Mohamed Elmeshad, an Egyptian journalist and PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.
Regardless of Qatar’s foreign policy in the region or its record on human rights issues (and there is much to say on both), the notion that the axis of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt could credibly castigate it on these very topics is almost absurd. Granted, Qatar has offered asylum to some very unsavory characters lately, including some of the more militant members of Islamist organizations from Egypt, and has meddled in local politics. However, a quick look under the hood of every other regime involved in this debacle reveals a significant amount of arguably similar activities, such as funding extremist militant groups in Syria and helping prop up dictatorships across the region. This move is not driven by any moral objections to Qatar’s activities but is an unprecedented means to force Qatar to fall in line, to silence its media outlets, or to extract some revenge for its political adventures.
In the case of the Egyptian regime, it is probably all three. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi saw yet another opportunity to ride on the coattails of a Saudi monarchy that has commanded his obedience since even before he was president. He wants Qatar to pay for their continuing support of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group Sisi is fighting tooth and nail to get the United States to list as a terrorist organization. Taking unilateral measures against a country that his Saudi patrons often referred to in familial terms risked landing him on the wrong side of their good graces. Despite taking measures against Qatari media outlets such as Al-Jazeera and its (often Egyptian) employees, taking broader aim at a GCC country was too risky for him. The fact that no one is really mentioning Sisi’s role in the current crisis is perhaps an indication of his backseat role and how Egypt’s perceived status as a regional power has diminished in recent years.
Though understandable, the severity of the rift with the GCC countries is slightly less expected. Much had held these ruling powers together in ways that made this level of escalation inconceivable. It is true that GCC leaders have been far from cooperative recently, especially vis-à-vis the region’s shifting political makeup. However, the generally similar nature of each sovereign’s power structures indicates that they have a mutual interest in propping each other up. This was quite evident when all six GCC countries participated in the Peninsula Shield forces to intervene on behalf of the king of Bahrain during the Arab Spring protests.
In fact, the prevailing fear among these ruling families was that the Arab Spring domino effect could reach them, especially in Saudi Arabia, where numerous movements have historically opposed the House of Saud. The Saudi government was so adamant about not disturbing the status quo in general that it led a call to include Morocco and Jordan into the GCC to strengthen the hand of the region’s collective “sovereign” establishments.
Qatar went from being a manageable nuisance within this establishment to (in the eyes of the axis) an out-and-out detriment to their future plans. Qatar’s House of Thani had perhaps also overplayed its hand, believing that the blowback from breaking rank would always be softened by their political maneuvering. This extended beyond political and economic tools to a media and intellectual assault that has left a significant mark on regional communications and academia.
The only way such drastic measures could be taken against a traditional power structure would be with a coalition acting in unison. Each of these governments had individually been convinced that something needed to be done, but they needed reassurances that it would not affect their global standing. Enter Donald Trump, with his “just do it” message. The manner of the move against Qatar has all the hallmarks of a Trump maneuver: it was sudden, it was severe, and its consequences were not entirely thought through.
By doing this, the axis is creating exactly the kind of precedent it had been trying to avoid. The unspoken rule among Arab autocrats was that no one would directly challenge another’s claim to power. While Qatar has tacitly done just that through its media, its leadership maintained pretenses with other ruling structures. Now the demands on Qatar have created a zero-sum game where there must necessarily be a loser.
If Qatar agrees to the demands—and it would be extremely harmful for them to permanently lose their standing among their peers in the GCC—it would mean the end of the grand project that Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani had embarked on in the 1990s to establish Qatar as a bona fide regional diplomatic and intellectual powerhouse. If Qatar does not agree, and if Trump does not back further action against Qatar, it would mean another blow to Saudi Arabia and its regional claim to supremacy, which is already suffering the consequences of its other endeavors namely the war in Yemen.