The Weapons of Saudi’s Siege on Qatar

This is a war of elites on elites. The Saudis are targeting the prestige of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family.

Doha Qatar
Skyline of Doha, Qatar (Unsplash/Oleg Illarionov)

Anyone who’s ever worked in the Gulf isn’t shocked that Qatar missed a deadline. Badiin, badiin, “later, later,” in the local parlance, as yet another meeting fails to happen.

In light of that, we shouldn’t be so surprised that the Qatar’s been given something of an extension. Reuters reports:

Four Arab states refrained on Wednesday from slapping further sanctions on Qatar but voiced disappointment at its “negative” response to their demands and said their boycott of the tiny Gulf nation would continue.

Qatar earlier in the day accused Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt of “clear aggression” and said the accusations cited when they severed ties a month ago “were clearly designed to create anti-Qatar sentiment in the West”.

Western media is conflict-driven and narrative-obsessed: the advent of 24/7 cable news in the 1980s transformed news from the highlights-heavy, factually-driven 5 o’clock stories to the ever-in-crisis outrage industrial complex.

That’s the result of a free market, free speech and cultural shifts that value action over substance.

Very little of that translates to the Arabian Gulf, where markets are only free in designated zones and where free speech applies only to those at the very, very top.

Thus the notion that missing the deadline was a disaster for Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi is hype. Anti-Saudi conspiracy theorists are grasping at what straws they can if they add up to a haystack of Saudi humiliation.

Alas, all of that misreads the situation and the Gulf in general. This is a soft-power war: Saudi Arabia and its UAE allies will not risk a military invasion of a country with a United States base inside it. They don’t have to either. For the kingdom and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) lackeys to call it a victory, they need only to wait.

Saving face in the Gulf

That Qatar’s Tamim Al Thani shot down the GCC’s demands caused plenty of flag-waving in Doha itself. Qatar’s ex-pat and local populations (Qatar is about 88 percent expatriate) have been happy to treat the whole blockade like a football match, replete with Corniche parades. There’s been a decisively muted response in other GCC capitals.

Which, if you’re in a democracy running for election, would be a total disaster. But when you’re a leader for life, those sorts of short-term calculations miss the mark.

None of the GCC states want a general war or even a proxy war. To shed the blood of fellow Gulf Arabs will smack too much of Saddam’s predations.

Instead, the GCC is targeting the prestige of the Al Thani clan and most specifically Hamad Al Thani, the former emir, and his son, the current ruler, Tamim Al Thani.

From a hard-power standpoint, Qatar has already lost. It has a tiny military that would be lucky if it held out as long as Kuwait’s did during Saddam’s invasion in 1991; it’s food and water security is desperately dependent on the outside world, especially when equipment fails.

That’s the reason why people in Qatar aren’t starving: though a naval blockade could, in theory, starve Qatar out in short order, Bin Salman and Bin Zayed aren’t trying to convince the majority expatriates of anything. They’re expendable labor who don’t matter in Gulf geopolitical calculations.

Instead, they’re trying to rattle the cage of both the Al Thani clan and their closest supporters. That means demonstrating that Hamad and Tamim’s style of leadership is a threat to Qatar’s long-term ability to thrive.

The weapons of a war of elites

Weapon number one? Tourism. Half of Qatar’s tourists come from the GCC. No longer. That means plenty of empty hotels owned by powerful sheikhs both within the Al Thani clan and just on the edge of it Harm a sheikh’s bottom line and there will be trouble.

Weapon number two? The prestige of the World Cup 2022. Qatar’s authorities have gone to great lengths to say they’ve got all the supplies they need; that’s patent nonsense, for things will go wrong, bits will be missing and no construction project ever lacks for a need of replacement parts. While it won’t necessarily derail the World Cup, it could disrupt it to Sochi-like embarrassment. Qatar’s coming-out party could go from boom to bust. Tamim surely knows his continued leadership depends on the success of the all-important World Cup.

Weapon number three? The Al Thanis themselves. It is not out of the question for there to be a palace coup as the pressure builds. The Al Thanis are notoriously fractious and there are reports of pro-Saudi factions within the clan. For Al Thanis with business in the kingdom and the UAE, the blockade is battering their profits. The Saudis and their surrogates will whisper, for what? So little Tamim can keep Al Jazeera undermining us? So he and his Papa Emir can stoke their egos on the global stage? What do you get for all that?

This is a war of elites on elites. Bin Salman and Bin Zayed can wait. So long as they don’t trip over any red lines and alienate the Americans or their own people, they can hold this siege for a long time to come. Qatar won’t starve, but it doesn’t have to. Sooner or later Qatari elites will question why Tamim’s prestige is worth the cost.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, July 6, 2017.