What Is Qatar’s Real Threat to Saudi Arabia?

Citizens’ freedom, rights, justice, and dignity seem to be the threats that frighten Saudi Arabian and other Arab autocrats, and these must be minimized at any cost, it seems.

I have followed closely, and read dozens of Arab and international analyses about, the new tensions generated by the Saudi Arabian-led pressures on Qatar, including cutting diplomatic ties and isolating Qatar by curtailing its use of vital air, sea and land transport routes. Not surprisingly, the media sphere is flooded with analyses that speculate about half a dozen possible motives for the moves to pressure Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Bahrain and a few other smaller states.

Speculation in such cases always replaces hard facts in discussing policy moves by Arab governments that remain secretive and unaccountable. So let me add my own thoughts on what has motivated these harsh moves against Qatar, though I focus more on broad, proven, political values rather than speculative, specific policy aims linked to issues like ties to Iran, press freedoms, strategic military ties to the United States, or support for Islamist groups in the Arab World like the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas.

This looks to me like a desperate Saudi-led move by a group of leading Arab autocrats to maintain their grip on the region, and to complete the counter-revolution against the 2011 Arab uprisings that saw tens of missions of ordinary Arab men and women demonstrate for more freedom, rights, justice, and dignity in their lives. Citizens’ freedom, rights, justice, and dignity seem to be the threats that frighten Saudi and other Arab autocrats, and these must be minimized at any cost, it seems.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others now pressuring Qatar have worked overtime in the past six years to maintain the traditional political status quo in the Arab region. This status quo comprises handfuls of old men and their sons, soldiers, and supportive foreign powers that maintain an iron grip on political power and everything that emanates from that, like media freedoms, civil society activism, quality education, and genuine accountability and meritocracy.

Saudi Arabia and its few partners now using siege tactics against Qatar seem to have complaints against several Qatari policies, which you can read about in any of the hundreds of analytical speculative articles widely available in the global media. Yet none of these Qatari activities that may have triggered the Saudi-led siege actually or seriously hurt Saudi Arabia in any tangible way—and they certainly do not impact Egypt and others in the siege party. Having working relations with Iran or Hamas, and promoting a relatively free and open media constellation in Qatar and abroad, are political irritants at most, rather than genuine security threats.

The “threats” the Saudis and Emiratis feel are neither tangible nor dangerous in any credible way; rather, they are symptoms of an independent policy by a fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member that Saudi Arabia cannot easily accept. The leadership in Riyadh has used similar tactics before, such as in its use of financial pressures against Lebanon a few years ago and other instances against fellow Arab governments, but it has always failed in these tactics. It has also tried using direct military force in Yemen, with active UAE participation, and that approach has also failed. It has tried supplying money and weapons to anti-regime rebels in Syria, and that policy has also failed. It has tried combinations of these and other tactics to contain Iran’s spreading strategic ties across the Arab region, and that has also failed. It has also spent many millions of dollars to influence the mainstream media in the West and across the Arab World, but that policy has also largely failed; for Saudi policies and some of its domestic practices are widely criticized in the global media—except by those who benefit financially from Saudi funds.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt in particular have employed draconian tactics to muzzle any independent media across the Arab World, and Qatar in this respect is a prime target for their ire. They cannot accept that independent thinkers, reporters, and analysts express their thoughts in public in a manner that deviates from the Saudi-defined policy of maintaining the autocratic status quo that has defined (and ravaged) the Arab region during the past half century or so.

Qatar’s crime in Saudi eyes is simply its insubordination and its refusal to accept the Saudi approach to maintaining stability in the Arab region through the use of guns and money to silence any critics. Qatar is particularly vulnerable to the siege tactics now being used against it, given its geographic position on a small peninsula attached to Saudi Arabia along its lone land border. It probably cannot long maintain its independent policies if the siege against it is maintained. How it responds to the pressures it now suffers will become clear in the coming weeks.

What is already evident, though, and quite depressing, is the determination of some Saudi-led Arab countries to squeeze Qatar in this manner, as a sign of their willingness to use economic and military warfare, starvation tactics, and other means to keep the Arab World in the dilapidated condition of incompetent governance, corruption, pauperization, polarization, civil wars, fragmentation, and other dire conditions that emanate directly from non-stop autocracy as the reigning paradigm of modern Arab governance. This is the real security threat to the Arab people and societies, even though the political space to express such views across the Arab region and abroad continues to narrow.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global