Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

The GCC Crisis: Qatar and its Neighbors Working Group II


On December 1-2, 2019, the Center for International and Regional Studies held the second working group for its research initiative on “The GCC Crisis: Qatar and its Neighbors.” Over two days, the convened scholars presented and received feedback on their papers that tackled a wide array of issues, including: the Regional implications of the GCC crisis, impact of the crisis on Qatar’s Supply Chain, public narratives of nationalism and identity in Qatar after the blockade, Turkey’s role in the crisis, ontological security and the GCC crisis, and post-blockade relations between State and Society in Qatar.

The working group began with Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s discussion of his paper on “The Regional Implications of the Gulf Crisis.” Ulrichsen argues that the 2011 Arab spring signaled the transition of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE into assertive regional actors. Differing foreign policy trajectories, as well as regional actions, were taken by Doha, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi during and after the Arab Spring strained relations between the three states and limited the chances of future regional cooperation. The rupture of relations between the three Gulf states has highlighted the inherent weakness of the GCC as a meaningful institution through which member states can mediate regional disputes. The GCC, a loose collection of like-minded states without any significant centralization of authority or decision-making, has always suffered as a result of being viewed as a Saudi-dominated organization. Following the Arab Spring, any chance of building greater regional cooperation was further fragmented by a zero-sum mentality of the member states. Ulrichsen’s paper also highlights the pressure faced by the new Qatari leadership from Saudi Arabia and UAE and how this has raised concerns in other GCC states, namely Kuwait and Oman, over their own vulnerable positions as they too approach leadership transitions. The paper also examines the new relationship between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and its impact and implications on the regional order.

Frank Himpel and Willy Kempel drew attention to the impact of the GCC crisis on the supply chain in Qatar with their paper on “Supply Chain Management in Turbulent Time.” The paper focuses on how the blockade impacted Qatar’s ability to import goods and how the State addressed the challenges faced. The authors highlight various strategies that states can adopt to manage their supply chain during times of crisis. In the Qatari case, the State sought to diversify the external components of its supply chain, while also developing greater indigenous capacity in areas where this was possible, with the long term goal of making its supply chain independent from its immediate neighborhood. Qatar sought to build new cooperative relationships at the regional and international level and sought to alleviate the pressure on its supply chain by seeking new routes of import and export via air and sea. The authors highlight that due to Qatar’s successful efforts in building and reinforcing its resources, the embargoing countries failed to achieve their purpose, and the long term benefit is that it has led to Qatar further developing its infrastructure and capacities.

Jocelyn Mitchell then presented a discussion of her paper “Narratives of Nationalism and Identity in Qatar after 2017,” which she has co-authored with Mariam Al-Hammadi. In this paper, the authors examine the impact of the ongoing regional crisis on nationalism and national identity in Qatar and argue that the rupture in regional relations has reduced the salience of a Khaliji identity amongst Qataris while increasing expressions of nationalism and national identity. The paper uses the case study of the recently opened National Museum in Qatar to examine society’s response to the narrative of a unified Qatari national identity represented at the Museum. The authors suggest that Qatari identity, as represented at the National Museum, appears to elide historical identity differences amongst Qataris, and in particular, do so by refraining from any representations of previously existing ‘badu’ vs. ‘hadar’ affiliations. This is viewed by the authors as a deliberate effort by the state to consolidate a single Qatari identity with the intent of increasing social unity amongst the public. The authors, through a series of interviews with female Qatari citizens, attempt to discern how this representation of a solidified and singular Qatari national identity expressed at the Museum is received by the Qatari population, and whether there are social tensions around identity that are not captured through the Museum’s depictions.

David Roberts, in his article on “Ontological Security and the GCC Crisis: Uncovering the Bitterness at the Heart of Qatari-Emirati Relations,” attempts to shed light on the UAE’s foreign policy goals and regional behavior by applying the theoretical lens of ontological security. Ontological security argues that individuals and states are driven by the need to secure their complex sense of identity. If a state perceives that its core identity is under threat, then it will engage in behavior to address the source of that threat. Roberts applies this argument to explain UAE’s reasoning behind their current foreign policies to support Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt in their blockade against Qatar.  Roberts argued that in the time of regional flux, UAE simultaneously faces internal challenges and concerns in regards to tackling multiple identities within its territory. With UAE focused on promoting a modern and globalized image, Qatar’s regional support for Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups and political Islam was considered a threat by the leadership in Abu Dhabi. With Qatar and UAE building identities that are mutually incompatible, it has led to an increase in UAE’s hostility towards Qatar.

Justin Gengler moved the focus to post-blockade State and Society in Qatar with his paper on “Society and State in Post-Blockade Qatar.” With this article, Gengler examines whether the blockade altered relations within society and between society and state or if it rippled some of the changes that were prevalent even before the blockade. The data was collected via multiple surveys conducted in Qatar before and after June 2017. The analysis of the findings demonstrates that the blockade has not given rise to new waves of mutual trust and acceptance between different social groups, however, it has been a factor in decreasing some of the social tensions between different groups. Another result shows that Qatari citizens had a growing interest in politics that experienced an unprecedented spike during the blockade. It is argued that the blockade had a reverse effect than the Arab Spring on the Qataris, who viewed the blockade as a stabilizing force against external aggression.

The discussion was brought to a close by Bulent Aras with his paper on “Turkey’s Diplomatic and Military Role in the Gulf Crisis.” Aras discusses Turkey’s geopolitical positioning and its diplomatic and military role in the Gulf region in light of the 2017 blockade against Qatar. The analytics framework of geopolitical reasoning has been applied to explain the foreign policy decisions made. The leaders in Ankara sought to build a regional foreign policy narrative that could be justified both domestically and internationally. Turkey turned to hard power military foreign policy, which, according to its leadership, would raise its regional profile to a new level. For Turkey, Qatar provides to be an Arab partner that helps deepen its links in the Gulf. In contrast, policymakers in Ankara are often on the rival end to their counterparts in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Aras concludes that whether this scenario of partnership with Qatar and schism with Saudi Arabia and UAE will persist will depend on the momentum gained from this geopolitical competition.

It is worth mentioning that CIRS plans to publish the aforementioned papers in either in an edited volume or a special issue of a journal in the near future.

Participants and Discussants: 

  • Mariam Ibrahim Al-Hammadi, Qatar University
  • Bülent Aras, Sabancı University, Turkey
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Misba Bhatti, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Justin Gengler, Qatar University 
  • Salma Hassabou, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Frank Himpel, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Willy Kempel, Ambassador of Austria to Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Jocelyn Sage Mitchell, Northwestern University in Qatar
  • Gerd Nonneman, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • David B. Roberts, King’s College London, UK
  • Khushboo Shah, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Rice University, US
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar

Article by Misba Bhatti, Research Analyst at CIRS