The unruly child of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Qatar’s taste for independence, and one might add propensity to rebel against the geopolitical might of Saudi Arabia — has run for decades. Long before Doha was declared a pariah by Riyadh, this tiny slither of land had decided to free itself from the diktat of an overbearing wannabe imperial Wahhabi power: Saudi Arabia.
Qatar’s rebellion predates 2011 by several decades. In hindsight Qatar’s determination to be independent of the Kingdom’s sphere of influence could prove the one variable Riyadh’s Wahhabi ideologues did not factor in. It could ultimately precipitate the fall of the Bani-Saud empire built on sand.
From the moment Tamim ibn Khalifah Al Thani deposed his father Shaykh Hamad ibn Khalifah to become the amir of Qatar in 2013 (ironcally through Saudi meddling!), the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been guided by two principles: differentiate itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arabian hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulate itself from Riyadh’s influence. Needless to say Qatar’s ability to not only move away from the Kingdom’s shadow but also stand against it was put to test in rather dramatic fashion. No longer considered a friend or even a partner, Qatar was dragged into the mud, thrown under the bus, and threatened with military action in just a few short weeks.
To Qatar’s credit, it stood its ground. Resistance has worked. For better or worse, Doha has proved capable of standing up to the one power that for decades has blotted the skies of Arabia and forced many rulers to bow to its whims. The Najdi Bedouins (aka Saudi rulers) have used petrodollars as well as the threat of military action to bring recalcitrant regimes into line. With Qatar, neither has worked. Doha is gas rich and enjoys the highest per capita income in the world so it cannot be bribed like the Egyptians, for instance. And Bani Saud cannot use the threat of force because they themselves rely on mercenaries to fight their battles. Besides, Qatar houses the American airbase at al-Udeid. This acts virtually as an insurance policy for its survival.
The devil, however, is in the details, as they say. In Qatar’s case, independence came courtesy of a shrewd reading of the geopolitical dynamics and a keen understanding of soft power. True power lies not merely in brute force but also in one’s ability to build alliances to support its cause. In this, Qatar has proved more adept than the Kingdom could ever imagine.
Tamim and his key allies in the ruling family pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf. This was evident in how the Qataris placed themselves away from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Saudi-dominated oil cartel. Rather than rely on pipelines to transport its natural resources and thus remain plugged into Riyadh’s network, Doha chose the sea route to carry its riches — a move that guaranteed both political and financial independence.
An independent entity within the GCC, Qatar spent decades building a dizzying fortune — the highest per-capita income in the world. Doha reinvented itself as an economic powerhouse with the ability to align itself with world powers. Its influence has been proportional to its investments abroad that by any reckoning are massive.
Qatar enhanced its political standing further when it partnered with Western giants like Exxon Mobil and Total, thus developing a strong sense of codependency with those countries’ senior officials. And of course one must not ignore Qatar’s overture to both the United States and Turkey when it agreed to house their military outposts, a de facto turning of Doha into an asset of both Washington and Ankara. Neither would like to abandon it without very compelling reasons.
For all of Saudi Arabia’s obsession with Iran, Qatar was the one threat the Kingdom never imagined would bring down its empire. And yet Rome could soon burn in fire lit up under its feet by a supposed friend, ally, and a Wahhabi outpost to boot.
Today, Qatar not only enjoys a high degree of economic independence from its GCC neighbours but it benefits from powerful friends abroad: mainly the US and Turkey. Saudi attempts to isolate Qatar completely will prove difficult, regardless of how often it is accused of being a sponsor of terrorism.
While no one is under any illusion about the role Qatar has played in promoting Wahhabi/Salafi-inspired radicals in the Greater Muslim East, few will dismiss the idea of a compromise for the sake of geopolitics. Further, Saudi Arabia has already proved to be a far more insidious and nefarious beast than tiny Qatar could ever be.
A report by the BBC read the obvious when it noted, “Qatar stands accused of supporting terrorism and extremism by a triumvirate of Gulf Arab states — Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain — backed by Egypt and others.” If Qatar is guilty of supporting terrorims so are those pointing the finger. Terror here is once again being wielded as a political weapon of war to rally a gullible public around the idea that military occupation is justified.
Doha is being used as a sacrificial lamb. It is meant to distract and deflect attention from their own guilt at a time when Wahhabism, Salafism and Deobandism are being burned at the stake of public opinion. Beyond that, Qatar was set up so that a new platform for war could be raised against Saudi Arabia’s real target: Iran.
Given the ongoing stand-off, it is likely that Qatar will push against whatever measure or measures Riyadh will come up with to break Doha’s newly acquired taste for resistance. Reuters summarized the situation correctly when it wrote, “Arab sanctions stir defiance, patriotism in wealthy Qatar.”
Indeed, wealthy Qatar is not about to roll over for Bani Saud, especially when it sees an opportunity to become the third bloc in regional dynamics that have so far revolved around a binary equation. What Qatar lacks in size, it makes up for in wealth, access, and ingenuity. In other words, Qatar is more than what Saudi Arabia could ever chew — militarily speaking or otherwise.
Qatar’s rebellion has set some very powerful dynamics in motion. It is highly unlikely that the situation would return to what it was before this latest crisis was engineered. From hereon, regardless of how Riyadh frames its policies, its political reach has been diminished forever.
When the poorest country in the region — Yemen — and virtually the smallest (in size) — Qatar — can stare Saudi Arabia in the eye without blinking, how long will it be before other much larger and powerful countries realise that the Bani-Saud kingdom is toast?