Despite Doha’s refusal to capitulate, the Saudi/Emirati-led bloc remains determined to pressure Qatar into changing its foreign policy and may resort to more action aimed at further squeezing the country. Such options could include suspending Qatar from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and mandating that countries around the world pick between trading with the emirate or the bloc taking action against Doha.
By making Qataris pay an economic and political price for their government’s foreign policy, the Saudi/Emirati-led bloc wanted to cause Qatar’s citizens to begin blaming their ruling monarchy for their country’s relative isolation.
Yet one month after the severance of diplomatic relations between three GCC members and Doha, the emirate remains stable with no major opposition to the Al Thani royals coming from any Qataris. To the contrary, Qataris are rallying around Emir Tamim who is riding a wave of Qatari nationalism and enjoying growing support from his fellow Qataris.
Since three other GCC members severed diplomatic ties with Doha last month, there have been more displays of the emir, other members of the royal family, as well as the Qatari flag and its maroon and white colors throughout the capital’s public areas. Qataris’ social media messages and the hundreds of Qatari men who just signed up for military service in the military also illustrate this growing sense of nationalism.
It is unclear how the Qatar crisis will evolve from this point forward. In any event, the Qatari monarchy is likely to rely increasingly on the nationalism card to maintain unity. The Al Thani royals are determined to conduct a foreign policy that is reflective of an independent and sovereign state that does not make humiliating compromises to protect itself from boycotts, which Qatar’s Defense Minister Khaled Al-Attiyah described last month as a “bloodless declaration of war”.
To be sure, Emir Tamim will likely see his legitimacy being increasingly linked to his state’s ability to stand strong amid the gravest threat to its sovereignty since its independence in the 1970s.
The Al Murra tribe’s members in Qatar, who reside near the Saudi border, recently affirmed their “complete and absolute” loyalty to Emir Tamim and condemned the Saudi/Emirati-led bloc’s action against Qatar. This marked an important point for the Al Thani royals given the history of this tribe’s connection with foreign powers which, according to Doha, plotted to topple the Emir’s father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in the 1990s and 2000s through their meddling in Qatari palace politics.
Emir Tamim’s grandfather, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, was the country’s emir from 1972 until 1995, when Emir Tamim’s father ousted him in a coup. Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani received strong support from the Al Murra tribe and under his rule Doha’s foreign policy did not clash with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s as it later did after Emir Hamad’s accession 22 years ago along with foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani.
Hamad and Thani played a critical role in the emirate’s rise on the international stage and the shaping of its ambitious foreign policy that challenged Saudi Arabia’s traditional role as an anchor of a conservative order in the Sunni Arab/Muslim world.
By 1996, there was a failed counter-coup aimed at reinstalling the Emir’s grandfather, plus another one in 2005. In both cases, the Qataris accused officials in Riyadh of plotting the unsuccessful counter-coups with cooperation from the Al Murra tribe. Consequently, Qatar’s government annulled the citizenship of 5,000 members of this tribe as punishment for their involvement in the counter-coup attempt.
In May, amid the immediate fallout of the alleged hacking of Qatar News Agency, there was speculation about a Saudi/Emirati-orchestrated plot to oust Emir Tamim in a coup. Among Qataris there is an understanding that such efforts to topple their monarch from the throne, or at least pressure him into capitulating to other GCC countries and Egypt’s demands for reconciliation, are designed to bring the emirate back to its pre-1995 foreign policy – in which Doha was less pursuant of autonomy and was more inclined to operate within Riyadh’s geopolitical orbit.
The Qataris are proud of what their country has achieved on the international stage over the past several decades, rising from an impoverished Arabian backwater to the world’s top liquefied natural gas exporter/producer, a key military partner of the United States, and owner of Al Jazeera that leverages tremendous economic and political influence across multiple regions of the world.
Over the past 22 years, Qatar’s per capita gross domestic product (adjusted for purchasing power parity) has increased 236 percent. Qataris see the current actions being taken against Doha as not genuinely being about their state’s ties with terrorist organizations and support for extremism, but rather an effort to bring the emirate back down to size after more than two decades of playing (what the Saudi leadership sees as) an “outsized role” in the Arab world’s affairs.
To be sure, Emir Tamim is a highly popular leader among his own citizens, especially among young Qataris who attribute their wealth to the rule of their monarch and his father/predecessor.
The fact that Qatar’s 300,000 nationals are overwhelmingly supportive of their ruler’s refusal to capitulate to the Saudi/Emirati-led bloc’s demands means that his decision to stand strong has enabled him to ride an increasing wave of patriotism. As Doha plans its foreign policy, such domestic factors will be considered. Indeed, growing Qatari nationalism is a force to be contended with in the rapidly changing GCC, which may soon be a five-member regional intergovernmental organization.