It's been a full year since Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched a regional boycott and blockade of Qatar. On June 5, 2017, the two countries, along with Egypt and Bahrain, cut ties with Doha and triggered a rolling crisis that shook up the Persian Gulf status quo, confounded the Trump administration and created new fault lines in the Middle East.
The dispute, as we detailed last year, is rooted both in the personal squabbles of the gulf's royal dynasties as well as a broader ideological conflict. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi bristled at Qatar's independent foreign policy, decried its state-bankrolled news organization, Al Jazeera, and accused Doha of sponsoring Islamist extremism in various corners of the world.
The Qataris rejected those allegations and brushed off the demands presented to them last year through Kuwaiti intermediaries. The nation's vast reserves of petrodollars have compensated for the disruptions caused by the Saudi blockade of its land borders. To prevent food shortages, Qatar cultivated new supply chains through Oman and received assistance from countries like Turkey and Iran.
Meanwhile, Doha unleashed a publicity offensive that has effectively countered similar efforts by its adversaries. The broad perception of the year-long standoff is that the Saudis and Emiratis don't have much to show for their efforts. Though President Trump initially cheered on the confrontation with Qatar, his administration eventually took a far more neutral position. Washington has urged conciliation and maintained good relations with the Qataris, who continue to host the most important U.S. military base in the Middle East.
The Qataris blunted criticism of their past behavior in part by announcing new measures to combat the financing of terrorism. It also has scaled back its tacit support for Islamist militant groups in Syria and elsewhere. "Although it didn’t mark any major strategic shift, this development gave Doha credit in the eyes of its erstwhile critics in the West," noted Hassan Hassan in Foreign Policy.
"Throughout the blockade, Qatar has taken the moral high ground by largely refraining from petty retaliation, engaging in measured diplomacy, and following international law to the letter, which has further turned public opinion in Qatar's favor," wrote Sultan Barakat of the University of York for Al Jazeera, the Qatar-funded news outlet.
With the international consensus largely on its side, Qatar is calling for a truce. "The blockade of Qatar — now widely viewed as instigated under false pretenses — has undermined the Middle East’s stability," wrote Qatari foreign minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in the New York Times. "By now it should be clear that there can be no 'winners' in this dispute. It is therefore time for the blockading nations to abandon their delusions of victory, prioritize the security interests of the entire Middle East and end the blockade."
But the standoff looks no closer to ending than it did last year. The Saudis and Emiratis seem content to maintain their boycott indefinitely. In private, Saudi officials speak of the Qataris as unruly schoolchildren who need to be brought into line. The Qataris, in turn, argue that the Saudis want nothing short of Doha's vassalage.
Though the threat of actual conflict has long since subsided, an online battle waged by armies of Twitter bots rumbles on. This week, Doha and Riyadh engaged in a war of words over Qatar's attempts to purchase new military systems from Russia and France, with the Saudis appearing to threaten military action and the Qataris once more defending their sovereignty.
The crisis has also led to a reconfiguration of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the bloc of Arab monarchies along the Persian Gulf. "Saudi Arabia and the neighboring United Arab Emirates have taken on an increasingly neoconservative foreign policy, as seen in their military intervention in Yemen," wrote the AP's John Gambrell. "Ties between Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, 57-year-old Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Saudi Arabia’s assertive 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have grown closer. Bahrain, long dependent on Saudi money to aid its troubled economy, cast its lot with the kingdom and the UAE."
But while Qatar seems to have come out on top, for now, it will likely pay the heaviest price as the impasse drags on. With no resolution in sight, experts even suggest that the 2022 FIFA World Cup, to be hosted by Qatar, could be in jeopardy.
"What is clear is that while there’s reputational damage incurred by all parties, the financial and political toll falls disproportionally on Qatar," said Firas Maksad, director of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that's close to Riyadh, to Today's WorldView. "The long-term opportunity cost for maintaining the boycott is marginal for the [Saudis and their allies]. Not so for Qatar."
For Washington, the gulf dispute is an unwelcome strategic headache. "What it's done has really marginalized the GCC as an effective organization that could work with us," Gerald Feierstein, a former career diplomat and gulf expert at the Middle East Institute, told Today's WorldView. He added that the crisis has "exposed divisions" that "Iran can exploit."
Indeed, Qatar is keeping its options open. Just this week, its defense minister suggested that his nation would not "fuel a war" against Iran, raising the possibility that the United States would not be able to engage the Iranians from its Qatari bases in the event of a military escalation.
"Iran stands as the sole victor," Michael Greenwald, the former U.S. Treasury attache to Qatar and Kuwait, told Bloomberg News. "This new power dynamic for Iran is the most troubling implication of the standoff."
The situation has also enabled the Qataris to point to a significant difference in their politics from that of the Saudis and Emiratis, as Hassan notes. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi long resented Doha for its cultivation and support of populist Islamist parties; now Qatar can better "position itself as a supporter of grassroots Arab and Muslim causes, rather than cynical geopolitical machinations" of monarchs hostile to democratic change.
"While the governments of the anti-Qatar quartet tend to portray Iran and its proxies as the greatest threat," wrote Hassan, "Arabs across the broader Middle East are increasingly coming to view the quartet itself an autocratic conspiracy against the aspirations for political change they have consistently opposed since the Arab uprisings in 2011."
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