Home/Daniel Larison/The Failed Qatar Blockade and the Reckless Saudis

The Failed Qatar Blockade and the Reckless Saudis

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis co-host the Inaugural U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and Defense Minister Khalid bin Muhammad al-Atiyah in Washington, D.C. on January 30, 2018. [State Department Photo/ Public Domain]

The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, possibly the stupidest crisis anywhere in the world, is now 2 years old, and the effort to strangle Qatar into submission has completely failed. Jonathan Cristol explains:

Two years later, little progress has been made to end the blockade, but one thing is quite clear — the strategy has failed.

It failed to topple the Qatari emir. It failed to force the closure of the Turkish military base in Qatar. It failed to force the closure of Al Jazeera, the popular satellite television network. And it failed to isolate Qatar economically or politically. Not only has this blockade failed to achieve a single one of its objectives — it has backfired spectacularly. It led to a more independent, globally engaged, and (relatively) open Qatar. Conversely, the architect of the blockade, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has developed a reputation for a unique mixture of failure, incompetence, and brutality.

The Saudis and the UAE, together with Egypt and Bahrain, attempted to intimidate and coerce Qatar into abandoning its relatively independent foreign policy and curtailing its activities in the region that displeased them. The total failure to force Qatar to make any concessions provides more evidence that “maximum pressure” campaigns combined with maximalist, unreasonable demands cannot achieve any of their goals. When a state sees its own sovereignty and independence threatened by hostile foreign powers, its natural response is usually to defy its attackers and look for support from elsewhere. The lesson for the Trump administration’s own misguided, destructive “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran is only too obvious.

As Cristol says, the blockade has backfired about as badly as a policy can. The Saudi-led bloc considered Qatar to be too friendly with Iran and Turkey, but in squeezing the emirate they pushed them deeper into the embrace of both. Iran has been happy to take advantage of yet another Saudi/Emirati blunder by providing supplies to replenish Qatari stores and airspace to allow air travel and cargo deliveries to continue without interruption. Turkey has strengthened its ties with Qatar, and at the outset of the crisis sent troops. The blockade has not been without its costs and disruptions, but Qatar has found alternatives that have allowed it to sustain itself and even to flourish.

The Qatar crisis stemmed from longstanding disagreements between Qatar and its neighbors, but it took place when it did as a result of Trump’s clueless support in the wake of his embarrassing visit to Riyadh in May 2017. The administration has backed away from the president’s initial enthusiastic cheerleading for the blockade over the last two years, but the Saudis and Emiratis can still rely on the White House to back them. That was the first time that the president proved to be an exceptionally easy mark for the Saudi and Emirati governments, and it wouldn’t be the last. We have seen it happen again and again as the president has echoed their talking points on Yemen, backed their war despite broad Congressional opposition, thrown his support behind their proxy in Libya, and abused his power to expedite arms sales to them. The president has consistently sided with these governments over the last two years, and every single time he has done so he has been wrong and it has put the interests of despotic clients ahead of the interests of the United States.

The blockade of Qatar also reconfirmed that Mohammed bin Salman had become a reckless regional menace together with his counterpart from Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed. Not only have the Saudis and Emiratis been devastating and starving Yemen, but they have been sowing instability and threatening their other neighbors. Like the failed war on Yemen, the failed blockade of Qatar has shown the crown prince to be both thuggish and inept, and our government’s support for both has been harmful to the region and to U.S. interests.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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