Why Saudi Arabia moved to cut ties with Qatar: Future Scenarios

Saturday, June 10, 2017


Ali Omidi
Associate professor of international relations; University of Isfahan

Tension in Qatar’s relations with Saudi Arabia started last week when the country’s official news agency released a report carrying remarks, which were attributed to Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in which he had allegedly talked against Saudi Arabia and in support of Iran as well as the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements, Hezbollah and Hamas. Of course, Qatari officials denied those remarks a few hours later and announced that the Qatari news agency’s website had been hacked. Riyadh and Cairo, however, did not accept that explanation and took those remarks for granted in view of similar statements that the Qatari emir had made in past years. From their viewpoints, the story of hacking was nothing but a lame excuse on the part of Qatar. The media tsunami that followed this development led to an uncontrollable diplomatic conflagration, which finally prompted Saudi Arabia and its allies to totally sever their relations with Qatar on June 5, 2017. Four reasons can be mentioned for this extreme measure taken by Saudi Arabia:

Firstly, by showing such reaction, Riyadh intended to show to Doha and other Arab and Islamic countries that it considered Iran as a red line in strategic relations with those countries. Any Arab state, especially in the Persian Gulf region, which seeks cordial ties with Saudi Arabia, cannot have concurrent friendly relations with Iran too. Riyadh aimed to show that wooing Iran politically could determine a bitter fate for other Arab states. Considering Doha’s latest positions as some form of treachery, Saudi Arabia decided to give a rapid and firm response to the treacherous party in order to make it a lesson for other Arab states.

Secondly, in doing so, Saudi Arabia proved that it had no plan to tone down its anti-Iran positions. In view of Riyadh’s political and military failures with respect to various regional crises, Saudi Arabia is currently making Iran a scapegoat for its failed policies. In addition, Riyadh considers Tehran as the main culprit behind unrest in the eastern parts of the country. Last year, Saudi Arabia executive the top Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, as a sign of its inflexibility toward Iran.

Thirdly, it is usual for dictators never to consider themselves as the main reason behind any political crisis as a result of which, they usually look for external factors to put the blame on. Iran's former Shah blamed the London-based BBC news channel as the main factor inciting the revolution in his country. Likewise, Saudi Arabia and Egypt consider Qatar and its Al Jazeera news network as one of the main reasons behind their political problems. Given the popularity of Al Jazeera in the Arab world, Riyadh and Cairo may have been trying to impose a change on Al Jazeera’s media policy through such a swift and firm action.

Fourthly, by appearing tough on Qatar, Saudi Arabia is trying to warn both Doha and other Arab states that they must forget about playing an independent role in the region and the Arab world. Riyadh means to tell them that they must give in to the fact that Saudi Arabia is the gravitational center of all developments in the region and the Middle East. Therefore, despite having Al Jazeera news channel and being chosen as the venue for the World Cup 2022, and although it has the highest per capita income in the world, Qatar must never even think about playing a rival role independent of Saudi Arabia in the Arab world.

So, what future outlook now awaits the crisis in relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar? I personally believe that four scenarios are conceivable when talking about the future outlook of this crisis:

The first scenario is for Qatar to turn into another Iraq and Syria. This does not mean that Qatar would be hit by a civil war or become a victim of terrorism like Syria and Iraq, but it means that like Baghdad and Damascus, it would choose to establish strategic relations with Tehran. In view of the current land, air and marine embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies against Qatar, which leaves Iran as the sole way for Qatar to access the outside world, this scenario seems possible. However, in view of Washington’s domination of the region, the fact that Saudi Arabia considers relations with Iran as a red line, and also due to extensive political differences that exist between Qatar and Iran, realization of this scenario in practice does not seem probable.

The second scenario is for Qatar to modify its positions and adopt a policy similar to Kuwait and Oman with regard to regional developments. However, given the explicit differences that exist between Riyadh and Doha, Qatar would not be considered as a totally reliable ally by Saudi Arabia from now on. On the other hand, political rationality necessitates that Qatar should avoid severe divergence between Doha and the inconsiderate Riyadh, especially when its extreme geopolitical vulnerability is taken into consideration. In addition, countries like the United States and Turkey will most probably start a mediatory role in order to reduce tensions in relations between Saudi Arabia and Doha. An evidence to this were remarks made by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who immediately moved to ask for reduction of tensions between the two Arab states and declared Washington’s readiness to mediate in this regard.

The third scenario is that Saudi Arabia may catalyze a military coup d’état in Qatar. This issue has historical precedent as in 1995 the father of the current Qatari Emir led an insurgency against his own father and replaced him. Therefore, it is possible that through Saudi Arabia’s instigation and support, the current crown prince of Qatar or another member of the royal family would revolt against the incumbent Emir and stage a coup against Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. It is rumored that Saudi Arabia had a plan to return the former Qatari emir to the throne in 1996. However, since a major condition for staging a coup is the element of surprise and this element does not exist in the country anymore, a coup against the current emir seems less possible.

According to the fourth scenario, Saudi Arabia may launch a military attack on Qatar. The two countries have already experienced limited military faceoff in 1992, involving a disputed outpost at al-Khofous region, about 80 miles south of Qatar’s capital city of Doha. So, if the United States shows the green light to Saudi Arabia and Riyadh becomes certain that it would conquer Doha in the shortest possible time, the possibility of military aggression can be taken into account. However, since in case of such attack there is also a possibility for intervention by Iran and other countries and taking into account that such military assault would make regional conditions more complicated and less predictable, it does not seem probable that the United States would allow Saudi Arabia to do this. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is not possible to conquer Doha in the shortest possible time.

All told, the only scenario, which seems to be most probable, is mediation by a third country like the United States, Oman and Turkey, in the existing political tension to modify the two sides’ positions. What is clear is that from now on, Riyadh cannot count on Qatar in the same way that it counts on Bahrain, and Doha would not be a reliable ally for Saudi Arabia with regard to regional issues anymore. What is certain, however, is that this incident should be considered a turning point in regional developments and in time, the region will be in for more suffering and pain.

*More by Ali Omidi:
Five Fallacies in Netanyahu’s Remarks during Meeting with Putin about the Myth of Haman and Esther :

*What Must Iran's Reaction to Trump Be, Chicken Game or Bullfighting?:
*Is the Complaint Filed with UN against Iran by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia Valid?:


*Photo Credit: Themalaymail-Online

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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