Maverick Qatar finds itself engulfed

It was June 2013 and the small emirate of Qatar was flexing its diplomatic muscles across a Middle East in revolutionary ferment while splashing its petrol-fuelled billions on flashy overseas investments.

Riding on a high, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir, threw a bombshell into the Gulf's sclerotic political order: he abdicated in favour of his son Tamim, 33. It was the ultimate proof of Qatar's maverick spirit.

Among neighbouring autocrats, who often thought the emir too nationalistic and dangerously hubristic, the reaction was a mixture of shock and relief. Shock because he had broken tradition and shone an awkward light on other ageing leaderships clinging to power in the Gulf. Relief because the new, younger regime could prove easier to tame.

For some time, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had been enraged by the democratic winds blowing in the Arab Spring and Qatar's embrace of revolutionaries, including political Islamists.

While Qatar secretly hoped revolutions would march all the way to the Gulf, led by a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi and Emirati leaders were resolved to extinguish the Islamist flame long before it reached the Gulf. After the abdication they seized the opportunity to bring the new Qatari emir into line.

This week's extraordinary decision by the two states (along with a few others) to sever relations with Doha, expel Qataris from their soil and isolate the emirate economically, is a sign of Sheikh Tamim's spectacular failure and his neighbours' spectacular stubbornness.

Portraits of Qatar's Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (left) and the former ruler, his father Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, hanging in a shop in the emirate's capital Doha. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Diplomats say one of the reasons for the crisis is that the new Qatari regime has been a smokescreen. "It's the same Qatar and the father emir has been pulling the strings," one senior diplomat told me.

Maybe so. But Sheikh Tamim is his father's son - and of Sheikha Moza, the equally non-conformist former first lady of Qatar. He inherited their unconventional spirit and their penchant for mischief. It was always an illusion to believe he would chart a radically different course.

True, the young Tamim seemed tamed - for a while. After the Saudis and others stepped up the pressure in 2014 and pulled out their envoys, he distanced himself from Islamists, moderate and extremist. But it was a tactical retreat.

Qatar, I am told, is the only remaining country willing to support Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria, which once received funds from across the region.

Above all, Sheikh Tamim appears to have misjudged the shifting political dynamics in the Gulf. Since Saudi Arabia's King Salman took over in 2015, giving his favourite son Mohammed bin Salman oversized powers, the kingdom has been forcefully reasserting itself as a dominant regional power, and seeking to isolate its arch-enemy Iran.

Saudi Arabia's attitude towards Qatar has grown increasingly intolerant, while US President Donald Trump's unconditional backing for the kingdom - his first stop on his first official trip abroad - has bolstered Saudi confidence. However misguided Riyadh's policy, a more prudent Qatari ruler would have been on his guard.

The final trigger for the Gulf breakdown was probably Doha's US$1 billion (S$1.38 billion) prison swap to win the release of a Qatari royal hunting party in Iraq. It was secured through payments to one Iranian-backed organisation and another Al-Qaeda-linked one - a stark reminder that Doha is willing to do business with its Arab neighbours' worst enemies.

The scale of punishment from Saudi Arabia - for whom, ironically, paying off unsavoury opponents has traditionally been part of foreign policy - could backfire, forcing Qatar into a closer relationship with Iran.

For now, though, Sheikh Tamim is cornered. And the Saudis are not done yet: talk of a coup in Qatar in Saudi media may be wishful thinking, but it is part of a multi-pronged diplomatic, economic and psychological assault. If recent history is any judge, Sheikh Tamim will protest and then fold, hoping another tactical retreat will do the trick. The ferocity of the Saudi attack this time, and the support of Mr Trump, suggests it will not.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2017, with the headline 'Maverick Qatar finds itself engulfed'. Print Edition | Subscribe