BRIEFING PAPER. Diplomatic Crisis in the Middle East: Sanctions Against Qatar

Photo: Wikimedia Commons





  • On June 5th, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt announced the withdrawal of their ambassadors from Qatar as well as the imposition of economic sanctions.
  • A list of ten demands was published, urging Qatar to sever its ties to Iran, cease the support of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist groups as well as to stop the broadcast of the Qatari media outlet Al-Jazeera.
  • Qatar now faces a land, sea and air blockade, leading to panic buying in the country. Qatar's natural gas business, however, will not, or only slightly, be affected by the sanctions.
  • The diplomatic incident might have been sparked by Russian hackers publishing offensive statements about US President Trump and Saudi Arabia.




The decision came roughly two weeks after US President Trump visited Saudi Arabia and he was also quick to take credit for the measures taken against Qatar. His remarks, mostly referring to his pledge to combat terrorism and its funding, did not seem well coordinated with the US Pentagon, which relies heavily on the US air base in Al-Udeid in Qatar, home to the USA's Central Command, the most vital facility for US missions in the Middle East. Meanwhile, both Iran and Turkey have entered into talks with Qatar about potential water and food supplies, after the imposition of the blockade.





While the diplomatic breakup was also backed by the UAE and Bahrain, the main orchestrators are understood to be Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The case of the former will be discussed below in greater detail, while in regard to the latter, suffice it to say that the Egyptian government is leading a campaign against the organisation it ousted from power in July 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a history of receiving abundant financial support from Qatar. Furthermore, Egypt is engaged in its own war on terror on the Sinai Peninsula where it fights Daesh and seeks to undermine collaboration between Daesh and Hamas, the Palestinian extremist group which emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood, and which is also believed to receive sponsoring from Qatar. Moreover, Qatar was strongly condemned for a recent ransom worth $1billion to an Al-Qaida affiliate and Iranian figures in exchange for kidnapped members of Qatar's royal family. Finally, the Qatar-based media outlet Al-Jazeera does not enjoy a lot of popularity in Egypt and has been accused of spreading falsehoods, especially since the military overthrew Mohammed Morsi in 2013.


On the other hand, Saudi-Qatari rivalry encompasses many aspects and this episode is not as clear-cut a case as the headlines suggest. In the following section, a couple of key components will be analysed.


This can hardly be said to be a sectarian conflict since both countries follow a similar brand of Islam, which can be subcategorised as Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia's case. However, as far as religion is concerned, these two countries compete for hegemony as they support religious groups and promote ideologies beyond their borders, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Qatar's case and Wahhabist groups in Saudi Arabia's. Both countries have been alleged to support terrorist groups, a central accusation against Qatar during the diplomatic row. However, Saudi Arabia has had to face similar claims and is backing various so-called moderate rebel groups in the Syrian civil war, at times even training them on their own territory.


Historically, Saudi-Qatari turbulences were fuelled by internal developments within Qatar. Royal Arab succession normally follows a horizontal line, which means that power is passed on within the same generation, e.g. to the brothers of the king or emir. However, Qatar broke with that tradition when in 1995, Sheikh Khalifa Al-Thani was usurped by his son Hamad, who in turn abdicated in order to make his son Tamim Al-Thani the new emir of Qatar in 2013. The house of Saud deemed this a dangerous precedent since they follow the traditional horizontal line of succession, from brother to brother. However, the fear of some in the royal Saudi establishment might come true, as King Salman is in his early 80s and it looks as though Salman's son, the deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed Ben Salman (31) might be favoured over the first crown prince and interior minister, Mohammed Ben Nayef (57) as well as Salman's marginalised half-brother Muqrin. Although those developments might not be the direct cause of the present crisis, they are a part of the confrontation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.


With regard to the geopolitical component, Qatar lies between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and therefore, seeks to balance its relationship with both of them. It was not well-received when Qatar's emir called Iran's President Rouhani after his re-election and underlined his wish to deepen cooperation in the future. Iran and Qatar both rely on the world's largest natural gas field and therefore need good cooperation across the sectarian divide in order to produce a maximum quantity of gas. On the other hand, Qatar is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an alliance of Gulf monarchies which was founded shortly after the Iranian Revolution.


Saudi Arabia's condemnation of Qatar has to be analysed in the context of the regional struggle for hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia and clearly signals that Saudi Arabia will not tolerate any rapprochement between GCC allies and its enemy across the Gulf. However, Kuwait, also a GCC country, maintains even closer ties to Iran and has not had to face any consequences for its relations so far.


However, it may seem surprising to Qatari officials that the US would support such drastic measures against one of its allies, as President Trump clearly prioritised his rhetoric against Iran and the funding of terrorism over the future of the US Centcom air base in Qatar, when he took sides against Qatar. The root cause of the crisis is reported to be the aforementioned ransom of $1billion, paid in part to Syrian extremist groups and to Iranian Shia militias. The sanctioning countries took the incident as the occasion to crack down on a major sponsor of political Islam in the region, which especially due to its influence during the Arab Spring of 2011, is considered an immediate threat to the existing regimes.


Lastly, the FBI reported that Russian hackers might have hacked Qatar's government and planted a false news report aimed at discrediting Qatar. If these reports are substantial, Russia arguably followed the goal to cause a row that would both spark upheaval between two major military allies of the US in the region as well as destabilise one of the world's big natural gas producers. However, the engagement of the Russian government in the hack is still being investigated. Other reports claim that the perpetrators were freelance hackers, paid to undertake the work on behalf of some other state or individual.


Author: Stefan Pfalzer