June 12, 2017

Crisis in Qatar: A Small Nation’s Ambitions Clash with the Regional Order


Qatar, a country four times smaller than Estonia in terms of area but two times larger in view of population, faced the largest diplomatic crisis in its history when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ceased communication with the small nation and closed the common borders shared with it.

In addition to Qatar’s neighbours, Egypt and the provisional governments of Yemen and Libya as well as some small African states dependent upon Saudi Arabia also joined the anti-Qatar measures.

Although the crisis may be viewed in the context of historical eventsconflicting regional interests and energy, the fact that Qatar is a small state plays an important part in this. This very aspect should receive special attention in the Baltic Sea region.

In the theory of international relations, the central idea in view of the foreign policy of small states has been “tagging along”. Stephen Walt, for example, stated that small nations try to protect their interests through approaching large states. However, in addition to identifying with regional or global forces, there is another factor that is sometimes overlooked. Robert Keohane noted in one of his earlier texts on the large influence of small allies to US foreign policy that owing to their size, small states can concentrate their resources into narrow fields. At that, they tend to pay less attention to the consequences of their actions in the wider international system.

These two tendencies are also evident in Qatar and the current crisis is a manifestation of a direct clash between the trends. On the one hand, Qatar identifies with its Arab neighbours. They have a common language, culture, history, and are dependent on the US in guaranteeing their security. Moreover, similarly to other Gulf States, Qatar also has an existential fear of their large Persian neighbour. According to public opinion surveys conducted in the recent years, 45–50% of Qataris see Iraq as the largest regional threat, overshadowing Israel by more than twofold.

On the other hand, the Arab Spring revolutions and high gas and oil prices allowed rich Gulf states to project their influence further away from home—an opportunity that Qatar quickly grabbed. For example, the state-owned Al-Jazeera television channel turned into the flagship of critical Arab media overnight. In the ideological sense, they kept all doors open—the state supported both Syrian and Egyptian Islamists and democrats as well as thinkers who represent the secular world view, e.g., Azmi Bishara. At the same time, Qatar tried to take the role of a subjective negotiator in solving regional issues. For example, an official representation of Afghanistan’s Taliban was opened in 2013 in Doha, right next to an important US air base.

Qatar’s independent foreign policy was a constant thorn in the side for Saudi Arabia, who has been trying to gradually consolidate its power in the region in the Iranian standoff. It decisively stopped the revolution in Bahrain, invaded Yemen and supported the Egyptian army during the latest coup. Now it is trying to clip the wings of Qatar, which was starting to fly exceedingly high after the Arab Spring.

Although the crisis is not even nearly over, it has provided a lesson about the role of the US. The Qatar crisis yet again shows that the Trump administration is afraid of taking responsibility in solving regional conflicts, and a former “fellow traveller” may be quickly abandoned. Qatar, whom the Americans have left at the mercy of its neighbours, must make difficult choices. Do they want to continue independently, seek allies elsewhere (including among our neighbours) or make concessions and adopt an obedient position on the regional Arab-Sunnite axis headed by Saudi Arabia.