A key preoccupation of Qatar’s post-1995 leadership has been the pursuit of autonomous regional policies designed to bring the country out of the Saudi shadow. Qatar’s support for regional Islamists, notably but not only the Muslim Brotherhood, and provision of Doha-based Al Jazeera as a platform for groups criticizing regional states, incited periods of intense friction. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Doha in 2002 in response to Al Jazeera’s coverage of domestic affairs within the kingdom. It took five years to resolve the issue. Tensions rose again thanks to Qatar’s backing of Islamist movements before, during, and after the Arab Spring, as Qatar and the UAE pursued diametrically opposed policies toward the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt and Libya became battlegrounds for regional influence as Doha and Abu Dhabi backed different sides.
At the time of the handover of power from Emir Hamad to his 33-year old son, Emir Tamim, in June 2013, hopes were high in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that the young new emir would recalibrate Qatar’s approach to regional affairs. However, in November 2013, five months into Tamim’s rule, Saudi and Emirati leaders reacted viscerally to reports in U.S. media outlets that members of the Muslim Brotherhood were regrouping in Doha following the toppling of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi and the institution of military rule. Emir Tamim was summoned to Riyadh by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and presented with an ultimatum to “change Qatar’s ways and bring the country in line with the rest of the GCC with regards to regional issues.” Tamim was also told to sign an additional security agreement that stipulated “non-interference” in the “internal affairs of any of the other GCC countries,” and sign a pledge of compliance.
That crisis would peak in March 2014, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE judged that Qatar was not in full compliance with the agreement Tamim signed. Together with Bahrain, they withdrew their ambassadors from Doha. For the UAE, whose leadership was cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, a particular flashpoint was the discovery that several Emirati members of al-Islah, the Brotherhood’s UAE-affiliated branch, had been given refuge in Doha after fleeing the UAE in 2012. Months of acrimony followed, with periodic attempts at negotiation mediated by Kuwait, whose emir, Sheikh Sabah, reportedly has a close relationship with Emir Tamim. But the dispute ended in November 2014 after a series of Qatari concessions. These included relocating Muslim Brotherhood figures in Doha to Turkey, ordering the Emirati dissidents to leave Qatar, closing Al Jazeera’s Egyptian branch, and enforcing the GCC Internal Security Pact and cooperating closely with GCC partners on matters of intelligence and policing.
The current crisis has, therefore, been building for years. This time, it may have been triggered by a complex prisoner swap that Qatar negotiated in April to release 26 members of a Qatari hunting party, including many members of the Qatari ruling family, who had been taken hostage in Iraq in December 2015. The group had been held by Kitaeb Hezbollah, a Shia militia with links to Iran, and Qatar reportedly negotiated with Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra to secure their release.