There is, of course, ample reason to criticize Qatar’s role in the region. The emirate has reportedly paid hefty ransoms to al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and looked the other way as private citizens funneled millions to jihadists across the Middle East. Al Jazeera’s Arabic service, once the boldest news channel in the area, has degenerated into a sort of propaganda outlet for Sunni Islamists, peddling conspiracy theories and sectarian vitriol about Christians in Egypt, Alawites in Syria, and other groups.
But all this hardly begins to explain this region’s fraught politics. For all the talk of brotherly unity, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council is a dysfunctional, divided alliance. Saudi Arabia tries to set the tone: It is larger than the other five members of the council, combined, and draws diplomatic and religious clout from its custodianship of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina. Its main fear is Iran, followed by political Islam.
Several of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors feel differently. The first tentative steps toward the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and several world powers took place in Oman, where the sultan hosted secret talks between American and Iranian officials at a seaside villa. Oman has also declined to take part in the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has decimated the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, with a looming famine and a recent cholera outbreak. Kuwait, with an Islamist-dominated parliament and a large ethnic-Iranian minority, often prefers to mediate regional disputes, rather than join them.
There are even budding tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its closest ideological ally in the Gulf. The Emiratis have deployed thousands of troops to the south of Yemen, trained up a 30,000-man Yemeni militia, and spent about $2 billion to support Yemen’s battered economy. On the northern front, the Saudis have mostly fought from the air, and they have little to show for it. Militias backed by the two sides engaged in a firefight earlier this year during a battle for control of the airport in Aden.
The case of Hamas is yet another marker of the complexity of this crisis. In recent years, the group has struck an uneasy balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While the latter was once Hamas’s biggest patron, supplying it with money and weapons, the two sides parted ways in 2012 when the Palestinians backed the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Soon, Tehran, which backs the Assad regime, cut off military aid to Hamas. The former leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, was forced to leave his longtime base in Damascus, decamping for Doha, where the group received an enthusiastic welcome.
Since then, Meshaal has tried to steer Hamas closer to the Gulf states. He met with King Salman on a rare visit to Saudi Arabia in 2015, and pushed back against the leaders of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, who wanted to pivot back to Iran. He thought such a move would empower the comparatively moderate political wing of Hamas, and perhaps win the group a measure of international recognition. Now, though, the Saudis and their allies are demanding that Qatar cut ties with Hamas and expel its leaders from Doha—quite possibly pushing it back towards Iran.