This is confusing, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the complicated world of Middle East politics, so let’s tackle it in the tried-and-true Q&A format.
Q. What happened?
A. The most basic is that five Arab countries—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the U.A.E., Yemen, and Bahrain—have “severed all ties” with a sixth country, Qatar. Bordering Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf, Qatar is a very small, very wealthy country, and if most Americans know it at all, it’s because it will serve as the host of the 2022 World Cup. In that context, Qatar has distinguished itself (please note the heavy sarcasm) with its horrific treatment of migrant workers, many of them Indian and Nepali, who toil in slave-like conditions.
The cutting of ties is serious business, and includes the suspension of diplomatic relations, a ban on travel of any kind to and from Qatar, and a mandate for all Qatari citizens living in the other five countries to leave within two weeks.
Q. Why did this happen?
A. First, it will be helpful to provide some context about the Middle East. You probably know that Islam’s two largest denominations are Shia and Sunni, and you probably also know that they don’t get along very well. What you may not know is that viewed broadly, the various conflicts in the Middle East can be explained as a proxy war between the strongest Shia power, Iran, and the strongest Sunni power, Saudi Arabia. Syria is a helpful example: There, Iran gives billions each year to support president Bashar al-Assad, a Shiite, as he fights for control against a Saudi Arabia-supported group of (mostly) Sunni rebels. Saudi Arabia also happens to be the top Middle East ally of the United States, which means that the financial support we give to the Saudis also gets funneled to the Syrian rebels—including, absurdly, the rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Hopefully even this short summary gives you an indication of the complications inherent to the Sunni-Shia battle for regional dominance. And it’s happening everywhere, from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fighting the Saudi-backed government, to Iraq, where Iran has committed money and weapons (and, many think, literal combat troops) to both the government and Shia militia groups with the aim stopping ISIS’ advance, all while Saudi Arabia provided tacit support to ISIS. Even in Israel, Iran funds Palestinian groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, while Saudi Arabia, ostensibly against Israeli occupation, has established diplomatic ties with the country in a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” scenario.
Q. Okay, but what about Qatar?
A. This is where it gets (even more) tricky. Qatar is actually a Sunni-led and Sunni majority country, and, like Saudia Arabia, the ruling party belongs to the Salafi sect. And like Saudi Arabia, Qatar is a major American ally in the region.
Saudi Arabia and the other nations have offered three reasons for the move. First, to “protect its national security form the dangers of terrorism and extremism.” This appears to be a reaction against quotes that came out last month from a Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin al-Thani, criticizing the United States’ Iran policy and implying that Donald Trump may not be in power for long. Qatar said it had been hacked, but nobody appears convinced. It may be no coincidence, in fact, that the move to cut ties comes hot on the heels of Trump’s visit to the Middle East.
Secondly, there is lingering resentment regarding Qatar’s funding of the Al-Jazeera television network and the nation’s support from the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter of which angered Egypt particularly, where the Brotherhood actually took power briefly in 2012 following the 2011 revolution.
Finally, and most strangely, Qatar has been accused of collusion with Iran. As the Times notes, this is especially odd considering that in both Syria and Yemen, Qatar has been firmly on Saudi Arabia’s side.
Q. So what’s really going on here?
A. In truth, it appears that the entire situation boils down to the Sunni nations allied with the United States feeling emboldened by Trump. In Bahrain, the only nation of the five with a Sunni-controlled government but a Shiite majority population, a recent crackdown against opposition groups following Trump’s visit resulted in five deaths and 286 arrests.
And Qatar, though it stands firmly on the side of the other Sunni countries, has used its wealth to pursue more moderate positions. It has negotiated with Iran in the past, and set up back channels to facilitate prisoner exchanges or the evacuation of civilians from areas of conflict. Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, quite clearly, is also a major factor in the hostility.
At the most basic level, it appears that the five nations feel that Qatar has gotten too big for its britches, and been too cozy with Iran. Which isn’t new—a similar incident took place in 2014, though it fell short of the travel blockade imposed today. What is new is the support from Trump. Per the Times, these countries:
saw an opportunity to distract from their internal troubles and reflected “bullishness” prompted by the Trump administration’s stances — on the confrontation with Iran and on a willingness to look the other way on human rights violations — “which they see as support of their views on regional threats and the best ways to respond….
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are getting “no U.S. pushback” on human rights or on the Yemen intervention, he said, while “Egypt also feels off the hook with Trump, and is using the opportunity to repair ties with the Saudis, reinforce with the Emiratis and be more assertive in Libya.”
Q. What does this mean for the future?
A. Simply put, Saudi Arabia and its top allies feel they have a license to be as aggressive and belligerent as they want to be. However, the severing of ties with Qatar may have been an unintended consequence for the U.S., which still counts on the small country as an important ally in military and business matters. It’s possible that the Trump government is now regretting the “anything goes” signal it gave to the Sunni nations, and may have to walk it back to preserve a tenuous coalition.