Conflict With Qatar And Unforeseen Consequences For Saudi Arabia – Analysis


By Amir Hossein Estebari

The recent conflict between Qatar and three members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is the toughest of its kind. Even though Saudi Arabia properly is in no doubt over the power of the new economic and political sanctions imposed on Qatar – supported by ten Islamic countries – so as to modify Qatar’s behavior in foreign policy, the hypothesis of this article predicts Saudi Arabia, as the dominant state in Arabian Peninsula and the leading rival for Iran in the Persian Gulf, is subject to a number of unintended but profound adverse consequences in medium and long term for its harsh policy towards Qatar.

The Reasons Underlying the Conflict

Discovering the deep roots of the recent Qatar diplomatic crisis is not the main focus of this article. However, if a glance at these roots is regarded necessary for a compelling final analysis, two primary reasons behind the crisis can be articulated:

  • After the coup d’état in 1995 – by which Hamad bin Khalifa successfully deposed his father to become the new Emir of Qatar – the United Arab Emirates (UAE) granted asylum to the deposed Khalifa bin Hamad, which was considered a malevolent plot, developed by UAE, along with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, against the new Emir.
  • This alleged conspiracy, plus the eye-catching economic growth in Qatar, which made it the richest country per capita in the world, were enough to hearten the new Emir to make unprecedented shifts in foreign policy towards more independence in decision making and seeking expansion of his regional and global influence in order to step out from the shadow of Saudi Arabia [1]. Relations with the enemies or rivals of Saudi Arabia – such as Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Iran – along with the increasing controversial influence of Aljazeera on the Arab world are adequate justifications for Saudi Arabia to regard new Qatar as a credible threat, capable of modifying the regional status quo in the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf and even the Middle East – where Saudi Arabia has had an upper hand for at least three decades.

Miscalculations by Saudi Arabia

The decision of intensifying pressure on Qatar – implemented by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and some other countries – for the sake of a behavioral change in Qatar, must have been provoked by two main incentives:

  • Arab public opinion would support the decision: Amidst a similar diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the same three members of GCC in 2014, a pervasive hatred for Qatar was discernible in many parts of Middle East and North Africa, mainly in Egypt, Libya, UAE and Palestine (West Bank) on the grounds of Qatar’s support in favor of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups [2].
  • Pressures would be strong enough for a behavioral change: Qatar is highly integrated with its Arab neighbors. Approximately 80 percent of its food resources are imported through the border with Saudi Arabia and the ports in UAE. In 2015, the value of Qatar’s trade flows totaled over $2 billion with Saudi Arabia, $7 billion with the UAE, and $500 million with Bahrain. Qatar exports more to those three countries than it imports. Moreover, the banking sector’s exposure to Qatar is estimated to be around $60 billion by Saudi Arabia and UAE [3].

Notwithstanding the fact that Qatar will be a big loser of abundant economic opportunities, it seems Saudi Arabia and its allies have miscalculated their expected returns:

  • The public opinion support is apparently lower-than-expected: Despite the fact that the majority of UAE citizens are very skeptical of Qatar’s foreign policy as their main competitor in the region, an online survey by a former advisor to Abu Dhabi government – asking if it was right to cut ties with Qatar – was deleted after 65 per cent of respondents decided it was not. Moreover, governments in UAE and Bahrain have warned anyone who expresses sympathy with Qatar on social media to face lengthy jail terms [4]. If sanctions on Qatar had an adequate amount of support, no warnings like these were required.
  • Qatar is not isolated yet: Iran and Turkey are competing to fill Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain’s shoes in Qatar. Oman and Kuwait – as GCC members – have taken a more moderate position towards Qatar, making efforts to resolve the crisis in GCC as mediators. The US secretary of states and officials in Qatar, merely a month after the crisis, signed a new memorandum on tracking the flow of terrorist financing in the region, followed by France foreign minister and Turkey president’s trip to Doha.

Apart from incurring losses, the crisis is likely to bring new business opportunities and introduce new geopolitical alliances for Qatar. The solidification of alternative channels over time might replace current ties with the GCC members [5].

Potential Implications for Saudi Arabia

Missing anticipated returns should not be the only concern for Saudi Arabia. There is every likelihood that their rush in decision making to maintain the status quo in Arabian Peninsula will take its toll on Saudi Arabia’s regional influence in a couple of ways:

  1. Strategic Vision: Since “national securities cannot realistically be considered apart from one another” [6], the GCC members came up with the idea of a common defense force called ‘Peninsula Shield Force’ during the chaotic years of the battle between Iran and Iraq in 1980s, as a collective response to any potential threats from Iran on the borders of Kuwait. Although this shield has not been fully developed due to lack of sufficient military and logistic capabilities plus the members’ continuous dependency on great powers such as the USA, the UK, and France on the subject of security issues [7], any opportunities for further security interdependence between GCC members will be definitely lost in the aftermath of the halt in food supply to Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its allies, threatening the life of every citizen in this little country. This ‘moment of truth’ reminds Qatar and even other GCC members of what John J. Mearscheimer calls ‘the False Promise of International Institutions’ [8]. Therefore, not only rulers in Qatar perceive their giant neighbor as an undependable ally, but also a credible threat in the region from now on, which highly encourage them to assume the regional system in Persian Gulf totally ‘anarchic’ resulting in stronger ‘self-help’ policies and more dependency on great powers rather than reliance on Saudi Arabia in the framework of Peninsula Shield.
  2. Regional Integration: There are numerous factors enhancing the Gulf Cooperation Council ‘capacity’ to be a successful example of regional Integration in international politics: common race, common language, common religion, and similar culture are among the determining factors that even the European Union as the most successful case of regional integration lacks. However, Saudi Arabia adversely affects ‘perceptual conditions’ needed for motivating Qatar to stay active in the process of integration within GCC like before [9].The history of international relations has proved serious divisions in regional or international organizations is usually to the detriment of the remaining members; and unquestionably, Gulf Cooperation Council is not an exception.
  3. Shaping an Unprecedented History: As Alexander Wendt writes “the structures of human association are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than material forces” [10]. Saudi Arabia is definitely in the process of shaping a new history in the Persian Gulf by shaping a sort of ‘Historical’ or ‘Collective Memory’ among the citizens in Qatar, and even in other Arab countries. Collective memory is understood as a representation of the past shared by a group or community [11]. Amities, animosities, and wars have been frequently legitimated by the historical memory of the people in the Middle East: Iranians’ aversion to Britain and Russia since Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905 – 1911) and the coup d’état against Mohammad Mosadegh (1953); Saddam Hussein’s ‘Qadisiyyah’ [12] against Iran (1980 – 1988); the Kingdom of Oman’s long-lasting gratitude towards Iran for its substantial assistance during Omani Civil War (1963-76). These examples imply how Saudi Arabia will be subject to the negative consequences of its new picture, being formed in the Collective Memory of the citizens in Qatar, which can last for a long time and legitimates potential conflicts between two countries in the long run.
  4. Arab Gulf Identity: The dream and considerable political efforts to unite Arab nations under the name of a common ‘Arab Identity’ against western imperialists, peaking during the tenure of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, gradually came to a tragic end after Arab armies’ defeat in six-day war with Israel in 1967, Anwar Sadat’s signing of Camp David Accords in 1978, and was totally demolished following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. However, owing to the historical ‘Social Interactions’ [13] between Arab states of the Persian Gulf, a new ‘Arab Gulf Identity’ was created for their security concerns during Iran-Iraq war, which led to the establishment of Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981. The inconceivable invasion of Kuwait necessitated the protection of this common identity more than before. Unexpectedly, for the time being, this is Saudi Arabia who is threatening this common identity by imposing sanctions on Qatar. This encourages Qatar to work more on constructing its own national identity, which can be easily regarded as a deviation from the common identity of Arab states in Persian Gulf. After the recent crisis, a motto was observable everywhere in Qatar saying “all of us Tamim, all of us Qatar” which implies the public support for Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani the current Emir of Qatar and reveals a sort of patriotic reaction against the sanctions. Needless to say, scholars believe all Arab states of Persian Gulf are in high demand of building a national identity among their citizens for two main reasons: Firstly, the large number of immigrants in these countries outnumbers the citizens. As an example, merely less than 10 percent of residents in Qatar are citizens. Secondly, rapid cultural changes due to the high-speed modernization in these countries will definitely bring cultural and identity issues among citizens. The same reason exactly led to the collapse of the previous regime in Iran in 1979 with many lessons for the monarchies of Persian Gulf. The main problem is Arab identity has been repeatedly exploited by Arab leaders like Nasser or Saddam for the sake of following merely their own personal or national interests, not the Arab world. Apparently, the same story applies to Arab Gulf Identity by Saudi Arabia.
  5.  Leadership: Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people, with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen, despite any obstacles [14]. According to this definition, Saudi Arabia needs to align its neighbors with a clear vision of the regional system and inspire them to shape it. Leadership is never about the leader but always about team building, leading change, good listening, and developing a vision. Evidently, these characteristics cannot be seen in Saudi Arabia’s policy towards Qatar. It seems the giant player of Arabian Peninsula merely prioritizes its hegemony over its neighbors’ interests; it plays against a team member (Qatar); it is not a good listener; and hence, it cannot lead a new change in the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia has called its leadership competencies in Arabian Peninsula into question. Saudis might have hegemony in the region thanks to their hardware and software elements of power, but leadership demands recognition by the members of a team. Such a strategic mistake heartens Iran and Turkey to boost their roles in the region.


There is no doubt that Qatar is under a lot of economic and political pressure after the sanctions, but all the demerits are not only Qatar’s: There are numerous consequences for Saudi Arabia of which the authorities in this country ought to be cautious. It seems Saudis suffer from a sort of rush in formulating their foreign policy and they had an impetuous reaction towards their rivals, something which is unhappily pervasive in the Middle East.

1.     For more information on the new roles Qatar is playing in global politics, see: Mohammed Nuruzzaman, “Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Qatar and Dispute Mediations: A Critical Investigation”, Contemporary Arab Affairs (2015)

2.     The writer presents it as a fact according to the reports delivered by observers in Egypt, Libya, UAE and West Bank, published via news agencies including BBC, AFP and AP.

3.     Nader Kabbani, “The High Cost of High Stakes: Economic Implications of the 2017 Gulf Crisis” (Brookings Institution, June 2015):

4.     “Qatar Crisis Spills onto Social Media”, The Straits Times, (Jun 13, 2017):

5.     Nader Kabbani, Ibid.

6.     Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear: An Agenda For International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1981), p. 190

7.     Yoel Guzansky, “Defence Cooperation in the Arabian Gulf: The Peninsula Shield Force Put to the Test”, Middle Eastern Studies (Vol. 50, Issue 4, 2014), pp. 640 – 654

8.     John J. Mearscheimer: “The False Promise of International Institutions”, International Security (Vol. 19, No. 3, Winter 1994/95), pp. 5-49

9.     For more information on the terms ‘capacity’ and ‘perceptual conditions’ in regional integration theories, see:

Joseph S. Nye, Peace in Parts: Integration and Conflict in Regional Organization (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971) p. 83-86

10.    Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.1

11.    Wulf Kansteiner, “Finding Meaning in Memory: A Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies,” History and Theory (Vol.  41, May 2002), p. 180.

12.   ‘Al-Qadisiyyah’ was the climactic battle between Arab Muslims and Sassanid Empire which led to the historical conquest of Persia by Arabs. Saddam Hussein referred frequently to this battle, to cast the contemporary hostilities between Iraq and Iran as a replay of the ancient encounter.

13.     Martha Finnemore, National Interests in International Society (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.2

14.    J. P. Kotter,  Leading Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1996).

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