The Gulf crisis: Small states battle it out (Part 4 of 4)

James M. Dorsey
7 min readJul 28, 2017

This is part 3 of a four-part series. Part 1 was published on July 25, Part 2 on July 26 and Part 3 on July 27

By James M. Dorsey

The Gulf crisis is not about to end any time soon. Yet, it has already established that small states need not surrender to larger neighbourhood bullies and can not only stand their ground but also shape the world around them. That is a conclusion that small states like Singapore that were debating their place in the international pecking order and their ability to chart an independent course of their own in the wake of the Gulf crisis, appear to have drawn.

The debate in Singapore, echoed in other small states, was sparked when former UN ambassador and dean of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy Kishore Mahbubani asserted that Qatar’s troubles showed that small states should always behave like small states and be wary of getting entangled in affairs beyond their borders. “In the jungle, no small animal would stand in front of a charging elephant, no matter who has the right of way, so long as the elephant is not charging over the small animal’s home territory,” Mahbubani said.

Using an animal metaphor of his own, Singapore ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan retorted, in a rare public airing of differences, that Mahbubani’s approach would amount to surrender of one’s sovereignty and set a dangerous precedent. “Singapore did not survive and prosper by being anybody’s tame poodle… I don’t think anyone respects a running dog,” Kausikan said.

Adding his voice, prominent Singaporean diplomat Tommy Koh argued that “the lesson learnt is that, at the end of the day, a small country must develop the capacity to defend itself. It cannot depend on others to do so.” said. Ong Keng Yong, the head of RSIS and Singapore’s ambassador to Iran and Pakistan asked, “what happens when small states’ core interests are impinged upon, and caught within broader big-power dynamics? Or do small states’ interests not matter, and should be subordinated to that of big states? Putting it another way, must Singapore be so governed by fears of offending bigger states that we allow them to do what they want or shape our actions to placate them even if they affect our national interests? … There is no choice but to stand up. Doing otherwise will encourage more pressure from those bigger than ourselves.”

The jury on the differing UAE and Qatari approaches is nonetheless still out. Qatar has been able to defy the boycott and, so far convincingly, reject demands of the Saudi-UAE-led alliance that would undermine its sovereignty and turn it into a vassal based on its financial muscle and an international refusal to endorse the approach of its detractors that many view as extreme, unrealistic and unreasonable.

Taking the long view on the assumption that change is inevitable, Qatar could emerge as having been on the right side of history even if the notion that it can promote change everywhere else except for at home is naive at best. A wave of nationalism with Qataris rallying around their emir in defiance of the Saudi-UAE-led boycott that reinforced the notion that Qatar is Al Thani and Al Thani is Qatar, masked criticism of the ruler’s policies and the Gulf state’s repression of dissidents.

Assuming Qatar emerges from the crisis with its ability to independently chart its own course and emotions have calmed, Sheikh Tamim’s challenge will be the transformation of the wave of nationalism into a form of sustainable support for his regime. “In the marketed image of Qatar, all Qataris accept being ruled by the Emir, and always have done. In the idealized vision of Qatar, the image projected to the outside world, there is no politicking, there are not always even clear positions on international affairs, except a position defined by security, development and prosperity… Yet this idealized narrative obscures a more complicated and interesting history, a history that lies just beneath the five-star hotels, international news channels and premium airport lounges. Qataris themselves have not forgotten this history,” noted Qatar scholar Allen J. Fromherz.

The notion that Qatar can be exempted from waves of political change is embedded not only in the Gulf state’s approach to support of opposition forces everywhere else and hard-hitting news coverage of everyone but itself, but also in its approach to education. The attraction of top Western universities such as Georgetown and Northwest to Doha’s Education City is to ensure that Qataris have internationally marketable skills and can connect to the global community. It is not in Fromherz’s words “to create a larger ruling class that is a source of criticism of the ruling Al-Thani family.” As a result, there is a dearth of critical histories, analysis, and literature that offers an alternative perspective on official Qatari mythology.

Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami realized that when he was sentenced in November 2011 to life in prison in what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” His sentence was subsequently reduced to 15 years in prison. Al-Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine”. It celebrated the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Al Ajami’s sentencing coincided with Qatar getting its own albeit limited taste of the fallout of the year’s popular uprisings with conservative Qataris organizing online boycotts of the state-owned telecommunications company as well as Qatar Airways and in a few cases publicly questioning the ruler’s authority to issue decrees. The protests were largely connected to concerns related to the Gulf state’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, including cost, a significant rise in the number of migrant workers, being exposed to criticism of the country’s labour regime and human rights record, and the risk of having to make concessions on public mores and the consumption of alcohol to accommodate fans. Conservative Qataris worry that an increasing number of their compatriots, often dressed in full-length robes, the Gulf’s national dress, would drink publicly in hotels and bars. “It is a taboo in Qatar to see somebody wearing the national dress and drinking,” said Hassan Al Ibrahim, a Qatari commentator. Some Qataris were also critical of Qatar’s support of the Brotherhood.

A group of some 500 Qataris called in early 2012 for a boycott of the state-owned airline, a major tool in the positioning of the Gulf state as a global travel hub, in protest against its serving of alcohol on flights, high fares and failure to allocate more jobs to Qatari nationals. The protesters’ campaign featured the Qatar Airways logo with a no entry sign superimposed on it. It followed an earlier protest decrying the level in telecommunications services. The protests were fuelled when the Qatar Distribution Company, a Qatar Airways owned-retail shop, introduced pork alongside the alcohol it was already selling to expatriates. “I never thought the day would come that I have to ask the waiter in a restaurant in Qatar what kind of meat is in their burgers,” said a Qatari on Twitter. “Ppl don’t get it. Its not about the pork — its about us feeling more & more like a minority — in our own country,” tweeted another Qatari.

Just the beginning

However the Gulf crisis ends, Qatar’s revolutionizing the Middle East and North Africa’s media landscape with the 1996 launch of Al Jazeera speaks to the ability of small states to shape their environment. The television network’s free-wheeling reporting and debates that provided a platform for long suppressed voices, shattered taboos in a world of staid, state-run broadcasting characterized by endless coverage of the ruler’s every move. Al Jazeera, despite its adherence to the Qatari maxim of change for everyone but Qatar itself by exempting the Gulf state from its hard-hitting coverage, forced irreversible change of the region’s media landscape in advance of the advent of social media.

Qatar’s brash and provocative embrace of change as opposed to the UAE’s subtler projection of power that shies away from openly challenging the powers that be, may be too risky an approach for small states to emulate. What is clear, however, is that the ability of small states to chart their own course is at the end of the day a function of vision, policy objectives, assets small states can leverage, ability to network, appetite for risk, and the temperament of their leaders. Qatar and the UAE represent two very different approaches that offer lessons but are unlikely to serve as models. In the final analysis, both Qatar and the UAE may pull off punching far above their weight even if they fail in achieving all their objectives. It comes however at a price paid in part by others that ultimately may come to haunt them.

Already, the long-standing media war between the UAE and Qatar in which allegations of support of terrorism bounce back and forth, has prompted victims of 9/11 to consider naming the UAE alongside Saudi Arabia as a defendant in a host of law suits. Court documents filed in New York alleged that Dubai Islamic Bank “knowingly and purposefully provided financial services and other forms of material support to al Qaeda … including the transfer of financial resources to al Qaeda operatives who participated in the planning and execution of the September 11th attacks.” That could be just the beginning.

Read Parts 1, 2, and 3

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.



James M. Dorsey

James is an award-winning journalist covering ethnic and religious conflict. He blogs using soccer as a lens on the Middle East and North Africa's fault lines