Mansour Almarzoqi, a researcher on Saudi politics at Sciences-Po de Lyon. Follow him on Twitter @0albogami.
Two elements, often neglected, brought about the current Arab Gulf crisis. There is what I call a psychological strategic deficit, which causes Qatari officials to feel a chronic vulnerability. Some of that is justified: because of its geographic size, Qatar is unable to absorb shocks like a military assault (a situation known as the lack of strategic depth). To compensate for that, I believe Qatar persistently tries to balance between two camps: one that adheres to the regional order and a revisionist one, comprising of actors such as Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, that seeks to restructure the regional order because the current one is not compatible with their interests or vision of the world.
As an absolute monarchy and a fully pledged member of the regional order, Qatar is using its only strategic asset—that is, its financial capabilities—to build a network of alliances with revisionist actors. The ultimate goal is to create a dynamic of checks and balances between the regional order and revisionism. Saudi Arabia has made it clear since March 2014 that it will not tolerate the consequences of Qatar’s actions.
Iran intervenes in other countries under sectarian banners, relying on non-state actors, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Abdali Cell in Kuwait, and the Houthis in Yemen. By emphasizing sectarian identities in the region, Iran seeks to mobilize these non-state actors, which undermines central governments and advances Tehran’s revisionist regional goals. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood, bolstered by the Arab Spring, has a vision of the Islamic World united under one leadership, to which the Arab Gulf monarchies are an obstacle. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is against such a vision and fears that domestic affiliates could be used to that end.
Qatar has sought a security umbrella, which it found in the U.S. military presence at al-Udeid air base. It has diversified its energy alliances based on gas to distance itself from Saudi Arabia’s oil hegemony. While active within the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League, it simultaneously built a patronage relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region, including branches within Saudi Arabia—while believing itself safe from the group’s influence domestically because of al-Udeid military base and because it has a small population it can placate relatively easily. From 2000 through the beginning of the Syrian revolution, Qatar also maintained close cooperation with Turkey, Iran, and Iranian clients Hezbollah and the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Obstructed many times by this cooperation, Riyadh tried to put an end to it. The Qatari quest for influence then escalated into a cold war with Saudi Arabia. In 2014, leaked recordings of an old meeting between Muammar al-Qaddafi and Qatari leaders—allegedly former Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa and his former foreign minister Hamad bin Jassim—revealed a plan to topple the Saudi regime and divide the kingdom into several smaller states. Then the cold war escalated, resulting in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar for a period of eight months in 2014. Though Qatar then signed the Riyadh Agreement, in which it agreed to distance itself from revisionism, it did not abide by it. Hence the current crisis, the keyword of which is: revisionism.
Saudi Arabia expects Qatar to stop bolstering revisionist actors within Saudi zones of influence—that is, Yemen, Egypt, and the Arab Gulf states. Only then can we see an end to the crisis.