November 10, 2017

Qatar Crisis Slips Down Saudi Priority List

Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani arrives at the U.N. climate conference in Marrakech, Morocco, Nov. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is a busy man. He is brusquely centralizing power in Saudi Arabia under his aegis like no one before him. This has included the recent detention of some of the most senior Saudi princes on corruption charges. Such a move is unprecedented in Saudi history and, indeed, it is hard to point to any such similarly broad arrest of serving and former royals or their equivalents, ministers, and business leaders in any country in recent history.

The week prior, the hotel that today hosts the detained princes was the site of a lavish international investment jamboree. Seeking to launch his opening of Saudi Arabia to the world, MbS announced the construction of a $500 billion city, Neom, designed to catalyze the future Saudi economy. In late September, the ban on women driving was lifted, a hugely symbolic moment in the history of Saudi Arabia. Just before that announcement, some of the most prominent Saudi intellectuals and religious scholars were arrested. Many of them could be found on the Islamist spectrum and some had millions of followers on social media.

In June, Saudi Arabia joined with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt in imposing an embargo on Qatar, another policy without comparison in the history of the Gulf monarchies. In 2016, in a hitherto unthinkable policy, Saudi Arabia announced the sale of stakes in its crown jewel, the state oil company, Aramco. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched a war in Yemen on a scale never seen by the Gulf monarchies. And from 2012, the rise of MbS himself has confounded Saudi orthodoxy as he took on ever more portfolios, often usurping older more experienced royals to become state minister, minister of defense, deputy crown prince, and crown prince. Nor is there any reason to expect the norm-shattering policies to stop here. It would not be surprising, for example, if Saudi Arabia were to work toward normalizing relations with Israel in the near future.

Any one of these policies, shattering norms and expectations of the art of the possible in Saudi politics, would have set the Saudi-watching world ablaze with controversy and competing analysis. All together, they amount to an unprecedented series of policies that catapult Saudi Arabia into the great unknown.

This, then, is where Qatar finds itself, merely one of a series of competing policy issues. This crisis is, unsurprisingly, utterly consuming Qatar. The state is focused on retooling its imports and exports, considering its political reaction, guessing what may be coming up next from the quartet of countries imposing the embargo, and fathoming how it may be able to begin fashioning a solution. Businesses are making similar calculations, working out the damage from the embargo and considering how best to mitigate against it, and international firms are pondering whether they may need to leave Doha. Expatriates with the potential to relocate are also grappling with what the crisis means for them, their families, and their futures.

Overall, the Qatari state has shown remarkable resilience. But the problem for Qatari leadership is that this crisis that is consuming their attention barely registers in the top five problems for Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the UAE remains implacably opposed to easing the pressure on Doha. It is a near-article of faith for leaders in Abu Dhabi that the Qataris have proved that they simply cannot be trusted. Agreements signed in 2013 and 2014 were, from their perspective, simply abrogated by the Qataris. So what is the point of renegotiating once more? Moreover, at the core of this dispute is a fundamental difference of opinion as to the role of Islam in life in the Arab world. The Emiratis want Islam to play a role, but only in private, whereas Qatar has often supported individuals, parties, and states that want to institutionalize and politicize the role of Islam in society.

The perspective of MbS on this issue is not as clear. He evidently wants to control the role of Islam in Saudi Arabia to a far greater degree; his detention of clerics, stripping powers from the religious police, and allowing women to drive all indicate his direction of travel. However, when it comes to international politics, he remains willing to ally with a wider range of Islamists than the UAE is willing to. This is why the two states, though close allies in the fight in Yemen, frequently find themselves at odds in the city of Taiz in Yemen. The Saudis want to form an alliance with forces linked to Islah, the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, whereas the Emiratis quite consistently refuse to do so in this city.

The point is that there is no evidence that MbS is as agitated or irritated by the Qataris as the Emiratis seem to be. In 2014, during the last Qatar-centered Gulf crisis, the solution came through Riyadh. Unless the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee truly holds out and blocks future foreign military sales to the Gulf, the only other actor with the ability to cajole the Emiratis is likely to be Saudi Arabia, once again.

Qatar is thus waiting for MbS’ attention to return to Doha. Though Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati companies are suffering to some degree, and though the embargo caused waves across a peninsula with such close familial links, there is no telling when the Qatar portfolio will bubble back to the surface for MbS. Indeed, the crown prince was simply stating the obvious when, in late October, he said that Qatar is a “very, very, very small issue.” It may have to wait for his ascension to the position of king for MbS to feel as though he has the room, if he chooses, to make a magnanimous gesture to return Qatar to the fold in the name of Gulf unity.

But even then, if Qatar wants a solution, it will have to ascertain what concessions it is willing to make, and it will need to get MbS onside. A sizable investment to Saudi Vision 2030 may grease the wheels. Interestingly, Qatar signed an agreement in September to buy up to 24 British Typhoon fast jets after years of dithering. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest users of this platform and, in the context of the state’s desire to boost its domestic economy, the kingdom is keen to build as much of the platform domestically as possible. This presents an ideal way for Qatar to, first, integrate itself into a key part of the Saudi economy and, second, promise a significant amount of investment to the Saudi state without it looking like it is paying a bribe. It would also reinforce the narrative that Qatar is seeking to work directly with Saudi Arabia on matters of defence cooperation.

None of this is simple. Gulf politics is changing at an unparalleled rate, which may negate such opportunities, or, though there are no signs presently, the crisis may be solved on a whim tomorrow. Similarly, on the subject of the Typhoon sale, the obstacles from the British side as well as the Saudi and Qatari sides to meaningfully work together in some offset deal are sizable. Qatar hasn’t even signed the final agreement with BAE Systems yet. But Qatar needs to prepare to seize the moment, whenever it arrives, to resolve the crisis if it is not to be relegated for years on end to the status of a peripheral issue.

David B. Roberts is an non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.