The Al Thani, the royal house that rules Qatar, has throughout its history faced Saudi attempts to subdue the peninsula.
The saudi shadow
Saudi Arabia considers itself the head of the region. By hosting Mecca, its ascendancy over all Muslims seems indisputable. The fact that all Muslims must maintain good relations with the Saudis in order to fulfill one of their fundamental religious commandments (to make a pilgrimage to Mecca) makes the House of Saud a power. For the Saudis it is logical that all the other kingdoms in the peninsula subordinate their policies in their favor. It is not surprising that Muslim clerics trained in Mecca have great power and influence. Nor is it strange that the House of Saud maintains a close relationship with these clerics in a symbiotic relationship: the Al Saud offer them security and material well-being, and they respond by legitimizing the political acts of the Saudis. Thus the power of the Saudis is not only material but spiritual.
Logically, all the other kingdoms on the peninsula have put up some kind of resistance to this power. Similarly, the other Muslim political poles (Cairo, Baghdad, Tehran, Fez) have always presented some kind of opposition to the influence of the clerics in Mecca.
On the peninsula, the Qataris, led by the Al Thani, are the state that has put up the most resistance and has been very successful in doing so. Opposition to Saudi influence has been the lynchpin of Qatari politics since at least the 19th century.
In 1851, Emir Faisal bin Turki al-Saud wanted to extend his influence over the Qatari peninsula under the pretext of enforcing the collection of the zakat (religious tax). While religion served the purpose of shaping opinion and promoting the legitimacy of rulers for the Al Thani, it also presented a challenge: if the ulema (Muslim clerics) had too much power or influence, they would align themselves with the Saudis, constituting a very important internal opposition.
In 1867, Al-Thani gained fame by successfully leading a rebellion of various Qatari tribes against the government of the Saudi ruler Al-Khalifa. The most important result was that later, in 1868, the British recognized Al-Thani as the sheikh of Qatar in a peace agreement. Thus Britain’s relationship with Al-Thani was cemented. Then Sheikh Mohammed bin al-Thani signed a maritime treaty with Great Britain to prevent piracy in 1868. The 1868 maritime agreement was not a protectorate treaty, but it did mean Britain’s formal recognition of Sheikh Mohammed al-Thani as the sheikh of the Qatar peninsula.
In 1871, the Ottomans established a military presence on the Qatar peninsula, and Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed al-Thani forged a relationship with the Ottomans as well as the British. The Ottomans and the British thus offered Al-Thani security with external backing.
In this way, the Al Thani was building a network of diplomatic relations with governments that could assure them some kind of support against Saudi influence. Foreign governments, Muslim or not, were securing another entry into the peninsula and increasing their independence from Saudi targets, and the Qataris were securing the military support that has always been a central issue for them, as well as some kind of economic or logistic support in his confrontation with the Saudis.
This game has a moral expression. The Qataris have had to adhere to the special type of Islam cultivated in Saudi Arabia, that is, Sunni Islam, and in particular Wahhabism, a political-religious current of Sunnism created by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century. The Qataris know that developing some kind of creed against Sunniism, such as Iranian Shiism, would lead them to a religious war against an enemy much more powerful than they are. Furthermore, if the Qataris took the path of schism they would lose the support of their neighbors on the peninsula: it would be immoral to support them. Instead they have taken a more subtle path: distinguishing between the “Wahhabism of the desert” of the Saudis and the “Wahhabism of the sea” of the Qataris. Although they abide all Sunni dogmas, restrictions and laws, Qataris since the 19th century have prided themselves on interpreting Muslim dogmas in a different way. They have come to say that they are “a Mecca for the poor”. They have served as a refuge for pirates and fugitives, whom they tolerate by loosening their understanding of Islam in various ways. And above all, the Al Thani have fostered their independence from the clergy by preventing the entry of Saudi ulema and tolerating the entry of other ulema confronted or persecuted by the Saudis. This ulema, being foreigners, do not enjoy ascendancy over the Qataris. The Al Thani has never encouraged the creation of a national clergy. Thus they maintain orthodoxy but do not depend on ulema who could cause them problems.
The 20th century
In the 20th century, the region’s energy resources, oil and gas, began to be exploited. Many Arab governments, overnight, found that they could count on enormous economic resources and that they were going to be courted by world powers. Overnight they became global players. Due to their monarchical governments and their political tradition, their populations are forced to accept the discretionary use of wealth in the hands of the emirs. Although there are traditions of help among them, there is nothing like social obligations in Arab political mores. Much less accountability obligations. Because of their demographic rates, those governments were able to use relatively little of their new wealth to serve their populations and still maintain social stability; although this has changed over the years, especially in Saudi Arabia, which now has a population of several million.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine was during the entire second half of the 20th century the issue that defined international politics for the Arab countries. Waging war on Israel became a source of legitimacy for many governments and an argument that had to be taken into account within the Muslim community. Although the Palestinian conflict has not disappeared, after 74 years and counting, after many military defeats, changes of government, revolutions, generational changes, the fall of the USSR, the rise of China, etc., Israel is no longer the card of legitimacy it was.
In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia found itself with a new rival: Iran. After a revolution, a declared Shiite government took power in Iran, that is, an enemy of Saudi orthodoxy. The differences between those beliefs do not count as much as the fact that Iran became the pole of opposition against the influence of Saudi Arabia. Since Saudi Arabia has always been close to the United States and Western powers over the oil trade, Iran has taken advantage of this fact to challenge Saudi moral standing. It accuses Saudi Arabia of being close to the moral enemies of Islam, it continues to call for war against Israel, and by keeping its confrontation with the United States active, it builds a source of moral legitimacy that can oppose the Saudis.
During that century, Qatar preserved its independence, learned to participate in the globalized financial world, and successfully solved the internal problem of the legitimacy of its government by relying on its enormous wealth. In that century its main international ally was Great Britain. All the Qatari princes have been educated there.
In the last years of the 20th century, an event defined the future of the conflicts in the area. When Saddam Hussein invaded the small kingdom of Kuwait in 1990, it caused the United States to enter the area and actively search for centers of influence and physical residence. All the kingdoms of the peninsula faced the need to negotiate and take advantage of this new neighborhood without losing their moral prestige. This conflict was well-taken advantage of by Iran, which had more arguments to accuse Saudi Arabia of opening the doors to the moral enemies of Islam. The US occupation of what was Iraq became a permanent source of tension and conflict in the region.
In 1991, during the war against Saddam Hussein, Qatar and the United States signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement that has since been expanded. In 1996, Qatar built the Al Udeid airbase at a cost of more than $1 billion. Al Udeid is the most important US military base in the region, for the Al Thani it is the largest military shield they have ever had.
At the same time, Qatar maintains good relations with Iran. Both countries share the South Pars-North Dome field in the waters of the Persian Gulf, the largest gas field in the world. But it is not only this geological fact that encourages its closeness. Being close to Iran is another way to regulate its relations with the rest of its allies.
New century, new conflicts
In 2011, after the terrorist attacks in New York, the United States had even more reasons to stay in the area and extend its influence, increasing tensions between all the countries in the area.
At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the most important source of tensions for the Arab region appeared.
Between 2010 and 2013, popular uprisings spread in practically all Arab countries. The uprisings were called “the Arab Spring.” Democracy, respect for human rights, access to public services, and corruption of politicians who have remained in power for too long are accused. In each country there are claims and demands for social change and political openness. Popular demands remain unanswered, so the discontent has not disappeared.
Iran seemed safe from those protests. And the wave of claims seemed to die out towards the second decade of the 21st century. But just yesterday, in September 2022, strong protests broke out in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian woman murdered by the so-called Iranian “morality police”. Her crime, not properly wearing the veil that women in Iran are forced to wear. The protests, which have not ended, indicate that no Muslim regime, Shiite or Sunni, pro-Western or anti-Western, has the support of its population.
The sources of legitimacy on which the governments of the region have relied (basically a certain interpretation of Islam along with opposition to the West and Israel), have been exhausted.
Months before the protests broke out, Qatar managed to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The New Qatari War
Due to the Arab Spring, tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia escalated.
A Muslim organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, played a leading role in the protests. For Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood is a great danger: they have channeled the dissatisfaction of the Muslim population and promoted different arguments against orthodoxy that supports and legitimizes the Saudis. The Muslim Brotherhood legitimized the Arab Spring uprisings, unlike the clerics in Mecca. When they were expelled from Egypt, they found refuge in Qatar.
Between 2017 and 2021, Qatar was blocked by its neighbors.
Saudi Arabia closed its land border, and the United Arab Emirates closed its passage by sea and air, prohibiting any plane or ship from leaving for Qatar and refusing to receive planes or ships from Qatar.
Qatar depended on up to 90% of food exports that reached it by both routes.
To lift the Blockade, Saudi Arabia presented a list of thirteen demands:
- Curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade with Iran that complies with US and international sanctions will be allowed.
2. Cut all ties to “terrorist organizations,” specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Formally declare those entities as terrorist groups.
3. Shut down Al Jazeera and its affiliated stations.
4. Shut down media outlets that Qatar funds, directly or indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.
5. Immediately end the Turkish military presence in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside Qatar.
6. Stop all funding for individuals, groups, or organizations that have been designated terrorist by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, the US, and other countries.
7. Handing over “terrorists” and wanted persons from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain to their home countries. Freeze their assets and provide any desired information about his residence, movements and finances.
8. Put an end to interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries. Stop granting citizenship to wanted citizens of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain. Revoke Qatari Citizenship for nationals where said citizenship violates the laws of those countries.
9. Stop all contact with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain. Hand over all files detailing Qatar’s previous contacts and support for those opposition groups.
10. Pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other economic damage caused by Qatar’s policies in recent years. The amount will be determined in coordination with Qatar.
11. Consent to audits monthly for the first year after accepting the claims, then quarterly for the second year. For the next 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.
12. Align with the other Arab and Gulf countries militarily, politically, socially and economically, in accordance with an agreement reached with Saudi Arabia in 2014.
13. Accept all claims within 10 days of filing.
In 2018, Saudi Arabia declared that it would build a canal on its land border with Qatar. That way he could permanently separate the country that would become an island.
The interest in dictating Qatari foreign policy is evident. There is not the slightest concern about the situation of the Qataris, or even the slightest hint of religious concern, or any indication of a claim for human rights.
The Blockade was a great moment for Qatar. Taking advantage of his diplomatic relations and his enormous wealth, he was able to obtain all the goods that previously passed through Saudi Arabia. Thanks to the Blockade, Qatar has become self-sustaining in legumes, dairy products and chicken meat. The efficiency of the Al Thani in facing the blockade earned them the support of the Qataris. So far from hurting the Al Thani the Block was of great use to them. As if that were not enough, they were able to organize the 2022 FIFA Soccer World Cup without setbacks or shocks.
Present and future stresses
The World Cup is a very important event in Qatari history.
Because unlike the Blockade, it has activated internal tensions.
As in the rest of the countries of the Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, the Qatari government is not democratic and there is no respect for human rights. Although they are nominally republics or constitutional monarchies, a quick review of their legal and political systems reveals their true character.
In Qatar there is a proto civil movement. Its spokesperson is Ali Khalifa Al Kuwari. Born in 1941 (81 years old), is an economist and academic. In 1961 he organized a discussion circle on political issues. In 1991 at the University of Qatar he founded the seminar “Democracy Studies in the Arab Countries”. In 2012 he published the book The People Want Reform in Qatar Too in which he presents a series of criticisms, demands and proposals to the Qatari government. The book was banned inside Qatar.
The demands expressed by Al Kuwari are clear: representativeness, transparency, and political participation for the Qataris.
Although Qatari citizens enjoy high standards of living and are bribed by their emir with houses, cash, free education and other goods that they can easily afford, Qataris have many social concerns.
The huge expenses of the 2022 World Cup (estimated at 220 billion dollars) do not put any pressure on Qatari finances. But they are a source of outrage and concern for Qataris.
The Qatari government has had to receive millions of foreigners in their country to make the World Cup possible. These foreigners do not enjoy political rights and there have been many scandals in this regard, the most notorious being the death of several hundred workers in the construction of the most modern stadiums. This does not represent any legal problem for the Qatari government, but it does represent a problem in its international relations and with the Qataris, who feel intimidated by the number of foreigners in their country. Qatari citizens are barely three hundred thousand people, while foreigners number more than a million and a half people.
The 2022 World Cup has put Al Thani under the international magnifying glass. It has not received sanctions of any kind and is not expected to receive them, however, the discussion on respect for human rights encourages discussion within Qatar on this issue. At the same time, the clash between human rights and Qatari Islamic law is a source of tension for Qataris themselves, who are unsure what values they should uphold, what values they themselves should use to define their own lives and the life of their country.
Wealth has brought several problems for which Qatari society was not prepared: 71% of Qatari citizens are “overweight”, 32% are considered “obese” or “morbidly obese”, and 20% of Qatari nationals suffer from diabetes. The Al Thani have packed the city with museums, stadiums, office buildings that Qataris don’t know whether to be proud of or offended, since in all these places most of the jobs are in the hands of foreigners. Qataris women who graduate from the campuses of major Western universities in Qatar suffer from medieval restrictions: they must have a man’s written permission to enroll in school, travel, apply for a job, marry; they must wear certain clothes. Statistics from 2013 indicate that 40% of marriages end in divorce, one of the main reasons being disputes between couples regarding debts due to excessive spending. Three-quarters of all Qatari families are in debt, and most of the debtors have debts totaling at least 250,000 rials: about $70,000 USD.
The inescapable future
The international prestige that the Al Thani can gain will not be a bonus in their favor if they do not respond to the many different social challenges that lie ahead.
The different means (financial, propaganda, logistics, commercial) that they used to organize the 2022 World Cup are important resources in their confrontation with the Saudis.
But it remains to be seen whether the World Cup sparked events for or against the Al Thani.
Events like the World Cup or the Olympics can easily be used by governments to whitewash their image, but many times they have caused internal social tensions to intensify. A very close example was the 1968 Olympics in Mexico: the dictatorial regime that ruled the country feared that its image would deteriorate, so it used violence against students who were making a claim for a local case of police abuse. The regime never correctly processed the protest, which only grew and collected different demands that until then had not found where or how to channel it. After the Tlatelolco massacre in October 1968, the regime lost its legitimacy forever and the process of political change in Mexico took off.
That memory is one of the reasons to continue paying attention to a country as far away and strange as Qatar. A country at least as strange as yours.
I have written DO THE IMPOSSIBLE: MACHIAVELLI AND LUCK that you can download on my author page: