Qatar’s Crisis With Saudi Arabia And Gulf Neighbors Has Decades-Long Roots – NPR
The decision last week by Gulf Arab states to sever ties and halt trade with the tiny, hydrocarbon-rich country of Qatar has focused attention on what critics call Qatar’s funding of Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
U.S. investigators believe the crisis was sparked by hackers who transmitted fake, inflammatory messages appearing to come from Qatar’s emir.
But the dispute is unfolding against a backdrop of longstanding irritation with Qatar among its larger Sunni Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf.
Saudi Arabia (which has also been accused of supporting terrorist groups), the United Arab Emirates and others have frequently complained about Qatar’s state-backed media outlet Al Jazeera and its equable working relationship with Saudi Arabia’s main rival, Shi’ite power Iran.
To some, the current crisis is a simple tale of cracking down on one source of terror financing. To others, it’s the latest effort to rein in a small country with a history of going its own way.
Tensions that date back decades
Long before it was an oil and gas power, Qatar was controlled by outsiders. In the late 19th century, the Ottoman Turks held sway. For much of the 20th century, until it gained independence in 1971, Qatar was a British protectorate.
The oil and gas age made Qatar into one of the richest nations on Earth per capita – the tiny peninsula controls the third-largest gas reserves in the world.
But Qatar’s leaders, all from the ruling al-Thani family – Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is currently in charge — chafed against the dominating, conservative influence of the behemoth next door, Saudi Arabia.
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The tensions date back decades, but here are a few highlights:
- In 1996, Qatar launched the Al Jazeera satellite news channel and brought a new brand of news coverage to the region. Al Jazeera disquieted Arab leaders with its reporting, in Arabic, on internal and regional controversies that previously went uncovered. It shocked some viewers by putting Israeli spokespeople on the air when it covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Hard-hitting coverage of Qatar itself was – and remains – off-limits.)
- Qatar provoked the Saudis again as it cultivated ties with Iran, with which it shares vast natural gas resources. Qatar’s North Dome gas field extends into Iranian waters, where it’s known as the South Pars field. Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, though it could lose that status to Australia soon.
- Gulf Arab annoyance at Qatar flared into open anger in 2011, when Qatar quickly embraced the Arab Spring uprisings, particularly in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Doha backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which saw one of its own, Mohammed Morsi, briefly succeed the long-ruling President Hosni Mubarak. For its part, Riyadh went all-in behind the Egyptian military, which ousted Morsi just over a year after he was elected.
A 2014 flareup, followed by worse
The Saudi ruling family loathed the Arab Spring uprisings as destabilizing to the region and possibly a threat to its own rule. It stepped up its own activism in the region, both on the ground and diplomatically.
In Libya and Syria, the Saudis and Qataris backed different fighting groups that were vying for influence. In 2014, Gulf states — led by Saudi Arabia — suspended diplomatic relations with Qatar for several months, and threatened to do worse.
Now, after a visit last month by President Trump to Riyadh, they have done worse. They are demanding far greater concessions from Qatar than they ever did in the past — such as closing Al Jazeera and expelling Hamas leaders — in return for restoring ties.
“This is far more dramatic than the diplomatic row that occurred in 2014,” says Merhan Kamrava, head of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s Doha outpost.
This time, the Saudis have closed Qatar’s only land border, through which around 40 percent of its imports enter the country, and Gulf states have stopped air and sea shipments to Qatar. (Saudi Arabia has denied that there’s a blockade against Qatar.)
Qataris in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have been given two weeks to leave, and citizens of those three countries were given the same June 18 deadline to leave Qatar.
Beyond that, says Kamrava, the dispute feels more visceral.
“This time, the disagreement appears much more personal,” he says, adding that Qataris are “a bit shell-shocked” by the hostility.