The breaking of diplomatic relations between Qatar and seven regional states—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, the Libyan transitional government, and the internationally recognized Yemeni government—has brought a dispute about the country’s distinctive approach to regional affairs and the future of the GCC inter relations in the near future.
Saudi Arabia and its allies took a firm step in cutting their diplomatic relations with Qatar, imposing economic sanctions and blocking the Qatari news media including Al-Jazeera. This action which was followed by a targeted media campaignagainst Doha was the result Qatar’s Emir statement on the state-run news agency criticizing the US President Donald Trump and describing Iran as a force of stability in the region and threatening to withdraw ambassadors from several Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia. Qatar claimed that its official websites had been hacked, however, a number of Arab news agencies close to the Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian leadership pointed out that some of the emir’s remarks had already appeared on Qatar state broadcasted before they were denied. The tension between the Qatari emirate and the different Arab states came directly after a historical US-Islamic summit which resulted in huge agreements between USA and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Regardless of the truthfulness of the Qatari Emir statements, a remaining question should be answered on the background and timing of the decision of confronting Qatar and the upcoming developments in the relations between the GCC member states.
Qatar and GCC: A History of Skirmishes
Contrary to most of the reports written and spread in the media, the difficult relation between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors began way more before the Arab Spring in 2011. The turning point in Qatari-Saudi relations rose after Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, seized power from his father in a bloodless palace coup in June 1995. Gulf leaders didn’t welcome Emir Hamad’s accession and saw it as a threat to the stability of the Gulf monarchies. Saudi Arabia was accused of implicating two counter-coup attempts in February 1996 and in 2005. The Qatari government withdrew up to 5,000 members of the Bani Murra tribe (historically located on the Saudi-Qatari border) of their citizenship accusing the tribe’s members in the counter-coup attempt. Following 1995 coup, Qatari leadership aimed for autonomous regional policies seeking to bring the country out of the Saudi shadow. These policies were based on support for regional Islamists (mainly the Muslim Brotherhood), building good ties with Iran and their allies, enhancing their relations with USA and Israel covertly, and provision of Doha-based Al Jazeera as a platform for groups criticizing regional states as a tool for diplomacy. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Doha in 2002 in response to Al Jazeera’s coverage of domestic affairs within the kingdom. The tensions between Qatar and several Gulf countries (KSA, UAE, and Bahrain) increased after the emergence of the Arab Spring which was strongly supported by Qatar. These countries supported most of the traditional regimes in the Arab region and helped the counter-revolution forces to reclaim power. Abdel Fatah Sisi’s coup d’etat in Egypt supported by these countries can be the best example of the conflicting vision between these countries and Qatar. Doha’s support for the Muslim brotherhood affiliates in the region became a serious problem since the political Islam groups were considered as a threat for the Gulf monarchs. The relations drastically deteriorated in 2013 and 2014 although hopes were high in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that the handover of power from Emir Hamad to his son Emir Tamim in June 2013 would change Doha’s approach to regional affairs. In 2014, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in addition to UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar accusing it in interfering in their internal affairs. The Emir of Kuwait played an essential role to mediate between the conflicting countries reaching deal in 2014 after several Qatari concessions which included: Relocating Muslim Brotherhood figures in Doha to Turkey, ordering the Emirati opposition dissidents (Al Islah party) to leave Qatar, closing Al Jazeera’s Egyptian branch, and enforcing the GCC Internal Security Pact and cooperating closely with GCC partners on matters of intelligence and policing.
The Riyadh Summit and the US Middle Eastern Policy
The leadership change in the US administration may have triggered the new policy of isolation against Qatar. In a conference held on Tuesday entitled: “Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Global Affiliates: New US Administration Considers New Policies” by the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies with the Hudson Institute and The George Washington University’s Centre for Cyber & Homeland Security featured a discussion with Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense (2006-2011) and Ed Royce, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair.
Royce mentioned that “If Qatar is supporting Hamas, then we are talking about sanctions against Qatar”. “I think we are moving on legislation that addresses those states who don’t keep their commitment with respect to changing behavior supporting organizations that are sowing terror”.
Parallel to the above mentioned statement, the US president demanded the Gulf States in doing more to combat the export of extremist teaching into Europe. Moreover, a report in “The Guardian” indicated that Trump’s administration is pressured to review its alliance with Qatar due to its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
These remarks came in harmony with the Saudi and UAE’s decision benefiting from the US statements to pressure Qatar’s policies on different levels. Nasser El Baqmi mentioned in his first remarks after taking over the post of the Secretary General of the “Global Center to Combat Extremism “initiated during Trump’s visit to Riyadh, that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sururis are using deceitful attitudes towards the people in order to attract recruits. It is well known that Qatar is a supporter for the Muslim Brotherhood and is accused in financing its activities and promoting their ideologies and activities especially through “Al Jazeera” the Qatari owned TV station.
Bin Salman and Bin Zayed Calculations
Bin Salman’s 2030 plan to lessen the Kingdom dependence on oil by opening the Saudi market for more investment would trigger the young leader to take more liberal stances. Moreover, the liberal ideas of the 2030 plan which came parallel to paralyzing the religious police had angered the conservative figures in the Saudi Kingdom. Several Qatari media outlets accused Bin Salman of using financial power in promoting himself as a moderate leader as a strategy to secure US support to step to the Kingdom’s throne after his father. Bin Salman’s aim to be perceived as a moderate future leader to the US administration intensified the negative actions against the Sururis Cheikh’s and the Muslim brotherhood allies in KSA. Opposing political figures to Bin Salman accused the emir of building ties with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammad Bin Zayed aiming for his help in ascending the throne in the future. Furthermore, some experts believe that Mohammed bin Zayed, the influential crown prince of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, has found a willing partner in the young Saudi deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman.
Moving to the Emirati side, it seems that UAE is frustrated from the continuous support provided by Doha to the Muslim brotherhood which is considered as the main threat for Abu Dhabi. Furthermore, Emirati sources accused Qatar in knocking the wedges between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh regarding the Yemeni file. Diplomatic sources revealed to the Abu Dhabi based ERM news that Doha has mobilized its mass media to disrupt the work of the coalition in Yemen, through reports and programs talking about conflicting agendas between KSA and UAE in Yemen, which both countries responded on more than one occasion that “their relationship is strategic in nature, there is no room for such a contradiction.”
Focused Media Campaign and Lobbying groups Against Qatar
There is a hostile media campaign against the state of Qatar, which we will confront,” Sheikh Mohammed al-Thani told reporters, adding that the campaign was “particularly in the United States”. Sheikh Mohammed added that it is surprising how there were 13 opinion articles focused on Qatar in the past 5 weeks. In KSA, it is evident that the media outlets targeting the Qatari leadership would directly link us to deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. The Saudi campaign on Qatar are led by Al-Arabiya TV, Okaz, Al Watan and Al-Iqtissadiya and other newspapers. It is well know that these newspapers and TVs are part of the “Saudi Research and Marketing Company” or “Saudi Research and Publishing” which are practically owned by Mohammad Bin Salman.
Moreover, the lobbying, PR firms, and the think tanks in USA are playing an essential role in ruining the image of Qatar in the eyes of US officials and public. The United Arab Emirates is the most Middle Eastern country to spend money on public relations and lobbying in Washington. The UAE ambassador in Washington, Yusuf Al Otaiba, plays a central role in managing the Abu Dhabi lobby and weaving ties with White House and Congress decision makers. A statistic for 2016 shows that the UAE pays through its embassy in Washington about $ 14 million a year to public relations companies, lobbyists and political figures. An approximate of an article, seminar, or a research per day in US think tanks can be found demonizing Qatar and portraying it as a supporter of the terrorism. These productions use current and retired US media figures and retired politicians connected to one of two sources either the UAE lobby in the US capital or the Israeli lobby. Several sources mentioned that the UAE ambassador in US Yusuf Al Otaiba is leading his country’s lobbying firms and their war against Qatar. After being appointed ambassador of the United Arab Emirates in US in 2008, Otaiba managed to establish close ties with politicians, media professionals and businessmen in Washington. He was assisted by Emmy Little Thomas, a former employee of the George W. Bush administration, appointed as an official at the UAE embassy in Washington.  Moreover, a hacker group calling itself “GlobalLeaks” has begun distributing hacked emails stolen from the inbox of Yousef Al Otaiba. The leaks show the growing relationship between the United Arab Emirates and the pro-Israel, neoconservative think tank called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). In the hacked emails, UAE ambassador was aiming to lobby against Qatar’s regional policies and pushing for the U.S. to close down its military base in Qatar. The emails also showed Abu Dhabi’s policy in enhancing the image of Mohammad Bin Salman in the eyes of the US administration.
The competition between the Gulf States seeking to ensure the support of the US opinion leaders reached the US based think tanks. In a report published by Haaretz, UAE and KSA found and helped to fund the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington which is the first institution in the capital to focus exclusively on the Gulf region. UAE announced partnerships with other influential think tanks such as the Atlantic Council and the Center for International and Strategic Studies. On the other hand, Qatar has donated millions of dollars to the Brookings Institute.
The decisions taken by different Gulf and Arab states which included a media campaign launched against Qatar following Trump’s visit to Riyadh will certainly lead us to some conclusions and expectations toward the inter-GCC relations and the political role of Qatar in the future.
First, Qatar no longer has the ability to play the role it used to play in the past. US during the Trump administration does not resemble to Obama’s America. Washington is no longer betting on containing al-Qaeda by facilitating “moderate Islamists” access to power.
Second, despite the possibility of a US escalation against Qatar under the pretext of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and some terrorist organizations, it is difficult to expect the closing of the largest US base in the Middle East located at the “Al Udeid” airbase in Qatar. The US administration is in need for unity in the Gulf region rather than skirmishes between the different states.
Third, although it is evident that the KSA and UAE are leading the campaign against Qatar on the highest level, however, the two countries are far from expulsing Qatar from the GCC. This may be the latest resort for the two countries. The two Gulf allies will most probably not leave Doha totally in the hands of Tehran.
Fourth, Qatari- Iranian relations cannot be the only reason for the deteriorating relation between Qatar and other GCC countries although Qatar has a strong incentive to maintain decent working relations with Iran. Its economy depends on the natural gas North Field site, which it shares with Iran. For this reason, it is not hard to understand why Doha would want to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing Tehran. However, Oman and Kuwait certainly have better ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia and its allies are certainly enraged of Qatar paying 1b$ to release members of its royal family who were kidnapped in Iraq while on a hunting trip. According to the Financial Times report, Qatar paid off two of the most frequently blacklisted forces of the Middle East in one fell swoop: an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria and Iranian security officials.
Fifth, the failure of different political Islam groups to maintain power in different states (Egypt, Libya and Tunisia) weakened Doha’s influence and encouraged KSA and its allies to take decisive actions against Qatar benefiting from Trumps historical visit to Riyadh.
Sixth, Qatar’s inability or unwillingness to fulfill their promises in 2014 Riyadh Agreement surely added a reason for the GCC isolation toward the small emirate. Al Jazeera hosting opposing figures to the Gulf monarchs in addition to hosting Hamas’s new charter in a ceremony in the Qatari capital undoubtedly angered KSA and its Gulf and Arab allies.
Seventh, it is worth following the coming developments in Yemen to check if the recent Saudi-UAE rapprochement will contribute to a compromise between them concerning the Yemeni portfolio.
Finally, Qatar’s choices seem to be limited and all of the difficult with the crisis likely to escalate and Saudi Arabia and its allies expected to impose more sanctions on Qatar. The main goals seems to be to curtail Qatar so as not to stand as an obstacle to the unified GCC policies especially after the historical visit to Riyadh and the push that the more aggressive anti-Iranian Saudi policy got. Qatar appears today instead of the “main player” role that it was aspiring to, as yet another arena and intersection of several cleavages including KSA / Iran cleavage, Sunni / Shiite cleavage and “moderate” Muslim leaderships / Islamists groups cleavage. Giving in to KSA’s pressure, or moving closer to Iran both seem to be very costly choices that Qatar cannot afford. It remains to be seen whether the Qatari leadership will have enough ingenuity to come up with a third solution that does not put it in front of an existential threat or a potential regime change.
 Sanctions and decisions included: cut all trade and travel ties, instructed their citizens to return home, and ordered Qatari diplomats to leave within 48 hours and private citizens within 14 days, among other extraordinary gestures.
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