The Gulf Rift – A war over two irreconcilable narratives


Dr Krieg is the author of Socio-Political Order and Security in the Arab World: From Regime Security to Public Security. This the second blog post by DSD’s Middle East experts on the Qatar Crisis.

Amid the ongoing escalation in the Arabian Gulf, diplomats, regional news outlets and experts are heavily bogged down in a war of words. Commentators and analysts have tried to explain Saudi Arabia’s and the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) decision to isolate Qatar by looking at a clash of interests – the kingdom being infuriated by Qatar’s proximity to Iran and the Emirates alienated by Doha’s support for Islamist non-state actors across the region. Albeit important factors, the root cause of the current crisis lies much deeper. What has driven a wedge between the two fronts, is a fundamental philosophical disagreement over values, narratives and worldviews.

When the regional centres of gravity shifted to the shores of the Gulf during the Arab Spring, the local monarchies suddenly had the power and responsibility to shape the course of history – if not by hard power then at least by soft power. The most proactive country to emerge was the gas-rich peninsula of Qatar.

In an effort to emancipate Qatar from decades of Saudi meddling in domestic affairs, the former emir Hamad bin Khalifa (HbK) had embarked on a revolutionary path to liberalize a highly conservative society. His vision of a progressive, independent Qatar was founded on the freedom of speech, the freedom to think and the freedom of assembly. Based on Qatar’s traditional self-perception as the ‘Kaaba al Madiyoom’, the Kaaba of the dispossessed, Doha was supposed to become a hub for those persecuted by authoritarian regimes in the region, whereas Al Jazeera was to provide the voice to the voiceless. All these endeavours constituted a severe break from the traditional policies of the Gulf monarchies.

When Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians and Syrians took to the streets in 2011, HbK saw an opportunity to translate the country’s financial wealth and reach into political influence potentially creating a new regional order based on inclusive and pluralist governance. In cooperation with Western partners, Qatar was on the forefront of supporting those challenging the authoritarian reality of suppression and disenfranchisement. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE viewed Qatar’s punching above its weight suspiciously. Not only did Doha help bringing an end to the myth of authoritarian stability, but it empowered non-state actors that would no longer be susceptible to hard and soft power pressure from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Particularly the UAE under the leadership of Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ) emerged in 2011 as the fiercest antagonist of Qatar’s plans to empower the Arab masses. Haunted by the paranoia of Islamist non-state actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood cashing in their socio-political credit gathered over decades of political opposition, the Emirates early on supported reactionary forces in Libya and later in Egypt that would contain the ‘chaos’ of inclusive state and nation building. All levers of UAE state power were employed to broad-brush any revolutionary call for socio-political inclusion and pluralism as ‘terrorism’. Tens of millions of dollars were invested by the UAE into the counterrevolutionary effort to discredit any form of socio-political dissidence at home and abroad, Islamist or secular, as a strategic threat to regional stability – a narrative that was disseminated aggressively via PR firms to conservative think tanks and politicians in Europe, America and Israel. The most prominent recipient has been Donald Trump whose realist foreign policy agenda in the region abandons Obama’s human rights conditionality in favour of returning to authoritarian stability.

And this is where Saudi Arabia comes in. Long alienated by Qatar’s defiance of the kingdom’s ultraconservative visions for a regional order, Riyadh recently witnessed the ascent of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) who eager to bring Saudi Arabia from the Middle Ages to the 21st century, had taken advise from Abu Dhabi. MbS had grown into MbZ’s protégée sharing his world view that a form of illiberal liberalism could excel the kingdom’s transition to the post-hydrocarbon era. Moreover, MbS bought into his mentor’s belief that regional leadership could only be achieved by winning over the hearts and minds in Washington. This again had to be founded on the narrative of combating ‘terrorism’ – a term loosely defined by MbZ and MbS as any form of pluralistic dissidence against the old authoritarian order in the Arab World.

Hence, the GCC rift lies on the surface of a much deeper fault line dividing the region: on the one hand the counterrevolutionary forces of yesteryears spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE supporting authoritarianism as the bulwark against extremism; and on the other hand, those forces empowered by Qatar embracing socio-political pluralism and inclusion as the only means of achieving sustainable peace and stability in the Arab World. Considering how diametrically opposed these positions are, reconciliation in the Gulf seems to be unlikely in the short-run.

Image: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stands with Deputy Crown Price of Saudi Arabia and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud before a bilateral meeting at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., March 16, 2017. DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith, via Department of Defense.

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