Well, the Qataris seem to have upset some people, haven’t they?
It looks to me as though this is less about terrorism as two regional powers wrangling for influence. Thanks to its enormous oil wealth, Saudi Arabia has for years been able to buy influence all over the world. e.g. funding madrasses housing extremist preachers, but also paying off governments to turn a blind eye to its rather questionable domestic, regional, and international policies. Iran has always squared off against Saudi for regional supremacy, but insofar as majority Sunni nations go, none of the others could come close to matching Saudi’s wealth and influence.
Then a couple of decades ago Qatar tripped over a giant unassociated gas field at the time LNG was becoming a big thing, and before too long we had Qataris popping up everywhere spending money and buying influence just as the Saudis did: Al-Jazeera media, Qatar Airways, the 2022 FIFA world cup, sponsorship of Barcelona football club, and the London Shard are among the most prominent of the little-known desert nation’s attempts to gain international recognition.
It has been obvious for a long time that Qatar had hoped to match Saudi Arabia in terms of buying influence and raising prestige abroad, and they were able to do so thanks to a much smaller population (2.2m versus Saudi’s 32m), which makes them much easier to buy off and/or control and leaves more surplus cash. Qatar also hoped to compete with Dubai as a regional hub where westerners can do business without feeling they are in a backward, oppressive shithole – as Abu Dhabi was also trying to do.
But like Saudi Arabia, Qatar has never quite been able to shake off accusations that it funds extremist groups and shelters terrorists. The Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was living in Doha when the Russians assassinated him, and rumours are always circulating that known terrorists are permitted to hide out in, or even operate out of, Qatar in return for ensuring the country isn’t attacked. I have no idea whether this is the case or not, and obviously I have no proof that Qatar sponsors terrorism, but I would not be in the least bit surprised if both were true, and I am quite certain that whatever Qatar is doing, Saudi Arabia has been doing the same thing for much longer.
Again like the Saudis,Qatar has managed to deflect most of the accusations by making sure they stand four-square alongside the Americans. ExxonMobil are heavily involved in the gigantic QatarGas II development, and have been the major international partner of Qatar Petroleum (the state oil and gas company) throughout the rise of the country’s LNG industry and subsequent enrichment. Whatever happens during this spat, we can be sure Rex Tillerson will know everyone involved on the Qatari side very well indeed.
Perhaps more importantly, Qatar is host to the biggest American military base in the Middle East. Something that rarely got mentioned in the discussions surrounding Al-Qa’eda and 9/11 is that Osama bin Laden’s primary motivation was his outrage at Saudi Arabia hosting American troops on its sacred soil during the first Gulf War, and subsequently keeping them there afterwards. The Saudis downplayed it, but the American army’s presence in their country was causing serious domestic resentment towards the ruling classes, but were more afraid of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s forces. As soon as Saddam Hussein was kicked out of power in the Iraq War, the American forces departed for Qatar. This was an enormously significant shift – and one that serves as proof that Saddam Hussein’s neighbours genuinely thought him a threat, even if liberal journalists in New York didn’t. But it also shifted the balance of power in the Gulf towards Qatar and away from Saudi Arabia. With Qatar being America’s base in the region, it had some leverage with which to deflect criticism of its conduct.
I suspect that, following Trump’s successful visit to Riyadh and his warnings about Islamic terrorism, the Saudis have taken the opportunity to take their uppity minnow neighbour down a peg or two, bringing along Bahrain and the UAE for diplomatic support (who will also be quite happy to see Qatar’s progress hobbled). The Saudis will know they can’t force America to abandon Qatar, but they can point a few fingers, pretend to Trump that they are doing something about terrorism, and reassert themselves as the more responsible of the Sunni petro-states that poison global politics with their money.
When all of this blows over, as I’m sure it will, the Saudis hope they will have gained some prestige and Brownie points at the expense of Qatar, and deflected some criticism in the process. Despite this rift, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia will be firmly united in opposing whatever designs Iran has on the region (although apparently Qatari forces, whatever they were, are pulling out of Yemen).
All in all, it’s just your typical story of treacherous bastards in the Middle East trying to squeeze an inch in on one other.