The Persian Gulf is embroiled in an increasingly severe crisis, as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) lead a push to — literally — isolate Qatar. Many are pointing to concerns about Iran or Qatar’s ties to groups like Hamas to explain this. But an overlooked motivation can explain some of these tensions: the UAE’s emphasis on regional stability in its foreign policy. While this doesn’t excuse the harsh treatment of Qatar, it can explain why the UAE is so unnerved by Qatar’s post-Arab Spring policies. This context for the dispute also provides some opportunities for its resolution.
This crisis is more complex than I cover can in this post, but its proximate cause was caustic statements issued on the official Qatari Twitter account. Qatar claimed it had been hacked, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE quickly denounced Qatar, cutting off diplomatic contact. This has escalated into accusations of Qatari support for terrorism and the imposition of sanctions. The Trump Administration’s shifting and conflicting stances on the crisis have only deepened the turmoil.
One possible reason for these tensions is the relationship between Qatar and Iran. While Qatar is not necessarily an ally of Iran, it is less critical of the Islamic Republic than other Sunni Arab states. Qatar also maintains relatively good diplomatic and economic connections with Iran. Qatar was also more sympathetic to the Houthis in negotiations over the Yemen civil war than Saudi Arabia, which sees the Houthis as proxies for Iran. This is concerning to Saudi Arabia — which has had tensions with Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution— and the UAE, which has a territorial dispute with Iran.
Another reason behind the tension is Qatar’s ties to Islamist groups in the region. Some of the claims of Qatar’s active support for terrorism are hard to verify or seem exaggerated. But Qatar does have links with certain controversial groups. This include Hamas, which has fought against Israel and is seen by many as a terrorist group. It also includes the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political activism upsets many of the region’s conservative powers. Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood may be particularly concerning to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of whom have been threatened by the group’s activities.
Much of the discussion about this crisis, however, seems to focus on Saudi Arabia as the leader of the anti-Qatar camp. The assumption is the rest of the countries follow suit. This is partially correct, as Saudi Arabia has long been the dominant state in the Persian Gulf (and at times the Middle East itself). But the UAE is also driving this tension. As Mehran Kamrava — at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar — noted, much of this crisis emerged from long-standing tensions between Qatar and the UAE. So why is the UAE so hostile to Qatar?
The above reasons — its ties to Iran and support for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood — are certainly part of it, but I suspect much also has to do with the UAE’s historic foreign policy orientation of regional stability. As I discuss in my book, an overarching theme of the UAE’s foreign policy is the stability of the Middle East. The UAE’s founder, Sheikh Zayeb bin Sultan al-Nahyan, emphasized “maintaining good relations and cooperation” along with Arabic and Islamic solidarity as some of the country’s foreign policies in an early speech (I quote this speech in the book, but found the citation in this report). Even when the Emirates adopt a more “activist” foreign policy — like supporting Bosnian Muslims during the breakup of Yugoslavia — they have been wary of encouraging political forces that would upset states’ control over their societies.
It’s not surprising such a foreign policy orientation would lead the UAE to be wary of Qatar. Qatar has taken a noticeably different approach to foreign policy than its neighbor. Since the Arab Spring protests broke out, Qatar has consistently sided with Islamist groups opposing established regimes. This ranges from militants fighting Syria’s Assad regime to political parties in Egypt. Even before the Arab Spring Qatar was influencing the region. A notable initiative was the Al-Jazeera satellite channel, which enabled broad-ranging debates in the Middle East. Other efforts included the Doha Debates, which were a relatively open forum for discussing contentious social and political issues. Whether one sees Qatar’s efforts as laudable or a cover for illiberal policies, they do have the potential effect of increasing the region’s unrest.
This context can provide a bit more insight into the UAE’s current actions. Yes, the UAE is undoubtedly concerned about Iranian influence and wants to keep a lid on Islamist activist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. And yes, the UAE does repress political activism, and may try and export this regionally. But it is possible the country’s policies in this crisis come from the understandable position of desiring a stable neighborhood. The UAE is a tiny state, stuck between two regional behemoths. It is dependent on the goodwill and wisdom of regional benefactors — like the Saudis — and global ones like America. It makes sense that it would use its foreign policy to minimize the chances of widespread unrest breaking out.
Now, this is an explanation, not an excuse. The UAE may be motivated by a desire for stability, but it is certainly destabilizing the region. Understanding this context for the UAE’s behavior, however, may give the international community an opening to resolve the crisis. We should recognize the UAE is trying to maintain security by stabilizing its neighbors (again, even if it’s not doing it in the best way). And we can encourage Qatar and the UAE to discuss their different approaches to regional conflicts and come to a mutually-agreeable orientation as part of the crisis’ resolution.
The tension is spreading. Turkey has taken Qatar’s side, while there are reports of sympathy from Morocco and Kuwait. Unless the international community acts soon, this crisis has the potential to create a rift bigger than that sparked by the Arab Spring.