In spite of numerous efforts by the USA and its European and regional allies, the three-year blockade of Qatar by the Arab quartet shows no sign of abating. With the Trump administration determined to ratchet up its pressure on Iran and the UN’s Iran arms embargo expiry date fast approaching, one can be certain that the current crisis is set to gain an added urgency in the days and weeks ahead. Not only are the American officials unhappy with Iran’s increased share of overflight payments due to the blockade, they are even more worried that a disunited GCC will essentially be the Achilles heel of their strategy, whatever it may be, to ban Iran’s entry into the international arms market. This concern was clearly echoed in Brian Hook’s statement on the subject during what was to be his last visit to the region as US’ special envoy to Iran. Frustrated by the lack of progress and both sides’ stubbornness, he stated that the blockade has gone on for too long and that it is harming both the US’ and the GCC’s ability to work toward securing their common interests in the region.
From the very start, there have always been speculations that the main source of animosity in the ongoing feud are the United Arab Emirates (UAE); that is, the whole crisis began and intensified not because Riyadh was bent on teaching Doha a lesson but because Abu Dhabi was keen on using its special ties with Riyadh in order to weaken and humiliate Qatar and its young emir. These speculations were proved to be correct when Saudi Arabia suddenly changed its stance on the prospect of a deal after its crown prince met with his Emirati counterpart for the bi-annual meeting of the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council. In other words, while the Saudis and Qataris were making positive progress towards an agreement in the aftermath of drone attacks on Saudi oil installations in 2019, the Emiratis managed to convince Riyadh not to go ahead with the deal. How and why Abu Dhabi was able to do so is anyone’s guess but it would not be unreasonable to assume that it secured Saudi consent by promising a more cooperative position and a compromising stance in southern Yemen.
Given the above, one must wonder why these two very similar small states have become such strange antagonists. In other words, why is it that Abu Dhabi and Doha have developed such negative views of each other in spite of their common socio-political systems and strategic alliances with the US, their similar economic models, and their close communal ties? And the answer lies not in their differing perspectives on political Islam, Islamists, or Iran but rather these very same similarities. Put differently, as two neighbouring states with near-identical similarities on the social, political, cultural, and economic fronts, Qatar and the UAE are essentially two status rivals who have been persistent in their nation-building efforts to outdo one another, thereby increasing their own worth in the eyes of their key ally – the US - and using their increased status to develop a unique national identity and become a role model of development and modernity for the wider Arab world.
For instance, Qatar and the UAE have both tried to punch above their weights and act, in the case of the UAE, as a reliable security or military partner to the US government or, in the case of Qatar, as a mediator in strategically important disputes/conflicts. They have also been very active in their conduct of foreign aid diplomacy with large chunks of their money going into places where the US has a clear geostrategic interest in bringing about a degree of peace and stability. They have sought to become the regional capital of choice for sport and entertainment, and thus if the UAE gets to host the Paralympics, Qatar bids for the World Cup. Similarly, they both want to be a global aviation hub while also rivalling each other in their drives to establish higher education free zones by attracting renowned Western universities to set up campuses on their territories. In all of these endeavours, they have been motivated by their desire to build a unique national identity for themselves, increase their worth and value to their main benefactor, and strive to top the regional status league by being seen as both the US’ most trusted and/or reliable ally and the most socio-economically progressive nation.
To be sure this type of rivalry is not unique to Qatar and the UAE only. Various scholars have shown how small northern European states are in a soft status competition both within and outside the EU. However, a number of factors seem to have turned Qatar’s and the UAE’s status-seeking behaviours into a hard competition; one that has serious geostrategic consequences both for themselves and, perhaps even more acutely, for their mightier allies. These include their nascent nationhood, their decisions to emulate opposing normative strands of their Western allies, and the tribal structure of their societies in general and their own elites’ tribal links in particular.
As relatively young nations, developing a sense of belonging and loyalty that prioritises nationality over religious, ethnic, regional, and tribal identities has been one of the key objectives of these states’ ruling elites. Both Qatar and the UAE, for instance, have used their educational system as well as their armed forces to promote a sense of nationalism amongst their young people. They have also used their national airlines as well as major national corporations to inject a sense of pride and patriotism into the public vein. In doing so, however, they have also been motivated by a desire for increased status and attainment of recognition as modern Arab states on good terms with the West and with the US in particular. As such, they have handpicked and emulated, albeit imperfectly, norms and values that are either favoured/practiced by the US or are considered to be standards for best practices of statecraft by it. And they have done so within the confinement of their own specific cultural settings.
As part of their efforts to distinguish themselves from one another, however, Qatar and the UAE have opted for different formulas. Qatar has chosen to build an identity by emulating and promoting liberal values of freedom of speech, thought and accountable governance outside its borders, managing to anger its neighbours in the process. This is clearly evident in its decision to set up Al Jazeera and lend its support to popular protest movements and Islamist parties in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The UAE, on the other hand, has sought to build an identity based on the emulation of American values of secularism, capitalism, and a strong military. This is why it has been consistent in its denouncement of Islamists while its own exercise of Sharia law has been lax and patchy.
Such divergent choices, in turn, have their roots in both countries’ pre- and post- independence histories as well as their elites’ socialisation in the West and their subsequently emergent view of their nations’ role and place in the region and beyond. For instance, key decision-makers in the UAE have a military background and close connections to defence and security establishments in the West, which in turn explains its more hawkish and offensive approach to foreign policy. In contrast, most of the key decision-makers in Qatar have a civilian and liberal educational background and therefore Doha has placed a greater emphasis on its use of soft power and cultural diplomacy in its conduct of foreign policy.
Finally, there is the tribal nature of Gulf societies, which continues to constitute the backbone of politics in the region. While these states have sought to weaken tribal ties in the wider society, they have continued to strengthen ties between themselves and a few select prominent families even further. This, in fact, constitutes the core of their regime security and survivability strategies. Top governmental jobs are still reserved for the members of the royal families and a few select clans whose extended members also form the key component of state patronage networks in the market where they are given a free hand to establish monopolies in various sectors. The Gargash Group in the UAE and the Al Attiya Group in Qatar are only two cases in point.
What is more, there are strong familial ties between royal families across the region which have turned politics into a family affair. In such tribal settings, the drive for status and prestige cannot and must not be discounted. The “bigger the better” mantra that is commonly used to describe Dubai’s attitude towards infrastructural projects is in a sense a testimony of this desire for high material status that characterises almost all spheres of life in the Arab world. Put differently, in a cultural setting where one’s family background, profession, income level, and more broadly social status are deemed essential to one’s progress, not only is status-seeking a contributing factor to widespread corruption and nepotism but also a key consideration in states’ political and strategic deliberations.
As the United States pushes for an end to what has been dubbed the worst political crisis in the Gulf in decades, its solution must be informed and guided by these two states’ status-seeking rivalry. To that end, it is critical that policymakers in DC remain mindful of the fact that these states’ desire for higher status could lead them to initiate policies that might seem illogical to a third party observer. Thazha Varkey Paul succinctly articulates this point by explaining how a narrow focus on structural factors disables one from making sense of the Indian government’s multibillion dollar space program when many Indians lack access to regular electricity and clean water.
In the same vein, pushing for an airspace agreement as a first step towards normalisation by highlighting how the blockade has been benefiting Iran is unlikely to convince the Emirati officials to change tack even though that might seem the rational course of action from an outsider perspective. Given the importance of aviation to both countries’ economies as well as the current economic climate within the aviation industry, it is wishful thinking to expect the UAE government to easily approve of an agreement that would essentially reduce the operational costs of a rival airline and thus increase its chances of a faster recovery. Being a global aviation hub is a prestige that the UAE wants for itself and not Doha.
To be sure, the US’ options are not good. For a start, both countries seem to have gotten used to their new normal. Moreover, and notwithstanding the fact that public opinion is not as much of an obstacle in these sheikhdoms, it will not be easy for either of the countries’ leadership to simply change course in the face of three years of relentless negative media campaigns against one another. On the other hand, potential regional mediators, Oman and Kuwait, are preoccupied dealing with their own domestic issues; one is going through a consolidation process whereby the new sultan is seeking to slowly imprint his rule whereas the other is preparing for the coronation of a new emir; a process that could be complicated with internal power rivalries within the Kuwaiti royal family. This leaves the US with only one option and that is to convey a clear-cut message to both states that they are both equally important and that their status rivalry must not come at the expense of the US’ own national security interests in the region. The leadership of these countries might not appreciate such a stance but their total dependency on the US for their own security leaves them with no option but to obey, even if reluctantly.