On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia and its biggest allies, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain, announced the end of their diplomatic relations with neighboring Qatar. The states explained this decision by stating that Qatar is in too close relationships with Iran and such radical Islamist groups as the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS (Aleem). The primary impetus for the diplomatic crisis development was one of the recent news reports presented by the Qatari national information agency.
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The report contained the comments of the state’s current ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, criticizing the increase in anti-Iran sentiments (Aleem). The problem is that the Islamic Republic of Iran, led by Shiites, is one of the biggest rivals of Saudi Arabia, governed by Sunnis. Moreover, the two large oil exporters support opposing sides in several regional conflicts, including the one that currently unfolds in Syria. Thus, when explaining its decision to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar, Saudi Arabia refers to the fact that Qatar backs the terrorist organizations, which aim to destabilize the situation in the region (Greene).
The background of the conflict dates back to 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar because the latter supported the government under the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the former two sponsored the military coup in the country (Trager). Additionally, as Trager states, after the coup, Hamas and the Taliban leaders found shelter in Qatar. As three years have passed, the conflict development obtained a new turn.
The situation became tenser after the visit of the US President, Donald Trump, to Saudi Arabia last summer. Inspired by an opportunity to strengthen ties with the USA, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE attempt to crush any opposition forces that strive to weaken the united front fighting against Iranian influence in the Middle East. For this reason, the states aim to put pressure on Qatar and make it stop providing aid to various radical Islamist groups.
Realism and Neo-Realism
There are many political theories explaining and defining the nature of interactions between different countries in modern international relations discourse. The classical realism, as well as its contemporary form, neo-realism, are among the most well-known ones. The classical realism suggests that selfishness, aggressiveness, and pursuit of power are the primary features of the human nature that define individual and group behaviors (Ovádek).
When the given presumption is applied to the context of international relations, it becomes clear that different states aim to meet their political interests and needs first, whereas the need for security usually becomes prioritized (Levy 145). It is apparent that the given situation leads to the development of conflicts of interest. Moreover, it is observed that the action-reaction process, dominating the international relationships system, can lead to the loss of control over the situation and result in a conflict (Gilpin 593).
However, as Levy states, it does not mean that international relations are always conflictual − there is room for cooperation under anarchy (145). While classical realism focuses on military and political notions of power, neo-realists, including Waltz, emphasize the complexity of links among multiple aspects and realms of power: economic, technological, informational, etc. (26).
Different realist principles can be applied to the Qatar-Saudi Arabia conflict. First of all, it is evident that national interests dominate in different parties’ actions. When speaking of Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain, it implements anti-terror policies. As part of these anti-terrorism efforts, Saudi Arabia aims to project its military and economic power both regionally and globally (Obaid 23).
From the perspective of the state, terrorist groups undermine the political and economic stability in the region and, consequently, the position of this mighty country there. Thus, the national interests are aligned with the problems of national security in the case of Saudi Arabia and its allies. At the same time, Qatar aims to increase its power within the region through ties with Iran.
As Kamrava observes, Tehran and Doha share the largest natural gas structure in the world and, therefore, it is in the mutual interest between the two countries to cooperate to achieve “the full utilization of hydrocarbon resources” (167). Consistently with the realist principles, the country pursues self-sufficiency and, in this way, tries to develop its economy and increase the control over the strategically important resources. Since the conflict of interests can be observed between Saudi Arabia and Qatar because they pursue similar developmental objectives, their alliance and cooperation become impossible.
The theory of liberalism is based on ideas opposing to those introduced in the realist theory. Liberalists consider that people are naturally predisposed to cooperation and strive to promote peace (Moravcsik 3). At the same time, it is considered that violence and conflicts arise as a result of drawbacks associated with social institutions and relationships. Although contradictions among states are inevitable, they can overcome conflicts through collective actions. Economic cooperation and increased interrelation among countries, as well as the involvement of supranational unions in the conflict resolution process, can lead to greater collective security (Moravcsik 3).
In accordance with the liberalist theory, when severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and its allies based their decision on moral principles and considering the widespread social perception of radical Islamist groups. It can be argued that Saudi Arabia and the allies aimed to produce common welfare and strengthen the collective regional security in this way. At the same time, by being in the alliance with Iran − the state, which is reported to implement the tactics of state-sponsored terrorism multiple times − Qatar does not meet the liberal values and ideals.
Liberalists claim that democratic states that value individual freedoms and rights are less prone to conflicts and wars (Kürkçü 8). It means that by supporting the political groups and governments, which openly act against democratic principles and enforce authoritarian regimes, Qatar may increase the propensity of the country to war and threaten the collective security. Conversely, the strengthening of ties between Saudi Arabia and the USA, one of the global democratic leaders, is consistent with liberals’ views on effective peace-making efforts.
Although, on the one hand, the role of Saudi Arabia in the conflict development process may be regarded as positive, it is important to consider the fact that even when striving to develop collective security, it does not avoid the traditional politics of power and orientation towards intergovernmental coalitions. Since liberalism is for the status quo and power balance (Dunne 187), the state’s actions are not purely liberal. Therefore, both parties involved in the conflict contribute to the aggravation of the situation by triggering the action-reaction process and, consequently, fostering the relational anarchy.
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Similarly to neo-realists, constructivists recognize the important role of structural relations in international politics, the influence of anarchy on national behaviors, as well as the significance of national interests and power. However, the theory suggests that processes rather than structures (social, economic, and political) should be the primary focus of the study. Since processes are longitudinal in their nature, no fixed international structure, and no permanent interests and needs of states can exist.
Constructivists consider that national interests are formed during the process of national identity construction. They emphasize that along with the construct of power, the influence of culture, language, the dominant ideology, and knowledge play a key role in defining a country’s behaviors and actions towards other states (Kowert 158-159). Based on the given assumptions, it is possible to conclude that the problems of war and peace depend on the degree of cross-cultural proximity and similarity of social practices in different countries.
From the constructivist point of view, the Qatar-Saudi Arabia conflict can be explained by the parties’ differences in cultural and political perspectives. To understand the processes fostered the conflict, it is appropriate to analyze the identities of Saudi Arabia and Iran as the maintenance of ties with the latter may signify that Qatari authorities share some cultural similarities with the state.
According to Huwaidin, religion is core to the national identities of both the countries: “religion is the source of legitimacy for both the ruling family in Saudi Arabia and the Ayatollah’s regime in Iran” (71). While Wahhabism is an official form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, Iran selected the Shia branch as the major one. Moreover, Huwaidin observes that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, largely influenced the Shia form of religion and managed to integrate “the revolutionary religious messages into Iran’s national identity” (72).
As a result of this, a cultural and ideological split between Iran and other Arabic countries sharing the same historical experience occurred. From the perspective of Saudi Arabia, the empowerment of the Shia in the region, including the Eastern Province of the kingdom, could lead to seceding of the territory and greater empowerment of Iran (Huwaidin 72). As a consequence, the country can be deprived of its oil wealth and lose a leading position in the region.
The findings of the analysis show that national identity can substantially mediate the relationships between countries. Moreover, it is inseparably interconnected with strategic orientation and political models and policies. Since Qatar is reported to back the opposing sides from Saudi Arabia, its identity and culture are more distant from the one prevailing in the kingdom and is closer to the revolutionary thinking dominant in Iran (Brown).
Additionally, as stated by Al-Arian, a reporter of Al Jazeera, the national Qatari information source, the US government, and alike states use the term “terrorist” merely as a foreign policy instrument to get hold of the share of the regional resources. It means that similarly to the Iranian authorities that oppose the US imperialist forces, Qatar may perceive the consolidation of the US-Saudi Arabia ties as a negative phenomenon. Due to the identified perceptual differences, the alienation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the allies may be considered an attempt of the latter to preserve its identity and power.
All three of the applied theories have some strengths and limitations. It is possible to say that realism reflects the context of the Qatari crisis adequately. The framework helped identify the major motivations, which defined the parties’ behaviors a short time before the diplomatic relationships were cut and had led to the current outcomes − Qatar and Saudi Arabia both aim to increase economic and political power to stimulate greater security.
At the same time, the explanation of the conflict by merely using the ideas of national interest and power does not allow understanding the issue more deeply. It seems that constructivism accomplished this task much better as it integrates structural elements of national behavior and decision making with the cultural ones. The constructivist analysis revealed that national identity shaped by different values, worldviews, and ideologies determines the overall strategic goals of a country and its attitudes to other nations.
Moreover, the example of the Qatar-Iran ties demonstrates that states collaborate more efficiently when they share both cultural perceptions and mutual economic interests. Another advantage of constructivism is that it grasps the temporariness of national interests and explains the mechanisms of their transformation. Neither realism nor liberalism was able to do this as effectively.
Lastly, liberalism could explain the Qatar-Saudi Arabia conflict only partially. It provides some insight into possible motivations of Saudi Arabia to alienate Qatar. However, although some humanistic sentiments and ethical concerns may be involved in the kingdom’s anti-terror efforts planning, national interests seem to be the major drivers in its decision to cut ties with Qatar.
Since the theory explains the reasons for the conflict development by using the same constructs of power and national interests as realism but offers a completely different evaluation approach, the combination of these two perspectives can help understand the conflict more profoundly and identify possible solutions more effectively. Overall, the synergy of all three perspectives can be highly recommended because it may allow minimizing analytical biases, providing a multilateral review of problems, and attaining better results.
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