arab World.

Also to Riyadh’s displeasure, Qatar also continued with policies it had begun in the early 1990s, seeking better relations with Iran. Also, the new Emir sought a relationship with Israel, which included the opening of an Israeli Trade Office in Doha in 1996 and attempts to sell Qatari gas to the Jewish State. Both of these policies hit raw nerves in Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia’s elite was furious with Qatar’s hosting of top-level Israeli diplomats and their burgeoning relations, it was arguably the improvements in relations with Iran that they found even more inflammatory.

It is difficult to overstate just how antithetical Saudi Arabia and Iran are. They stand on different sides of the key Islamic divide; Iran has a 5000 year pedigree, Saudi Arabia has no such history as a cohesive territorial unit; Saudi Arabia is a conservative Monarchy, Iran is an explicitly revolutionary republic; Iran relies most heavily on asymmetric defence in the form of the Revolutionary Guard and groups like Hezbollah, whereas Saudi Arabia relies on American-backed traditional military might; all the while with both countries vying for the mantle of ‘leader of the Arab World’, a prize of central importance to their basic ruling bargains.

Lastly it is important to note that each profoundly fears the other. From the Saudi Arabian perspective in particular, there are enormous fears that Iran’s Shia will somehow deliberately infect their eastern province, where the majority of Saudi’s Shia are sit atop the majority of the oil reserves and processing facilities, and on this topic particularly Saudi Arabia will brook little compromise.
It took Saudi Arabia thirteen years to come to terms with Qatar’s independence of thought and action. In 2008 the Saudi Arabian Ambassador returned to Doha after a five year absence that had stemmed from the aforementioned disputes. On his return, Saudi Arabia solicited and achieved guarantees from the Qataris that Al Jazeera’s outspoken and vociferous coverage of the Kingdom would be toned down, which it duly was. Since this rapprochement, relations have improved slowly but surely, despite the odd lapse.
The greatest test came in March 2011 when Saudi Arabia led the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield troops and tanks into Bahrain to show support for the beleaguered Sunni ruling elite. Qatar, like Oman, did not send any troops or police aside from unconfirmed rumours that one or two Qatari policemen were sent in a token gesture of support.

The crux of the issue is that Qatar deals with Iran in a fundamentally different way to Saudi Arabia. Sharing the world’s largest gas field with Iran and as a small country with no strategic depth, Qatar sensibly chooses not to goad the Iranians. Instead, when sporadic and pointed comments emanate from Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, Qatar will invariably seek to calm tensions. Over the years, Qatar has even tried to normalise relations with Iran and the GCC, inviting Iran to the annual GCC summit in 2007 – much the fury of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. Additionally, Qatar has long established relations with Iranian proxies Hezbollah, which it has even donated money to in the past.

Qatar does not pursue these policies because it fundamentally enjoys good relations with Iran and its proxies as compared to its Arab neighbours, but because it wants to maintain the façade of ‘good, fraternal, cordial relations’ (as they are always termed in the press releases) to act as a safety valve for Iran in particular and to remind Tehran that should the worst come to fruition (some kind of serious military conflict) that Qatar has, all along, been seeking peace and reconciliation with the behemoth Shia state.

Specifically, Qatar are concerned that Iran, if it so chose, could perhaps seriously impinge upon its ability to obtain, process, and ship gas from the shared field. 2004 saw examples of Iranian Revolutionary Guard members apparently destroying and looting unmanned Qatari rigs. It is this kind of low-level, sub-war but still serious incident that Qatar is seeking to avoid in its efforts to improve its relations with Iran. For its part Iran likes the idea of ‘cordial’ relations with Qatar being widely known to show that it does have ‘an Arab friend’ and that the US and Saudi containment of Iran has not worked.

‘They lie to us, and we lie to them’ was how the Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani, was quoted in Wikileaks, characterising the Qatari-Iranian relationship; an apt summation, which highlights the capricious but mutually conducive state of Qatar’s Iranian relations.
The level of Saudi Arabia’s bellicosity in retaliation against perceived Iranian interference in Bahrain puts this Qatari policy in jeopardy. For Saudi Arabia in this war-like frame of mind a Qatar that fraternises with Iran, potentially undermining GCC unity against this nominally shared enemy, is a liability.

Yet Qatar finds itself between a rock and a hard place. In reality a severely angered Saudi Arabia could be highly damaging for Qatar. Not only could it block Qatar’s diplomatic initiatives but they could well interfere with, for example, the through-put of supplies (concrete etc.) that Qatar needs from Saudi Arabia in order to build its infrastructure up for the 2022 World Cup. Any easily-applied Saudi pressure over these sensitive issues could have serious ramifications but equally Qatar is fundamentally unwilling to antagonise Iran to any serious degree for the fears already outlined above.
Saudi Arabia’s apparent exclusion of Qatar from its discussion with fellow Gulf states on Hezbollah, if it is true (which is by no means certain) provides a clue as to the level of paranoia in Riyadh. That Qatar should be excluded as if it constituted a security threat is an absurd notion. Moreover it highlights that Qatar’s actions in seeking accommodation with Iran or by maintaining links and supporting organisations such as Hezbollah has serious consequences; while this one suspected incident may appear, in isolation, to seem relatively benign, Doha finds itself having to dextrously play its game of balancing competing and incongruent sides.

If Riyadh continues to view Doha’s elite as a liability and begins to isolate Qatar where possible, aside from the potentially practical implications for Qatar, there are potentially serious ramifications for Qatar’s international role. Thus far in the Arab Spring with Qatar to the fore but with Saudi Arabia often supporting its moves from the rear, these two states have operated successfully. A Qatari policy without the Saudi Arabian clout and backing is liable to be significantly weaker. In this revolutionary age, if Qatar’s role is hampered without Saudi’s support, then this leaves the region without a state willing to push the boundaries of regional politics, which could herald a return to greater Arab passivity and studied ignorance of the violence taking place in their midst.