Three months ago, six countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, a fellow member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Qatar’s foes declared it complicit with extremism—citing, among other things, its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas—and argued that it was too close to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s nemesis in the Middle East. Not long after, they issued 13 demands to Qatar, including that it “curb diplomatic ties with Iran” and “shut down” the state-backed broadcaster Al Jazeera, and more generally “end interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs” through contacts with opposition figures. Qatar vowed not to negotiate; despite some mediation efforts from the United States and Kuwait, the standoff has continued ever since. Last week, Qatar, trolling its erstwhile Gulf partners, restored diplomatic relations with Iran, which had been broken in 2016.
The battle for leadership of the Gulf is also playing out in Washington, through hacks, leaks, and influence campaigns. Weeks before Qatar-GCC relations reached a crisis point, Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States—a person widely seen as the most influential Arab ambassador in Washington—saw his email account breached; new reports based on their contents are still surfacing. Immediately preceding the break in relations, other hackers allegedly planted a false story on Qatari news sites in which the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, is quoted calling Iran an “Islamic power” and urging the other Gulf states to drop their policy of confrontation with the country. The Qataris disavowed those remarks. The UAE was accused of orchestrating that hack; and the UAE in turn denied involvement.