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Realism and the Qatar Diplomatic Crisis


The Qatar diplomatic crisis of 2017 serves as a narrative uncovering the inner workings of international alliances and therefore international relations. Viewing the crisis from multiple perspectives in the form of how popular news sources from different countries portray the crisis, this article touches the various themes that the narrative unearths. The first theme includes the split between Qatar and its middle-eastern counterparts which embodies the theory of realism where actions of states depend on their self-interest. Second, the power struggle is also observed testing the hegemony in the region, and lastly, the crisis indicates deeper political implications displaying the balance of power theory of realism.

Egoism: National interest decides actions

The theory of realism can be used to understand different parts of the crisis. First, it endorses an assumption of realist theory, that is of egoism. The severance of diplomatic ties with a fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member shows how alliances are subject to the individual actors’ self-interest or national interest. The dominance of national interest in an actor’s actions can be seen as Qatar violated many international agreements between the states, the resentment of which accumulated over time. The national interest here can also be seen as a part of national security for some of the nations in the case.

As the term was popularized by the media of Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE, the ‘Anti-Terror Quartet’ (ATQ) suggesting by its name is in fact concerned with terrorism but not in the most unfeigned way. The manifest function of forming the ATQ was not to condemn all sorts of terrorism support, but mainly to target the one that the actors are directly threatened by, which is the Muslim Brotherhood. This can also be seen as a special emphasis is laid on the brotherhood in different newspapers of the nations while discussing the Qatari terrorism support category. For example, the Khaleej Times, a media source of UAE in an article, carves out a special section for the relationship between Qatar and the brotherhood and how it undermines UAE’s security1.

The roots of the crisis can be traced back to the segregated opinions over the Muslim Brotherhood and its threat to the national security of the nations. However, the political diplomacy to form the Saudi bloc goes further than just the anti-terrorism facade. The narrative that the diplomatic ties have been cut because of anti-terrorism sentiments is not very convincing since the countries themselves have been accused of doing so. Qatari news sources exclaim that Saudi Arabia and the UAE tried to host the Taliban first, but needed a neutral country, so the office was set in Qatar2. Other articles point out at Saudi terrorist atrocities, for example in Yemen3.

The GCC charter outlines the basis of the alliance which takes into account the links between the countries that they are bound by Article 4 of the charter explicitly places cooperation and unity in high regard4. The case of the Qatar diplomatic crisis shows that alliances stay strong till national interest is met. The Saudi bloc, for instance, is jointly pursuing national interest by opposing Qatar. Qatar’s violations of international agreements amongst the states also undermined the unity and the cooperative abilities of the states, which eventually led to the division. The pursuit of national interest in this way dominates a state’s actions, even if the actor is a part of an alliance.

Power Struggle: Testing Regional Hegemony

Again, looking at the issue from a realist perspective, it also shows aspects of a power struggle. This can be seen if the crisis is looked at from a broader regional viewpoint. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is well-known and does play a role in the diplomatic crisis5. Qatar’s diplomatic stance comes in the way of Saudi Arabia to completely isolate Iran and gain regional hegemony. The 13-point ultimatum has also demanded Qatar to curb ties with Iran. Qatari media sources also cite the ‘Iran factor’ as a part of the rift6.

Saudi Arabia, a bigger state with ample oil wealth sees Qatar as an obstacle in the way it deals with Iran but also because of Qatar’s own quest for power. In Saudi Arabia and its allied countries’ eyes, Qatar fails to fall in line behind Saudi regional leadership. Qatar, being a small but economically powerful country practices an independent foreign policy. In fact, Kuwait and Oman also are known to do the same7. However, Qatar’s more aggressive approach seems to be more irksome. Al Jazeera, which is seen as a government arm, in the past has taken a strong stance and is even accused of igniting the Arab Spring protests of 2011 by some of these countries8.

An article in the Egypt Independent newspaper, comments on how the country sees Qatar’s actions submerged in contradictions where it could play a reformist and a peaceful role in the region if only it respected its conservative and traditional culture9. The Saudi bloc wants Qatar to stop challenging the regional order and conform to it and in this way send a message to other rebels as well. Qatari news sources recognize the coercing strategy and highlight the agenda of the opposing bloc as imposing guardianship on the state and trying to violate Qatar’s sovereignty10.

Keeping its sovereignty intact, Qatar, which previously had geo-economic relations with Iran due to its shared gas field, not only disregarded the 13-point ultimatum but also restored its diplomatic ties with Iran. The fact that Qatar is not willing to accept coercion or lose its sovereignty reiterates that Qatar demands its share of power in the region. The Saudi bloc is also not willing to compromise or meet Qatar halfway11. This tussle for power and regional order leaves room for prospective conflict instead of cooperation in the region.

An Additional Layer: Balance of Power

Looking deeper into the matter, the sedimentation of yet another layer can be observed which has further implications. If resentment towards Qatar has been persistent for a long time then the question arises pertaining to the split, is that of – ‘why now?’. Iranian news outlets like the Iran Daily have singled out Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia as a reason for the rift12. Obama’s tenure marked uncertainty for the Gulf countries about the US’s position on Iran since the nuclear deal was in process. But now having Trump’s green signal of being pro-Saudi and anti-Iran, it was easier to provoke the issue.

Formation of obscure informal blocs going beyond the region can be observed on both sides. Iran seems to be the focal point of this creation, where tensions between the US and Iran have been conspicuous in the recent day during the Trump administration. Israel, being an ally of the US is also threatened by Iran. According to the Haaretz, an Israeli news source, Israeli officials see this crisis as an opportunity for Israel to cooperate with moderate Arab states in the fight against terrorism13. In totality, the Saudi bloc, the US and Israel find common ground in being against Iran for supposed terrorist activities.

This construct of the US, Saudi and Israeli bloc is more to contain Iran and safeguard interests than based on shared ideals like anti-terrorism.  As established before, countries in the Saudi bloc are accused of being involved with terrorism themselves. This makes one re-think about the Saudi bloc’s allegations on Qatar harboring terrorism and drops a hint to get a clearer picture. The US’s involvement in the scenario seems like more of a possibility since Qatar faced a blow because of its relations with Iran under the banner of terrorism accusation. Now the question remains concerned with the differentiation between the kinds of terrorism that the leader of the liberal world – Trump is after. An article in Al Jazeera exclaims that the “terrorist” label remains little more than a foreign policy tool of the US and its allies to grab their interests14. Although the US may show a neutral face in the crisis, it will benefit indirectly from Qatar’s coercion.

On the other side, actors challenging the modern-day conventional order can be seen backing each other up and actions of the above-mentioned opposing bloc brings them together. This demonstrates the principle of balance of power. Iran and Qatar have already restored their diplomatic ties and are expanding their relations. Turkey and Qatar find common grounds on their vision for the Sunni countries of the Middle East15. Turkish media sources like the Daily Sabah also questions whether the Trump’s policy of selling the security to rich countries caused the Gulf crisis16. An article in Parvada, a Russian news outlet suggests that the crisis could be an opportunity for more productive alliances and that Qatar is most likely to strengthen existing partnerships with Russia17. On the same lines, an article in the New York Times also stated that this crisis seems like a good opportunity for Russia, Turkey and Iran18.


In conclusion, the ignition of the Gulf crisis is a real threat to the peace and stability in the Middle East. It has come into being, because it was in the national interest of some of the states, instead of for the benefit of the region. Even though it was in the national interest of some nations, it has not helped the region. The power struggle inhibits the countries from attaining their interests where the opposing forces refuse to give in without collecting the amount of power they desire. This makes room for conflict instead of cooperation. The added layer in the issue explains the initiation of the crisis where the Saudi bloc’s self-assessment of capabilities which now includes the support of the US, gave it the required spur. Qatar was also able to take such strong stances because of its ability to sustain itself as well as the support it received from Iran and Turkey. The further reach of the crisis makes the political implications of it broader, as a balance of power mentality can be observed. The Gulf crisis could alter the dynamics between the states beyond the region with the Gulf countries as well as within the GCC countries depending on their greed for power and how pressingly they want to pursue their interests.

The author, Tahhira Somal, is a student of Jindal School of International Affairs.


List of citations and references 

  1. Qatar has become training hub to undermine UAE’s security.” Khaleej Times , August 19, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017.
  2. “Saudi Arabia and UAE ‘tried to host’ Taliban first.” Al Jazeera , August 13, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017.
  3. Younes, Ali, and Sara Sleiman. “HRW: Saudi terrorism is killing people in Yemen.” Al Jazeera , July 24, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017.
  4. “Charter of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) .” ISN . Accessed September 17, 2017.
  5. Qatar’s ties with Iran and terror groups.” Saudi Gazette, June 12, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017.
  6. Regencia, Ted. “Qatar-Gulf rift: The Iran factor.” Al Jazeera , June 6, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017.
  7. Cafiero , Giorgio . “ANALYSIS: Qatar’s controversial foreign policy and GCC-Iran relations.”  Al Arabiya , May 30, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017.
  8. Qatar conspiracy against Bahrain in 2011 is clear.” Gulf News , August 29, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017.
  9. Shobaki, Amar El. “The Qatari contradictions.” Egypt Independent , May 30, 2017. Accessed September 19, 2017.
  10. “Qatar: ‘No justification’ for cutting diplomatic ties.” Al Jazeera , June 6, 2017. Accessed September 19, 2017.
  11. “No compromise with Qatar and terror: Emirati tycoon.” Arab News , August 11, 2017. Accessed September 20, 2017.
  12. “Saudi-Iran rift first fallout of Trump visit: Iran.” Iran Daily , June 5, 2017. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  13. Lis, Jonathan. “Qatar crisis opens up opportunities for Israel, Lieberman says.” Haaretz, June 5, 2017. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  14. Arian, Abdullah Al . “Analysis: Qatar-Gulf crisis: Who are the ‘terrorists’?” Al Jazeera, June 8, 2017. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  15. Wheeldon, Tom. “Why Turkey is backing Qatar in Gulf diplomatic crisis.” France 24, June 26, 2017. Accessed September 23, 2017.
  16. Altun, Fahrettin. “Did Trump’s ‘selling security to rich countries’ policy cause Gulf crisis?” Daily Sabah, June 16, 2017. Accessed September 23, 2017.
  17. Yahya, Harun. “Is Qatar crisis an opportunity for more productive alliances?” Parvada, August 3, 2017. Accessed September 23, 2017.
  18. Nasr, Vali R. “Trump’s Gift to Putin in the Mideast.” The New York Times, July 17, 2017. Accessed September 23, 2017 .

Featured image source: The Tribune

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