The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Princely feuds in the Persian Gulf thwart Trump’s efforts to resolve the Qatar dispute

With U.S. first lady Melania Trump looking on, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, left, Saudi King Salman and President Trump inaugurate the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 21, 2017.
With U.S. first lady Melania Trump looking on, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, left, Saudi King Salman and President Trump inaugurate the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 21, 2017. (Saudi Press Agency/AP)

DOHA, Qatar — When the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Bahrain teamed up to invade Qatar in 1867, Doha was a tiny outpost on an obscure desert peninsula coveted by rival tribes.

Today, Doha is a city transformed into a glittering modern capital by natural-gas-derived wealth — and Qatar is still the object of its neighbors’ wrath, an outlier and maverick whose emir refuses to fall into line with the region’s powerful royal families.

As a boycott of the country led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt enters a 12th month, the Trump administration finds itself increasingly caught in the middle of one of the region’s oldest family feuds.

President Trump has switched his position, from agreeing last year with the view that Qatar is a “sponsor of terrorism” to calling Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani a “great friend” last month in Washington. On a visit to Saudi Arabia two weeks ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a stern message to the Persian Gulf leaders, urging them to resolve their differences and stressing that gulf unity is imperative if the United States and its allies are to confront Iran, a Trump administration priority.

But Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have led the embargo campaign, show no sign they are prepared to budge.

Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, made it clear in a tweet this month that Washington’s intervention would not be welcome.

“I sincerely advise Qatar that there will not be any mediation from outside the gulf,” he posted. “No pressure will work, media campaigns will not alter your fate, your crisis is ongoing. Be wise and negotiate with your neighbors who have real concerns, to solve the outstanding differences.”

During an April 10 meeting with Qatar’s emir at the White House, President Trump said the U.S. was "stopping" countries, like Qatar, from funding terrorism. (Video: Reuters)

Qatar, which sees the terrorism allegations as a ploy to bring it under the control of its neighbors, says it will not compromise its principles.

“They simply want to outsource our decisions, but we will never be a follower state. We are an independent state and make our own decisions,” said Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed al-Thani, the head of the government communications office in Doha.

On one level, the dispute, ostensibly rooted in Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring revolts, reflects competing visions for the region. Doha threw its support behind Islamist revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE led efforts to push back against calls for change.

Qatar’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood genuinely infuriated its neighbors, which regard political Islam as the gravest threat to the power of the region’s dynastic monarchies, analysts in the region say.

As much as politics, however, analysts see the dispute arising from a long history of jealousy, mistrust and scheming between Qatar and its neighbors — which helps explain why the quarrel is proving so intractable.

“There’s a long-term irritation with Qatar. Who do they think they are? Their proper place was in the shadow of Saudi Arabia,” Gerd Nonneman, professor of international relations at the Qatar branch of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said of the attitude of Qatar’s rivals. “The friction was always there, but the Arab Spring brought it to the fore.”

The origins of the quarrel can be traced back to the formation of the modern state of Qatar in the mid-19th century, he said, when the al-Thanis, a relatively obscure Bedouin family from the heart of Saudi Arabia, took up residence in the Qatar peninsula, then ruled by the Khalifa family in Bahrain.

The king of Bahrain’s attempt to dislodge the al-Thanis in the 1867 battle — with the help of the ruling al-Nahyan family from Abu Dhabi — failed, and Qatar has since coexisted uneasily with its neighbors.

These days, rivalries that once took the form of coup plots, battles and raids are playing out mostly through expensive lobbying in Washington, insults hurled on Twitter and a lot of electronic hacking.

But the kings, emirs and princes vying for preeminence in the current geopolitical order are the descendants of the same tribes that skirmished 150 years ago — al-Thanis in Qatar, al-Nahyans in the UAE, the house of Saud in Saudi Arabia and the Khalifas in Bahrain.

“This is not something new. The tribes of Arabia have always been fighting with one another, and this is the modern version,” said Mohammed Rwaili, who works with the Qatar Foundation in Doha. “There was rivalry between us in the past. It’s a historical thing.”

What is new is the ascent to power in Saudi Arabia and the UAE of a new generation of princes who are more aggressive in pressing long-standing grievances with Qatar. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his close ally and mentor, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed — the most powerful of the princes ruling the UAE — have taken the lead in pushing the boycott.

They had hopes that Qatar’s Tamim, who inherited power after the abdication of his father in 2014, would be more pliant, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, chairman of the Dubai-based Arab Council for Social Sciences.

“Instead, he was just the same,” Abdulla said. “He had the same grudges.”

The boycotting countries describe a history of Qatari behavior that they say flouts traditions of tribal consensus. The Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network routinely criticizes the region’s other royal families, said Mohammed al-Hammadi, editor of the UAE’s Al-Ittihad newspaper.

“The one thing foremost in our Bedouin culture is trust. Today, the UAE, Saudis and Bahrain don’t trust the Qatar regime,” he said.

The Qatari emir’s refusal to attend a ceremony in Riyadh last year at which Trump and Arab leaders placed their hands on a glowing orb was one example of Qatar’s disregard for its neighbors, Hammadi said. A plot allegedly discussed by Tamim’s father in a telephone call with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to assassinate the former king of Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s was another, he said.

There also are suspicions, Abdulla said, that Qatar’s ruler sought to manipulate the Saudi power struggle in 2014 that resulted in the crown prince, Mohammed, consolidating power. “What we know is that the Qataris were stupid enough to interfere in the royal family of Saudi Arabia and stupid enough to bet on the wrong horses, and they are paying the price,” he said.

Qatar denies the allegations and blames the crisis on jealousy of its wealth and success on the global stage.

The tiny country, with a population of just over 300,000 native Qataris (as well as more than 2 million foreigners) has the highest per capita income in the world. It hosts world-class museums, the campuses of premier American universities and the biggest U.S. air base in the region. In 2022, Qatar will be the venue for the world’s most prestigious sporting event, soccer’s World Cup.

“There’s always been competition and jealousy between the gulf states, but that was a shock,” said Jocelyn Mitchell, an assistant professor at the Qatar branch of Northwestern University. “You’ve got Qatar becoming the face of the Arab world by hosting the World Cup.”

At the same time, Qatar was cultivating ties with Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a variety of Islamist movements — moves that were intended to leverage Qatar’s regional influence but that also stirred the fury of its neighbors.

Qataris say they have no choice but to seek a variety of allies if they are to withstand the perceived predations of their neighbors. The Qataris cite a long history of efforts by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to bring Qatar under their thumb, starting with the 1867 battle and continuing through a failed 1996 coup attempt against the current emir’s father — who had in turn overthrown his father in a bloodless coup the year before.

The demands listed by the boycotting countries “are just a front,” Khaled al-Attiyah, Qatar’s defense minister, said in an interview in Doha.

“They were planning this for a long time. They don’t like our independence, our freedom of speech or the platform we have created to promote dialogue and mediation in the region,” he said. “They don’t want us to be independent.”

With neither side showing any sign of compromise, the dispute seems set to continue indefinitely. The embargo has failed to significantly dent the Qatari economy or to turn Qataris against the emir, whose popularity has instead soared as a result of the challenge to his rule.

“The problem now is that the Saudis and Emiratis realize they are not going to get what they wanted, which was regime change or significant concessions, and the U.S. government is not going to abandon Qatar,” said Kristian Ulrichsen of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “They don’t have a Plan B, and we’re stuck because none of the parties is willing to make compromises.”

Hacked messages show Qatar appearing to pay hundreds of millions to free hostages

Emir of Qatar gets warm welcome despite Trump’s earlier criticism

Kushner Companies confirms meeting with Qatar on financing

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news