ANALYSIS: Will Qatar-GCC crisis go the Russia-Ukraine way?

Diana Galeeva
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The ongoing crisis between the brotherly states of Qatar and the GCC (consisting of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain) is not a unique conflict. In another part of the world, Russia and Ukraine, two states also sharing historical and cultural similarities, have become aggressive toward each other.

Ideas of brotherhood are forgotten when states develop policies according to their own strategic interests and power projection. In politics there are no states which are right or wrong, there are only strategies, which either bring success, power and influence, or do not.


The crises between Qatar and the GCC, and between Russia and Ukraine, each have deep roots, and in both cases, though to a greater extent in the former, the smaller “brother” has blamed the larger for restricting their regional and global influence.

The desires of these smaller states have brought some international attention; however, their progress has been short-lived. This has happened because “bigger” brothers have the responsibility to maintain security and stability for the prosperity of their own citizens, conflicting with the foreign policies of “smaller brothers” which might bring insecurity, unrest or even war.

The chronological development of these conflicts has also been similar. In both cases, the states involved sought diplomatic solutions before realizing that a consensus would not be possible. It seems that both Russia and the GCC have been unhappy with the behavior of their neighbours since the 1990s, finding it contradictory to their own interests.

Ukraine was divided between choosing Russia or the EU and NATO as a main ally, while Qatar tried to build relationships with both the GCC and the state/non-state actors that posed a threat to the GCC, including its largest threat, Iran.

The Russian-Ukrainian crisis reached its peak between 2013 and 2014, and though the GCC’s crisis was resolved in 2014, recent events have brought a new wave of uncertainty to Qatar’s future, and so to the nature of its cooperation with its brother states in the future. Due to the timing of these events, the aftermath of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis is clear, while the outcome of the crisis in the GCC remains uncertain.

Possible consequences

I believe that analyzing the consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis will help us to anticipate the likely scenarios. To this end, this paper will firstly explore the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, seeking to understand why they have been perceived as “brotherly” states, and discuss reasons for the crisis between them.

Secondly, it will examine the foreign policy of the GCC and Qatar since 1995. Finally, this article will use the analysis of the first case study, that of Russia and Ukraine, to propose a future to the second, the crisis of the GCC.

The Russian-Ukrainian crisis

It is the birth of Russia and Ukraine’s statehoods, and their cultural similarities, which cause the states to consider each other as “brotherly” countries. The “Normanist” theory states that Varangians (recognized in western Europe as the Normans or Vikings) were responsible for the founding of the Kievan Rus; Russian and Ukrainian historians, known as “anti-Normanist”, believe that the Varangians took over a pre-existing Slavic political structure (Yekelchyk, 2007).

In 988, under Vladimir I (Vladimir the Great), Christianity was acknowledged as the state religion, and a cultural choice was made in favor of the Byzantine, or later Orthodox, Church. The language of high culture was Church Slavonic; however, ordinary people spoke a host of Eastern Slavic dialects, from which Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian eventually emerged.

Kiev fell to the Mongols in 1240, but even before Kiev’s strength decreased, three new power centers were established: Vladimir-Suzdal in the northeast (a central part of modern European Russia, along with Moscow), Novgorod in the north (Russia) and Galicia-Volhynia in the southwest (western Ukraine).

Nowadays, both Galicia-Volhynia and Vladimir-Suzdal (and its modern heir, Moscow) claim to be the political successors of Kievan Rus. From the 13th century, the territory of Ukraine was ruled and contested by various powers, such as Lithuania, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and Russia.

An early Cossack state emerged and prospered in the 17th and 18th centuries, but its territories were split between Poland and the Russian Empire, later becoming a wholly Russian territory. Modern Ukraine existed between 1917 and 1920 as the result of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, and after the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine again emerged as an independent country. It was at this time that Russia also became an independent state.

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on December 6, 2016 shows Saudi King Salman (L) chatting with Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha before heading to Bahrain to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit. (AFP)
A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on December 6, 2016 shows Saudi King Salman (L) chatting with Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha before heading to Bahrain to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit. (AFP)

Ukraine’s independence

After Ukraine gained independence, it faced the dilemma of having to ally itself with either Russia or the West, in terms of both echoes of historical development and as a path toward becoming a modern nation.

For example, in 2002 Ukraine officially declared its intention to join NATO. Between 2004 and 2005, the run-off vote of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election incited the Orange Revolution, as the victory of Victor Yanukovich – who was assumed to have pro-Russian policies – was widely believed to have been the result of corruption and electoral fraud.

Opposition to Yanukovich was strong in the western and central parts of Ukraine (including Kiev), while his supporters were mainly from the eastern and southern regions. The Russian public was predominantly supportive of Yanukovich, while Western partners were generally opposed.

As Yekelchyk (2007: 227) emphasizes: “another theme highlighted by the events of 2004, the split between the Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russian-speaking east within Ukraine, also has roots in Ukrainian history, in the difference between the nationalist policies of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, as well as between the Soviet Union and interwar eastern European states’.

In 2013, another wave of demonstrations and unrest, known as Euromaidan, began in Ukraine, which also involved the Russian issue. The protests started after the Ukrainian government’s decision to suspend the signing of an association agreement with the European Union, seen as a choice to ally itself with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union instead.

However, in 2014 after signing the agreement on the settlement of the political crisis in Ukraine, the President was removed from Office by the Rada (the Ukrainian Parliament). The Ukrainian revolution started, with protests held in different. The peak of the crisis between Russia and Ukraine was reached with pro-Russian unrest in Eastern Ukraine (Lugansk, Donetsk) and the Crimean crisis.

Ukraine took the position that Russian forces used local militias to annex Crimea, while Russia held that the referendum showed that the majority of Crimea’s citizens supported the decision to join the Russian Federation, and so describe the events as self-determination. It seems as the Ukraine chose a Western alliance, Russia had to protect its interests.

The Crimea had hosted the Black Sea Fleet, a major operational-strategic command of the Russian Navy, since the 18th century. After the Revolution in 1917, Crimea became an autonomous republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic of the USSR, but during the World War II, was downgraded to Oblast status, and in 1954, was reassigned to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Such a traditionally strategically significant site being used to host NATO military equipment, on Russia’s border, if Ukraine became part of NATO and the EU, was a security concern. Russian self-interest became much more important than tolerating the behaviour of a brother state.

Qatar and the GCC

In 1981 Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates founded the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Qatar and its brother states share a common religion, Islam; a common language, Arabic; similar social structures; closely comparable standards of economic growth; close systems of government; a shared geography, and a collective culture.

The GCC is unique in that its six members are among the world’s last true monarchies, and their political systems are made stronger and less vulnerable by their cooperation.

Since 1995, when he replaced his father Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani as Emir in a bloodless coup, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has attempted to bring Qatar out from under the shadow of Saudi Arabia, and to replace the power vacuum in the Middle East.

Qatar’s foreign policies have been described variously as “ambitious” (Dargin, 2007), “pragmatic” (Wright, 2009), “independent” (Blanchard, 2008), “intricate” (Rabi, 2009) and “chaotic” (De Lage, 2005). Qatar has made political ties with the US and Iran, and built relations with Israel.

In the beginning, two diplomatic niches were used as strategic tools: conflict resolution and mediation. Qatar became an active mediator in Africa and the Middle East, and Qatari mediation attempts have been made in Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Morocco-Polisario, Palestine, Somalia, Libya, and Afghanistan.

Although some might argue that the only successful mediation was in Lebanon in 2008, it appears that the so-called successful mediation attempt brought strength and power to the Iranian proxy Hezbollah, rather than to the Lebanese government.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych shake hands after signing documents during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, on December 17, 2013. (AFP)
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych shake hands after signing documents during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, on December 17, 2013. (AFP)

After putting itself on the map with its policies, Qatar attempted to influence the region, challenging Saudi predominance and competing with the UAE. This became possible by building strategic alliances with Islamist groups and by establishing its media, and Qatar’s key means was its wealth. An example of this can be seen in Qatar’s financial support of the Muslim Brotherhood and the media coverage provided by Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera was a crucial platform for the popular religious appeal of the spiritual leader of the Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an outspoken supporter of the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian uprisings, which were also championed by Qatar.

Qatari support of the Brotherhood contributed to the coming to power of Mohamed Morsi, a representative of the Islamic group (from 30 June 2012 -3 July 2013), as the outcome of the Arab Spring in Egypt. In other words, Qatar executed long-term strategic aims by allying with the Brotherhood to assist Islamists in Egypt to come to power.

Qatar tried to control domestic and foreign policy issues in the country, which has historically been the regional heavyweight. Another example is the relations between Qatar and the Islamists in Libya.

Qatar has hosted a variety of Libyan Islamists, who have represented the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Ali al-Sallabi and Ismail al-Sallabi, for example, played vital roles during the Arab Spring in Libya, Ali as a politician, and Ismail as a rebel leader.

Discussing Qatar’s actions in Libya, one member of the Qatari ruling family stated “we believe in democracy. We believe in freedom, we believe in dialogue, and we believe in that for the entire region…”, despite the evidence that democracy does not exist in Qatar itself.

During the Arab Spring, Qatar also supported Libyan rebels with arms and financial aid ($400 million) and the role of Al Jazeera during the Arab Spring (as mentioned before, in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya) was crucial, and was referred to as “geo-media” (Hroub, 2012), similar to well-established concepts such as “geo-politics” or “geo-economics”.

Qatar has made efforts to become major actor in the region and globally since 1995. However, when time came to “pay a price” for its ambitious behavior, including challenging the security of its brothers, Qatar has started to deny its all activities.

On 19th June, 2017, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Jassim Bin Jabr, former prime minister and one of the most influential figures in Qatar’s ambitious foreign policy, stated to CNN that “Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain should view Qatar as ‘their smaller brother and a small country”, in contradiction to Qatar’s enthusiasm about its ambitions since 1995.

On 20th October, 2016, while giving a lecture at LSE, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim openly stated that Qatar supported rebels in Libya, for example, because “Qaddafi was not a right guy for the country and we supported democracy”. This indicates that Qatar was exerting influence regionally while trying to dictate to great powers globally.

In 2012 Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim, warned Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin against using Russia’s veto in the UN vote on Syria. It has become apparent during the current crisis that Qatar’s foreign policy achievements may only have been successful in the short term. Though proud of their advances, they have damaged Qatar’s relationships with its brother states.

In competing with their larger neighbors for power, Qatari leaders have forced the other Gulf states to protect their own interests. It is also probable that Qatar would have maintained its successes in the long term, had it not appeared to threaten the influence, security or stability of its neighbouring allies.

Future of the crisis?

In the case of Russia and Ukraine, it appears as though Ukraine opted to distance itself from its brother state to develop relationships with the West. The emotional significance of the abandonment of this special relationship cannot be underestimated. On an international level, sanctions were enforced against individuals, businessmen and officials from Ukraine and Russia. The US, the EU and other organizations also approved sanctions against Russia.

Besides damaging the Russian economy this also harmed economies within the EU, drawing opposition from the likes of Italy, Hungary, Greece, some German states, and Cyprus. As for the Ukrainian dilemma, despite losing its main ally, Russia, it is still not a member of the EU, three years after the crisis. The union has been challenged by the withdrawal of Britain, and it is questionable whether membership in the EU will be as beneficial for Ukraine as relations with Russia could have been.

Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovich during their meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, in this April 1, 2004 file photo. (AP)
Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovich during their meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, in this April 1, 2004 file photo. (AP)

Regarding the GCC crisis, Sheikh Mohammed bin Aldulralman al-Thani said that “Qatar is under blockade, there is no negotiation […] they have to lift the blockade to start negotiation” (Al Arabiya, 2017), and that Qatar would rely on other states, including Iran, if the boycott continued.

As in the Ukrainian case, it seems that Qatar faces a dilemma: to stay with the GCC states or to build closer relations with Iran and Turkey. Staying with the GCC would mean that Qatar would be expected to behave according to the interests of all the GCC states, accepting the demands made by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on the 23rd of June.

The decision to leave the GCC family would isolate Qatar, and it would be very difficult to return. Indeed, it may be possible to continue to develop relations with Turkey and Iran, but, as for Ukraine, the new alliances might not bring the desired results.

Qatar itself is at risk of becoming dependent on two regional players who are trying to expand their dominance in the region. It should be acknowledged that relations between Qatar, Iran and Turkey are successful mainly because of Qatar’s financial resources, rather than cultural and historical heritage it shares with its GCC neighbors.

Future scenarios

There are two points to consider here: Iran needs Qatar for power projection, and Turkey is interested in Qatari investment. Obviously, Iran’s interest in having closer relations with Qatar is related to disturbing Saudi and UAE dominance in the region, generating conflict between them and Qatar.

After Qatar’s withdrawal from the GCC, Qatar might continue to support openly Iranian shields - Shia militias in the region (such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, and the so-called Bahraini Hezbollah). Thus, Qatar’s continued funding of Islamists would be very useful to Iran for promoting its revolution’s ideas in the region, and strengthening its regime; Qatar would serve Iranian interests in the region and fight for Iranian dominance, not Qatar’s dominance, as they have dreamed since 1995.

Leaving “the GCC family” for an ally such as Iran would put into question the survival of the regime in Qatar itself. For a Turkish presence and security umbrella, Qatar would “pay” with investments.

However, as transformative changes in the LNG market evolve, along with isolation from the GCC (with land and air routes closed off), the required investment into Qatar itself and investment in Turkey, as well as supporting Iranian militias, even Qatar could be put into a difficult financial situation in the future.

In the longer perspective, without Qatar’s primary strength, its wealth, its union with Iran and Turkey would be undermined, and, equal partnership would end: Qatar would be viewed as a dependent, weak, secondary state. In contrast, the relationship with the “GCC family” is cultural rather than financial, and as in most families, through good times and bad, the brothers would stay together.
Diana Galeeva is a PhD Candidate at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Her PhD research focuses on theories of power, IR theory, small states, political islam and GCC politics. She was an intern at the the President of Tatarstan’s office - Department of corporation and Religious organizations (2012), Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Tatarstan, legal department (2011), and the Ministry of justice (2010). Diana received her M.A. in International Relations from Exeter university in the UK, and earned a degree in Governmental Law from Kazan Federal University (KFU). She speaks English, Russian, Tatar and studies Arabic and Turkish. She can be contacted on [email protected] and @diana_galeeva.

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