Invasion, Coup or Muddle Through? How the Qatar Crisis Could End

  • Regional stability and realignment in the Gulf at issue
  • Arms imbalance means Qatar would need outside help to resist

How the Qatar Crisis Could Shape the Middle East

If Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates hoped the shock of their sudden economic and diplomatic blockade of Qatar would produce a rapid capitulation, it isn’t panning out that way.

With the dispute well into its second week, both sides have dug in and are bidding for support from outside powers, above all the U.S., but also Iran, Turkey, Russia and Pakistan. Much will depend on which way the U.S. eventually leans as it weighs addressing longstanding concerns over Qatar’s permissive approach to Islamist groups and American geopolitical interests. President Donald Trump has tweeted a message very different from his administration’s during a crisis that carries significant implications for regional stability and U.S. military capabilities.

Here are four scenarios for what may happen next, ranging from a relatively painless deal to a Saudi-led invasion of Qatar.

A Quick Deal

Moving speedily to a negotiated settlement is likely to be harder than during an earlier attempt by Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Bahrain to bring Qatar to heel in 2014. The so-called Riyadh Agreement, reached about a month after diplomatic ties were cut, was never published. It was, however, portrayed by the other Gulf Cooperation Council states as a commitment by Qatar to end its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, groups whose ideologies alarm many of the region’s ruling monarchies.

To repeat the feat, Kuwaiti mediators will have to overcome a feeling among Qatar’s estranged GCC partners that Doha reneged on the last accord. Any agreement would, in the Saudi and U.A.E. view, need to verifiably end Qatar’s support for political Islamists as well as internationally designated terrorists. It would also need to reign in Doha’s stable of media outlets, including the satellite news channel Al Jazeera.

“This goes beyond Al Jazeera to a range of media that include more nationalist, critical and democratic views,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, in Washington D.C. “They complicate life for countries like Saudi and Yemen, and for the difficult transitions they are trying to achieve.” Media within the four countries leading the charge against Qatar -- Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. -- are tightly controlled.

Qatar Realigns with Turkey, Iran

Without a swift resolution, Qatar’s isolation could lead to exactly the opposite regional realignment to the one Saudi Arabia seeks, pushing Qatar into greater dependency on Iran and Turkey.

That’s a more plausible outcome than in 2014, in part because younger, more aggressive leaders are in charge in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., making them less willing to compromise, according to Andreas Krieg, a lecturer in the department of defense studies at Kings College, London. At the same time, Washington’s position remains uncertain and Qatar’s royal family sees no need to capitulate, he said.

“Really what the Saudis are trying to achieve is a return to the 1980s, when people in the Gulf felt their first loyalty was to Saudi Arabia, because of the holy mosques, regardless of what passports they held,” said Krieg. More particularly, it wants a unified policy toward Iran, its chief regional rival. Instead of unifying, he said, the GCC risks tearing itself apart.

Qatari officials appear confident they can weather the economic impact of the closure of their only land border, although the disruptions to energy and construction companies working in Qatar, as well as banks servicing its $335 billion sovereign wealth fund, could be significant. The emirate’s links to Turkey and Iran are deepening as it seeks new sources of food and other goods. It’s also trans-shipping goods in Oman instead of Dubai, which is part of the U.A.E. Those shifts could become permanent.

Palace Coup

U.A.E. Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash last week called for “cooler heads” in Qatar, but said its neighbors were not seeking regime change. Both Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. believe the emir’s father, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, still exercises undue influence on policy making. If a coup were attempted, it wouldn’t be Doha’s first.

Hamad seized power from his own father in 1995, who in turn had come to power through a 1972 coup. Hamad also faced a failed attempt at a counter-coup in 1996. During the trial of those involved, two top government officials testified that Bahrain had organized the attempt, with Saudi Arabia’s approval. Both governments denied involvement.

“A lot of the pressure Qatar is coming under now is because the Saudis and Emiratis think the father is somehow still pulling the strings,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, in Texas.

Making a putsch stick today would be harder. Qatar’s small military is loyal to the monarchy, said Krieg, while there’s no longer a credible alternative to the emir. In addition, Qataris have become spectacularly rich under their current rulers. Per capita gross domestic product adjusted for purchasing parity has risen to $130,000, the highest in the world, from about $55,000 in 1995.

Support for the royal family appears to be solid as people rally around the leadership, rather than blame it for the effects of the blockade. The only way that regime change could take place “is through invasion, a proper war,” said Krieg.

Invasion

Several factors make this appear unlikely for now, not least the U.S. reliance on its airbase and command center in Qatar to conduct the war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The U.A.E. ambassador to Washington has proposed the U.S. should move the base, making it easier to apply pressure on Qatar.

There are ways tensions could escalate to the point where military action becomes a real possibility, however. Turkey’s accelerated authorization for the deployment of as many as 3,000 troops to Qatar, and Iran’s blaming of Saudi Arabia for recent terrorist attacks by Islamic State have already raised the stakes.

Qatar has yet to retaliate against the economic siege. If it chose to, it has a major weapon in its arsenal. The only pipeline linking Qatar’s huge offshore natural gas field to its neighbors, run by the Dolphin Energy Ltd. consortium, provides 2 billion cubic feet of gas per day to the U.A.E. and Oman. They use the fuel to generate electricity, keeping lights and air conditioning running in the summer heat. Qatar could cut the gas off.

Should the alliance resort to force, there would be little Qatar could do to resist. Its military is tiny next to those of its neighbors, and U.S. Central Command isn’t there to defend its host.

“People here seem to think nothing will happen, but it will be much harder than last time,” said Luciano Zaccara, assistant professor at the Gulf Studies program of Qatar University. “These kinds of rulers fear that if they do something that’s seen as surrendering, they’ll lose all of their legitimacy, not just as a regional leader but in the country.”

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