On June 5th Saudi Arabia, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic, economic and military relations with Qatar. This came after years of disagreements over support for Islamic terrorism and the perception among Arab states that Qatar could not be trusted. The June diplomatic move was followed on June 23rd with a list of 13 demands and Qatar described as unacceptable but was nevertheless willing to discuss these matters. The list came with a deadline of compliance by July 3rd. Qatar did not comply but kept talking and quickly found ways around the blockade that was non-military but was disruptive to the Qatari economy.
Meanwhile Qatar went ahead and signed a $12 billion deal with the United States to buy 36 F-15QA fighters with the option to buy another 36 for $9 billion. Qatar also reaffirmed support for the new military base Turkey was establishing in Qatar and for the existing American and NATO military bases.
Iran, which is also at war with Saudi Arabia and its allies, offered assistance in dealing with the economic disruptions. This was particularly annoying to Saudi Arabia but not much of a surprise. The Saudi family has had to deal with troublesome neighbors for generations. The fact that the Saud family managed to form what is now Saudi Arabia in the 1930s was hailed as a local wonder. But to pull it off the Saudis had operate like the Qatari Thani family does now and hope for the best. Arabia has always been a rough neighborhood and powerful and resourceful clans have regularly managed to amass power, and then lose it. The Thanis and Sauds disagree now but they are always seeking ways to work things out. With a new generation of Saudi rulers in power the Saudi blockade is seen as an opportunity to work out new arrangements to deal with common problems.
Cutting ties with Qatar in June was partly because Qatar based and subsidized al Jazeera satellite news network often reported bad behavior by security forces in Moslem countries, including the murder of civilians and trying to pass that off as a clash with Islamic terrorists. While that happens, al Jazeera also gives sympathetic treatment to Islamic radical and terrorist groups, especially in Egypt. Qatar also openly supports Hamas, although they recently ordered some senior Hamas leaders to leave Qatar for another sanctuary. Al Jazeera reporters have a hard time avoiding arrest (and worse) many Moslem states but they are often abused by Islamic terror groups as well. Meanwhile the al Jazeera reporting often compels Moslem leaders to admit that they might have problems and are working on solutions. For al Jazeera and its many Moslem viewers worldwide, that is the sort of thing you rarely see in Moslem nations. Civilian are frequently killed by their own governments and those governments do not want talk about it. This is a common thing in Middle Eastern nations and there is apparently no easy cure. Al Jazeera covers it like no one else. Qatar is also seen as siding with Iran in the current struggle between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia. Qatar denies this sees the blockade as more of a publicity stunt than a serious bit of statecraft.
Despite being an active and helpful ally of the United States, the Persian Gulf state of Qatar is not a strong believer in exclusive relationships. When the Americans criticize Qatar for being the source of many large cash contributions to Islamic terrorist groups they are simply told that Qatar does not support Islamic terrorism. That is true but the smaller Arabian states do support their own survival and that involves doing and saying whatever you feel necessary to survive.
Some American officials believe Qatari support for American counter-terrorism efforts is largely symbolic and that Qatar unofficially does business with terrorists and criminals as long as it is profitable. It’s no secret that the emir (ruler) of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani has contacts with all sorts of people, on both sides of the law. That includes many terrorist organizations. At the same time he is quite active against Islamic terrorism and bad behavior in general. For example in 2011 the emir criticized the Arab League for not intervening to prevent Libyan dictator Mumar Kadaffi from slaughtering his subjects. Qatar sent some warplanes to join the no-fly zone operations over Libya, one of the few Arab nations to do so. This contribution was made after the Arab League, which had first asked for a military effort to curb Kaddafi, and then changed its position when Western (but not Arab) nations stepped in to do so. Qatar, or at least an unrestrained (by the Thanis) al Jazeera calls out Moslem states on this sort of bad behavior and the rulers on the receiving end of this do not appreciate it.
Western counter-terrorism experts point out that many Islamic terrorist groups do their banking in Qatar, something that is very profitable for Qatar and the Qatari government. To Qatar this is just business and has nothing to do with the official policies of the Qatari government. Qatar has long survived, and prospered, by keeping business and politics separate. All this was with the understanding that all the “customers” and “allies” would respect the continued existence of Qatar. The United States has a hard time accepting this outlook, which is common in the Middle East. At the same time the Americans appear to have obtained a lot of useful information from Qatar and, when a case was made that it was mutually beneficial, the information often proved decisive.
Meanwhile the Qatari emir is one of the more enlightened monarchs in the Arab world, and has brought many improvements to Qatar's economy, educational system and governance. He founded satellite news channel al Jazeera, and has largely kept clear of any editorial decisions. Al Jazeera, which is based in Qatar, freely criticizes problems in other Arab countries, protected from retribution by the emir. Not much (if any) criticism of Qatar shows up in al Jazeera, but then there's not much criticism of the emir within Qatar from anyone. Qataris understand that the emir can play rough and be decisive about it. The emir forcibly (but bloodlessly) removed his less competent father from power in 1995, which was a generally popular move within Qatar. The emir allows the U.S. to maintain air and naval bases within Qatar, but refused to do anything about anti-American coverage on al Jazeera. That has given al Jazeera a lot of credibility in the Arab world. To the emir this credibility is a valuable asset.
Qatar is one of the many emirates that occupy the western shore of the Persian Gulf. In the 19th century, the coastal emirates (city states that depended on trade, pearls and fishing) allied themselves with Britain, for protection against the Turks (who controlled what is now Iraq), Iran (always a threat to the Arabs) and the interior tribes of Arabia. Britain was interested in suppressing pirates (which often operated out of the emirates) and halting Turkish expansion. In 1971, seven of the emirates formed a federation; the UAE (United Arab Emirates). There were immediate disputes with Saudi Arabia about where the land and water borders should be. Some of those disputes are still unresolved. The Saudis consider themselves the leader of Arabia, but most of the population (in Yemen, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE) often disagrees. There is lots of friction. Nevertheless, in 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council was formed by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE was the chief organizer of the council, and has constantly quarreled with Saudi Arabia over leadership issues.
Qatar is small (11,437 square kilometers/4,416 square miles) with a population of 2.1 million. Only about 12 percent of the population are citizens. Most of the foreigners are there to do the work of making the place work. This is common with oil rich states in this part of the world. Qatar has large oil revenues, giving it a per-capita GDP of over $80,000 (the highest in the world). The emir has made sure that the money is shared, making the population tolerant of being ruled by a monarchy. The emir has recognized that most of the oil and gas will be gone within 40 years, and is trying to build a "knowledge economy" that will keep Qatar prosperous after the oil boom is over.
The emir introduced voting in the late 1990s, and pledged to gradually introduce democracy. Meanwhile, he has appointed a son (born in 1980) as his successor as emir, so it's unclear if there will be a peaceful evolution of Qatar into a democracy or constitutional monarchy. Many Qataris would like that, but for now, with all that oil and gas money and a progressive monarch, there's not a lot of agitation for political change. Even the pressure from the Saudis has not changed many minds in Qatar, who are impressed at how their emir has managed to survive all that pressure and keep the economy going. Everyone is waiting to see how the emir works out a way for all concerned to walk away from this confrontation with a minimum of permanent damage. That’s how it is done in Arabia.