When President Trump visited the Middle East a little over 10 days ago, his goal was to encourage the Gulf and Arab nations to stand up to Iran, creating a regional balance of power against the theocracy. However, a feud between Qatar and some of its Gulf Arab neighbors is jolting his attempt to create this coalition.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are incensed by Qatar’s conciliatory line on Iran, their regional archrival, and its support for Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, which they regard as a dangerous political enemy. The bickering began shortly after Trump attended a summit of Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, where Trump denounced Shi’ite Iran’s “destabilizing interventions” in Arab lands, where Tehran is locked in a tussle with Saudi Arabia for influence in the region.
With no signs of the disagreement abating, there is a real possibility that this breach could take a long time to heal between Qatar and its closest allies.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani arrived in Kuwait on Wednesday for talks with his counterpart Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. These talks are expected to address the rift. Kuwait, a past mediator between Gulf states, has offered to help ease the tensions between these neighbors.
This is not the first feud between these countries, and few leaders expect these talks to quickly end the dispute. Three years ago, Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha for similar reasons, although they returned within the year. Analysts have pointed out that the media in both countries are quick to trade rhetorical broadsides in public.
For now, it seems point scoring is more important than a show of unity among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The spat’s immediate cause was a purported Qatari state media report that the Amir had cautioned against confrontation with Iran, as well as defending the Palestinian group Hamas and Hezbollah.
This latest chapter of the feud is a revival of old accusations that Qatar backs the Brotherhood, which is present across most of the Muslim world. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi also suspect Doha is complacent about Iranian expansionism.
Such animosities can have ramifications across the Middle East, where Gulf States use their financial and political clout to influence events in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, amid upheaval caused by the Arab Spring.
Clearly, despite Rouhani’s reelection, it is clear that Khamenei, the true leader of Iran, is not ready to back down from their position within the region.