The Iranian nuclear debacle may have replaced Qatar as the topic du jour in the Middle East, but if the pressure on Doha has changed, it has only worsened. Qatar’s already-complicated relationship with its neighbors and the United States leave it in political limbo, unable to entirely control its own fate yet also unable to sit back and idly watch from the sidelines.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE successfully convinced the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to cut all diplomatic ties with the miniscule nation. They argued, and still maintain, that Doha is to blame for the spread of terrorism. Citing Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, the G.C.C. painted a portrait of the small nation as the world’s leading exporter of terror. Although Qatar admitted that it had, at times, given financial backing to the Muslim Brotherhood – a group that is actually a political party in Jordan – it denied all claims that it supported Daesh or al-Qaeda.
Doha’s official response is that Saudi Arabia doesn’t approve of Qatar – Iran relations, and considering the evidence, that seems to be the more pressing concern that Saudi Arabia and the UAE share. It was far more politically expedient to lambast Qatar as a terrorist-backer than to unravel the intricacies of its relationship with Iran. On the global stage, it’s easier to sell the idea, and the urgency of it, that Qatar is to blame for the region’s terrorism struggles. Looking at the matter more closely, however, it becomes clear that Iran is the main sticking point, as evidenced in a list of demands the GCC states delivered to Qatar.
In order to restore diplomatic ties, Qatar’s neighbors provided a list of 13 demands, which it promptly refused. Saudi Arabia temporarily suspended those demands in lieu of Doha agreeing to uphold six principles which included combatting terrorism and ending interference in the internal affairs of other nations. When Qatar also refused to agree to these demands for the sake of preserving its sovereignty, the original 13-point list was brought back to the table. At the top of the list? Iran.
It’s geographic proximity to Iran and an economic reliance on natural gas have forced Qatar into some complicated relationships over the past few decades. During the Iran – Iraq War, for example, it financially supported Saddam Hussein. Immediately following the war, it amicably resolved a dispute over the ownership of the world’s largest natural gas reserve. This field which predominantly lies beneath the Persian Gulf and Iran, became the bedrock between Iran – Qatar relations.
The two countries often cooperate on new drilling initiatives, such as Qatar offering Iran help in 2014 to properly extract gas from the South Pars field. Located entirely on the Iranian side of the gulf, this section of the reserve could have been easily ignored by Qatar. However, superior drilling technology and advancements have led to Qatar outpacing Iran three to one in extractions, leading to the economic disparity between the nations. Still, Doha helps Iran when it can, in order to ensure the stability of the field.
Iran and Qatar have begun forging stronger trade bonds since both countries have been politically excommunicated from the region. Following a 2016 attack on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, Doha was the last Arab nation to recall its ambassador and issue a condemnation. A year later, after its neighbors had rebuked it, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani extended a helping hand with daily shipments of food supplies. Critically, he offered Iranian airspace to Qatar, something that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt have been denying it. With Iranian airspace access, Qatar is able to continue flights to Europe and the Americas, with hefty fees paid to Tehran, of course.
The Qatari ambassador to Iran quickly returned to his post, and soon, the countries began to help each other more with initiatives, such as a joint chamber of commerce. This provides a place for Iranian money to flow, since many of its neighbors no longer accept it.
Qatar is unique with its relationship with Iran, and the fact that it hosts the region’s largest US military base. Thanks to the al-Udeid airbase, it is incredibly difficult for Doha to incur any ire from Washington. As might be expected, it has benefited from this by generally enjoying US support – after all, there is a vested interest in keeping the country stable, at least politically. The military partnership with the US has seen Qatar fighting on the opposite side of Iran in the Yemen Civil War, another interesting tangle in its political relationships.
In the Middle East, there are few countries with as many complicated alliances as Qatar. Although it is on the GCC black list, it still fights alongside it in Yemen. Even though it hosts an expansive US base, it works closer with Iran than Saudi Arabia. Many factors in the political equation simply don’t make sense on face value, yet all of them combined afford Qatar the opportunity to perhaps broker peace between the Trump Administration and Tehran.
Both Saudi Arabia and the US recently courted the Qatari emir over the Iranian nuclear squabble. It has the political power to possibly bring both nations together. On the flip side, if Qatar simply does nothing but ride the status quo, it faces the very real possibility of war between the United States of America and Iran. If such a war were to breakout, the al-Udeid airbase would make a perfect location for launching operations, something Doha certainly does not want. As the conflict between Washington and Tehran escalates, Qatar’s position becomes more precarious and even dangerous.