By Geoffrey Martin
Rai Insights Contributor
Kuwait: The current crisis with Qatar follows a long line of disputes between Doha and their neighbours although no-one could have predicted the scale of the economic and political sanctions of the Al Thani regime that began suddenly on June 5.
The history of disputes between Qatar stretches back far longer than many television pundits attribute the current crisis to. Qatar’s Al Jazeera and its controversial coverage of neighbouring governments, supporting Muslim Brotherhood candidates across the region, backing Islamist rebels in Syria (aka terrorism), and backing different political sides than its neighbours during the “Arab Spring” seems to be the only horizon the talking heads remember.
Far before the official founding of Qatar, families that reside there have been at odds with its (former) regional partners since tribal groups fought for supremacy on the ‘Pirate Coast’. But in modern times, tensions grew worse between Qatar and the Saudis, UAE, and Bahrain specifically after Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani deposed his father in 1995. His father was considered more traditional and amenable to the balance of power in the region, while his son has taken Qatar in a much different direction.
Since 1995 Qatar’s relations with groups and states that are considered enemies of some of the other GCC states is nothing new. For example, in 2000 the Crown Prince of Saudi boycotted and Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Doha because of Qatar’s alleged ties with Israel. Ties were not renewed until 2008. In 2002, Saudi withdrew its Ambassador to Qatar due to controversial comments by Saudi dissidents on the then new Al Jazeera network.
In March 2014, Saudi, UAE, and Bahrain suspended relations with Qatar for 8 months due to its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, hosting hostile news channels (Al Jazeera again), and failing to honour a 2013 GCC agreement committing to promises to not interfere with the internal affairs of other GCC members.
The conflict over the Muslim Brotherhood is rooted in history and goes back to the 1950s. Saudi Arabia supported the Brotherhood as a proxy against Nasserist Egypt and the larger nationalist and left-wing (Baathist) forces in the region. After the Brotherhood condemned Saudi support for the First Gulf War (and the ideological power of the left were decimated by the fall of the Soviet Union) support from Riyadh ebbed. Qatar took the Saudi’s place as their supporter in the Gulf, starting the push and pull between the Brotherhood and states in a cycle that looks to continue for the foreseeable future.
Many of the serious disputes between these sides actually originated in disagreements over borders with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. Bahrain and Qatar have long disagreed over the status of the Hawar and Janan Islands, two reefs, and Zubara on the Qatari mainland and their maritime borders in general. In 1986 this almost led to an armed conflict between each country that was avoided because of Saudi intervention. The roots of this conflict go deep, and Bahrain and Qatar only officially recognized each other in 1997. In 2001 the United Nations International Court of Justice arbitrated the conflict and ruled that Bahrain got the Hawar Islands and one reef, while Qatar kept Zubara, Janan, and the other reef but the bitterness has not subsided.
Although Qatar and Saudi Arabia have had an officially demarcated border since 1965, border disputes led to three Qatari deaths at a border post in Khafus in 1992. It wasn’t until 2008 that both countries agreed on a final demarcation of the border.
Finally, the UAE and Qatar have long disagreed about the status of the Khor Al Udaid coastline which now belongs to Saudi with the support of Abu Dhabi. The overlapping and fluid tribal and family boundaries in the Gulf states do not follow the relatively new boundaries of the nation states in the region and will continue to be a source of tension between GCC neighbours that underlies current issues.
While these foreign policy and geopolitical issues are important the fundamental difference in the region stems from economics. Much of the feud between Qatar and its larger neighbour is rooted in Qatari national gas policies which give it independence from its larger neighbours over two decades ago. Qatar has a per capita income of $130,000 making it one of the top five richest nations and the world’s large exporter of liquid natural gas (LNG). Because pricing for gas is different than pricing controls under OPEC, this has given the Qatari state the ability to control its own economic development in a way that sets it apart from the other smaller GCC countries like Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain.
Natural gas was once considered to be useless and ignored by the other states in the region and has given the Qataris a source of income that the others, who rely on monopoly price structures, cannot control. This is an unsettling development in a very traditional and developed economic bargain between the different states in the region.
Attempts to block Qatar’s economic development have not been recent only. In 2000, Qatar and Kuwait signed a memorandum of understanding that outlined that Kuwait would begin importing gas from Qatar through a newly built gas pipeline. In 2003 Saudi gave assent for the pipeline (which would pass through its territorial waters) to be built but withdrew its support in 2006. In the same year Saudi protested a plan to build the ‘Dolphin’ pipeline to bring gas to the UAE and Oman, which is now in operation but who’s future is now in question due to the current sanctions. For now, most of Qatar’s exports go to Asia and Europe giving them significant autonomy from local sanctions. Considering that Qatar has lowest extraction costs in the world and the massive increase in demand for LNG for electrical generation this autonomy is not likely to shift soon.
Qatar’s independence has had wide implications. Qatar has developed its own relations with Iran, with which it shares its offshore North Dome/South Pars Oil Field, the U.S. which has its regional Central Command stationed and largest regional airbase (Al Udeid), and more recently Qatar increased investment in Russia’s Rosneft Oil Company. In particular strong economic bonds with Iran over the North field means Qatar is motivated to address issues with Iran with “dialogue rather than hostility”. It has also backed regional actors, like Hamas, the fallen Morsi government in Egypt, and armed Islamist rebels, mainly Jabhat al-Nusra, in Syria opposed to Saudi and UAE interests.
The ramifications of the economic and political sanctions are still playing out so I won’t comment. The relationship between Qatar and its neighbours has always been ‘hot and cold’ and this is likely not to be any different in the future. But this situation seems like a stalemate, as it has for many decades. And to be honest not much has really changed.
* Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and currently is a visiting researcher at the American University in Kuwait. He currently resides in Kuwait.