Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

The GCC Crisis: Qatar and its Neighbors Working Group I


On April 7-8, 2019, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held the first working group under its research initiative “The GCC Crisis: Qatar and its Neighbors.” The two day meeting brought together several scholars to discuss a range of topics. These included, Qatar’s management of the crisis; the UAE’s perspective and position on the regional crisis; the roles of Oman, Kuwait, Iran, and Turkey during the rupture of GCC relations; the impact of maritime law in the lead up to and the immediate aftermath of the dispute; economic readjustments in Qatar during the embargo; the effects of the crisis on the Qatari stock market; reconfigurations of nationalism and national identity in Qatar; and, public opinion in Qatar after the blockade.

Mehran Kamrava commenced the working group with a presentation titled “Small State: Crisis Politics.” Kamrava highlighted the lack of nuanced, academic study of the GCC crisis and suggested that the current crisis needs to be contextualized within the context of broader and older tensions in regional relations, particularly those between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Such tension is a natural result of a small state being in proximity of a much larger state with regional ambitions. Much of the policymaking, state narrative, and perspectives of Qatari decision makers is driven by the fact that Qatar is a small state. Kamrava proposed several research questions, including: What does the crisis tell us about how small states manage their supply chains during times of crisis? Have Qatari nationalism and national identity gained greater salience over tribalism and kinship? What is it about Qatar’s decision-making process that has enabled the state to respond effectively to the current crisis? And, is there more to the notion of “subtle power?”

David Roberts followed with a presentation on “The Unhappy Neighbor: The View from the UAE.” Roberts applied the notion of “ontological security” in international relations to the ongoing GCC crisis. Roberts suggested that the ontological security concept can provide us with interesting insights into the UAE’s foreign policy, as well as the motivations behind Mohamed bin Zayed’s foreign policy objectives. Roberts argued that states may prioritize ontological security over physical security, and, as a result, often undertake specific actions in the foreign policy domain that may not meet any hard security concerns or interests. Ontological security could be applied to conducting an individual-level analysis by studying the moral principles of the UAE leadership and how these translate into the country’s assertive foreign policy, as seen in the country’s current leadership’s rise to power in 2004.

Muna Al-Marzouqi discussed “The Blockade of Qatar and Maritime Law,” highlighting four main research areas. First, Al-Marzouqi maintained, there is a need to examine how the maritime blockade on Qatar is contributing to the fostering of international maritime trade and strengthening maritime trade partnerships with countries such as Oman. Second, there is need for a legal analysis of issues related to disturbed shipping liability caused by the blockade. Third, there is the issue of the hijacking of Qatari fishing boats by the UAE. Finally, Al-Marzouqi posed the question of whether the maritime blockade can be considered as an act of aggression under international law.

Steven Wright focused his discussion on “Economic Readjustment in Qatar after the Blockade.” Wright highlighted five areas of potential research. To start, the shifting trade flows and changing economic linkages that have occurred since the rupture in regional relations need further examination. Wright asked: How has the loss of 40 percent of imports previously coming through Saudi Arabia and the UAE been addressed by Qatar? There was a spike in trade with Iran at the beginning of the blockade, as Qatar tried to quickly find new means of addressing its need for critical imports, particularly in food and agricultural products. However, more recently the percentage of trade between the two states has dipped to even lower than what it was before the blockade. New trade relations have been formed with a number of African and Asian countries, and the shift away from Iran may well be due to deliberate political considerations and a calculated desire of the Qatari leadership to limit its reliance Iran.

Also important, according to Wright, are the significant changes in the energy sector since the blockade, most noticeably in the behavior of the large state-owned oil and gas companies. Wright suggested that since the GCC crisis began, there has been an intensification in the role of Qatar Petroleum, and in particular its subsidiary Qatar Gas, in actively undertaking international engagements and building partnerships with international energy companies. These new developments, and how they impact Qatar’s long-term energy policy, can benefit from deeper examination.

Since the start of the crisis, Wright maintained, a strong narrative has appeared in Qatar around the need to develop self-sufficiency and to more actively involve the private sector towards this goal. Since the blockade, great emphasis has been placed on achieving self-sufficiency and security in food and agriculture. Two years on since the blockade, Qatar is now a net exporter of poultry products. Also, there has been a considerable upsurge in company registration in Qatar’s financial center. Wright proposed that there is a need to study whether this increase indicates anything significant. 

Wright’s final point revolved around the question of how the Qatari economy has adjusted to the attack on the country’s currency? Following the blockade, there was threats of war, but a more significant threat was that of debasing the currency. However, Qatar has a strong credit rating, and there was a massive upsurge in the bond market, which made it easier for the country to secure its currency. Lastly, in-depth analysis of Qatar’s logistical supply management during the blockade merits further study.

Alanoud Al-Maadid led a discussion on the impact of the blockade on GCC stock markets. Al-Maadid focused on the financial performance of the stock markets, the high degree of market integration between GCC countries, and how positive or negative political and business news have impacted the performance of the regional markets since the Gulf crisis. Al-Maadid’s data demonstrates the most of the political news content in GCC newspapers leans towards the positive, while economic or business news reporting is often considerably more negative. She noted that when the stock market is in an upwards or strong position, the impact of negative news appears insignificant. However, when the stock market is in a weaker position, the impact of negative news seems to have a significant impact. Additionally, political news appeared to have less impact of on the stock market than business and economic news. Al-Maadid highlighted the GCC’s “cross-border effect,” arguing that the boycott of Qatar has negatively affected all GCC countries’ stock markets, and, if lifted, it will have a positive cross-boundary impact for all stakeholders involved.

Abdullah Al-Arian discussed the Muslim Brotherhood factor in the GCC Crisis. Al-Arian provided some insights into why the Muslim Brotherhood is so vigorously targeted by several GCC monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Al-Arian suggested that one of the primary reasons behind the distrust and dislike of the Brotherhood is the view that it cannot be “bought off” or co-opted by the Gulf states’ leadership. In addition, the Brotherhood’s transnational networks allow it to accumulate cross-border support and to potentially mobilize national populations across borders. The Brotherhood has frequently called for political reform, and its anti-monarchical stance instills unease in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Further complicating the matter is the different variations of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations in the Middle East, which makes it challenging to suppress the organization entirely or to it shut it down.

Al-Arian suggested that there are several potentially interesting areas of study to be undertaken. First, the overall impact of limited movement on the group due the blockade, needs to be studied. Second, the study of broader political order, needs in depth analysis. It is important to study whether Muslim Brotherhood groups are being used as proxies for political gains by the blockading countries. A third question to consider is whether the anti-Muslim Brotherhood stance is a form of regional Islamophobia being deployed by Gulf rulers in order to garner international support. Finally, it is important to have a deeper understanding of why Qatar has adopted a pro-Muslim Brotherhood position, and what benefit it perceives to accrue from its relationship with the Brotherhood.

Abdullah Baabood led a session on the role of Oman during the crisis. Baabood stated that Oman has been caught in the crossfire during the blockade, and while the leadership of Oman has tried to balance its relations with its various Gulf neighbors, the Omani public has demonstrated a more openly pro-Qatar stance in the midst of the crisis. While Kuwait played a more proactive role to play in mediating between the UAE/Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Oman has demonstrated an active interest in supporting a resolution of the ongoing dispute. Oman has a more complex and multicultural make-up than most of its GCC neighbours, as well as a different pattern of historical development, which has made its leaders more attuned to the need for compromise and peaceful accommodation. Oman is also suffering economic strains, which has been worsened by plummeting oil prices, and is facing increasing pressure from its own citizenry for better employment and financial conditions. Powerful neighbors like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have taken advantage of this and at times have further manipulated the situation to gain an upper hand. Economic concerns and domestic political stability are occupying most of the Omani leadership’s attention, which leaves it with little capacity to actively engage in resolving regional issues or taking a very strong stand in the matter.

Juan Cole focused on Iran’s role in the GCC crisis. Cole suggested that Iranian-Qatari relations are not usually of any great significance or importance to either state, but every once in a while relations are galvanized as was seen at the onset of the breakdown in GCC relations.  Iran is not a militarily aggressive state, nor does it have hegemonic interests in Qatar, although occasionally there are tensions with Qatar in regards to the North Field gas reserves, which are shared by both states. In Syria, Iran and Qatar have been supporting opposite sides in the conflict, not due to ideological reasons, Cole suggested, but because Iran has critical, realist interests in the preservation of the Assad regime.  Cole stated that it would be beneficial to the exciting literature to carry out a study on whether there is any long term traction to the Iran-Qatar relationship—will Qatar aim to strengthen and develop its economic and political relationship with Iran, or was the closeness early on in GCC crisis just a temporary marriage of convenience? Is there something significant in terms of the GCC crisis serving as a turning point in Qatar-Iran relations, or will this continue to be a relationship based on ambiguities?

Bulent Aras shed light on the role of Turkey during the crisis, and specifically its active support for Qatar as opposed to Saudi Arabia.  It is important to study Turkey’s military presence, military cooperation, and joint defense arrangements with Qatar during the crisis, and what it signifies about Turkey’s expanding role in the region. Turkey’s deployment of military personnel to Qatar after the blockade directly provoked concern from NATO and European states. But whether the surge in Turkish military presence in Qatar was done out of genuine and strategic considerations or merely for symbolic reasons requires deeper analysis. Do Turkey’s growing military and economic relations with Qatar reflect the AK Party’s broader ideology of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, or have these relations expanded as a result of other strategic and realist interests? Aras adduced that it may be a combined reflection of both nationalism and ideology that is driving this relationship, while also remembering that perhaps the support to Qatar is being extended mainly by Erdogan and the AK Party rather than the country itself.

Jocelyn Mitchell discussed how the Gulf crisis has led to reconfigurations in Qatari national identity, as well as different forms of expressions of nationalism. Mitchell suggested that nationalism can be conceptualized and studied at many different levels. In one respect, nationalism is ideational and serves as an ideology of who belongs and who does not to a particular imagined political community. Civic nationalism is constructed and developed, comes with various legal criteria and legal instruments, and is based on rights and duties of states and citizens towards each other. Civic nationalism can be more exclusive or more inclusive, based on how it is legally defined. Ethnic nationalism tends to be innately more bounded, as is based on common language and shared cultural heritage, which means it is hard to include broader groups within it. The sorts of nationalism that emerge in different contexts and eras change. This change, Mitchell suggested depends on lived experiences of social groups, and the means by which states try to develop or integrate parts of both civic and ethnic nationalism.

Following on from the GCC crisis, Mitchell suggested three particular areas of research regarding Qatari nationalism. First, to what extent is nationalism and national identity in Qatar changing, especially from one based on a regional ethnic narrative to one that is local ethnic and/or local civic national narratives? Second, if the various Qatari social groups are being incorporated into a new form of nationalism, how is this being done, and what are the mechanisms for new inclusions? Lastly, if the forms of nationalism and national identity are changing in Qatar, in what areas are these changes occurring, especially in the political and legal realms, or in terms of new socio-cultural behavior and norms?

The working group’s final presentation was by Justin Gengler. Gengler discussed the importance of public opinion, especially as a powerful tool for gathering data. Although Qataris have remained politically supportive of their state, especially since 2017, research needs to be conducted on various aspects of public opinion, especially citizens’ negative response to the payment of taxes; how many people blame the state for the crisis; whether or not social relations between citizens and non-citizens have changed; and the changes in tribal differences within the society. Gengler believed that these questions would return interesting results and seeking answers to them is essential to understanding the blockade.

The scholars discussed a range of issues related to the blockade and also identified key gaps in research. The issues discussed at the working group included the role of various countries, their ties with Qatar, and the use of tools such as public opinion.

Participants and Discussants: 

  • Abdullah Al-Arian, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Alanoud Al-Maadid, Qatar University
  • Muna Al-Marzouqi, Qatar University
  • Ian Almond, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Bulent Aras, Sabancı University, Turkey
  • Abdullah Baabood, University of Cambridge, UK
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Chaïmaa Benkermi, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Juan R.I. Cole, University of Michigan, US
  • Justin Gengler, Qatar University 
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Jocelyn Sage Mitchell, Northwestern University in Qatar
  • Khushboo Shah, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • James Reardon-Anderson, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • David B. Roberts, King’s College London, UK
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Steven Wright, Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS