Analysis: the causes of the Saudi-Qatari rift

The recent diplomatic crisis between several Arab states, headed by Saudi Arabia, and Qatar has caused ripples across the region and the world. Yemen, the site of military interventions by both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has been particularly affected as Qatari troops withdraw from the country and certain Salafi elements protest Saudi tactics. Gabriele vom Bruck, senior lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, penned an analysis in Le Monde Diplomatique about the Saudi-Qatari rift, entitled “Qatar crisis: Saudi Arabia as anti-hero?” highlighting the significance of the spat for Yemen.

Saudi Arabia justified severing ties with its neighbor in part by accusing it of collaborating with Yemen’s Houthi rebels and of backing controversial Islamist factions, such as the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Islah party. Vom Bruck points out, however, that Saudi Arabia itself was a key player in Islah’s founding and continues to maintain strong ties with Islah leaders today. Vom Bruck also complicates Saudi accusations against Abd al-Wahhab Muhammad Abd al-Rahman al-Humaiqani, the one Yemeni on the Qatar-linked terrorist list recently issued by Saudi Arabia and its neighbors. Al-Humaiqani, who has been accused of ties to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the past and who now stands accused of serving as a link between AQAP and the Qatari regime, lives in Riyadh and has been recognized by the Saudi monarchy as a representative of the Hadi government. Finally, as vom Bruck also notes, the Saudi press has failed to provide evidence for its accusations of Qatari funding of the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia’s accusations against Qatar, then, ring hollow. Vom Bruck proposes an alternative explanation: “It is hard not to interpret the charges levied against Qatar by Saudi Arabia as having been made for reasons of expediency.” She describes years of tensions and competition between the two countries, including differing approaches to earlier conflicts in Yemen between the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, disagreements over the Arab Spring, and competition for influence over Palestinian factions. Much of the conflict has been related to Qatar’s tendency toward independent foreign policy decision-making. Through all of this, the investigative journalism of the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera has been a sticking point.

Ultimately, vom Bruck concludes, the diplomatic break has more to do with recent Al Jazeera reports on extralegal prisons in Yemen and with Saudi fears of Qatari influence in Yemen than it does with the dubious accusations that constitute Saudi Arabia’s official explanation for the crisis.