Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Behind the Qatar crisis: Politics, energy and Al-Jazeera

Since it began in 1996, the Doha-based, state-funded broadcaster Al-Jazeera has managed to anger every major government in the Middle East.

 Doha skyline (Photo:Flickr/Omar Chatriwala)
Doha skyline (Photo:Flickr/Omar Chatriwala)
Published 8 Jun 2017   Follow @AnasIqtait

Much has been said about the standoff between the Saudi Arabia-UAE axis and Qatar over the latter's alleged support for extremist groups in the Middle East and soft approach to Iran.

In recent days, US President Donald Trump has attempted to put himself in the middle of the dispute, first praising the move by other gulf nations to severe diplomatic relations with Qatar and then offering to help resolve their differences. However, the factors leading up to the current standoff precede the 45th president of the United States by many years.

Two chronicles contributed to Saudi’s decision to ostracise Qatar, formerly an ally of longstanding and, up until the beginning of this week, an integral part of the Saudi military alliance in Yemen

The first is purely political and traces its origins to 1995, when Hamad Al Thani, the father of the current Emir of Qatar, Tamim Al Thani uncrowned his pro-Saudi father and proceeded to carve an independent path of regional and global relations.

In a short span of time, Qatar built a potent relationship with the United States, by hosting the vital al-Udeid Air Base, while maintaining ties with Iran and other traditional US adversaries. The country’s geographic proximity to Iran and its financial dependence on natural gas, most of which is extracted from a huge offshore field shared with Iran, has shaped its delicate approach to regional relations. Qatar’s neighbour, the UAE is Iran's second largest trade partner, accounting for 40% of Iran’s imports, but the Saudis appear less tolerant of Qatar’s political regional balancing and more accepting of the UAE’s economic interests.

The Emirate’s multi-directional balancing approach to foreign policy culminated in its response to the post-2011 era.

Much to the irritation of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Qatar helped foster the alternative movements that forged a path of change across the region in 2011 and 2012 and welcomed the rise to power of Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, various Syrian factions, and the government in Western Libya have all received varying degrees of financial and political support from Qatar. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and the UAE, entrenched in the opposite camp, bankrolled the counter movements across the region to restore pre-2011 order.

Compounding Qatari soft power is the reach and effectiveness of the Doha-based, state-funded broadcaster Al-Jazeera across the Arab word. The media network precipitated the discussion of often-neglected issues across the region, and frequently adopted counter-government narratives. Since it was founded in 1996, Al Jazeera has managed to anger every major regional government in the Middle East who have blamed it for the spread of the Arab Spring, promoting extremism, and interstate meddling. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have blocked the network’s websites and moved to outlaw its operations, as have Egypt and Jordan.

Saudi Arabia also accuses Qatar of financing and harbouring Sunni and Shia terrorist organisations. A claim underpinned by the country’s decision in April, much to Saudi opposition, to pay a ransom of approximately a billion dollars to free members of the Qatar royal family who were kidnapped in Iraq by Iranian aligned militants. The ransom payments were made to several agencies involved in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars; including Iran and its proxies, Tahrir Al-Sham (Al-Qaeda in Syria), and Ahrar Al-Sham (a Syrian Islamist rebel faction).

The second chronicle is a mixture of economic factors that can also be traced to 1995, when Qatar shipped its first natural gas tanker from the world’s largest reservoir, the North Dome field. Qatar has since pioneered liquefied natural gas (LNG) technology and pursued an active economic policy, founding new markets from Europe to Japan. LNG windfalls transformed its political and economic landscapes. The nation has the world’s highest per capita income; it boasts the second largest natural gas reserves in the world, and dominates the global LNG market with a 32% share of global supply.

Qatar’s reliance on gas granted it independence from the oil-abundant and Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council and Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. The country has enjoyed its freedom and has been reluctant to integrate its production facilities regionally, or to cater for rising regional demand for LNG. The region, including Saudi Arabia, expected Qatar to increase its production capacity to meet local demand; instead, it introduced a self-imposed moratorium in 2005 on increasing gas production from the North Dome field. Qatar’s reluctance to feed the regional market has been forcing Saudi Arabia and the UAE to rely on higher cost LNG. In April, Qatar announced it intended to lift the moratorium and develop new gas projects to increase production capability by 10%. However,this enraged Saudi Arabia as it coincided with Iran increasing its rates of extraction from the shared gas field.

Against this background, the Saudis are looking for a brokered deal that would include political concessions - such as the expelling of the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional offshoots - and a taming of Al-Jazeera’s independent, anti-regional government rhetoric. Also in the mix would be a re-evaluation of Qatar’s energy policy that would cater for the rising regional appetite of gas and the integration of production and transportation facilities with Saudi Arabia.

However, Bob Bowker’s analysis is a reminder that the geostrategic outcomes of this conflict are multifaceted. The Turkish parliament's approval for troops deployment in Qatar is a case in hand. Iran’s economic strategic interests in securing the North Dome field is another factor that can’t be overlooked when considering how the current standoff will play out.

You may also be interested in