It’s a short drive along the wide boulevards of Qatar’s capital from the sprawling global headquarters of the Al-Jazeera television network to the ornately decorated gates of the Iranian embassy.
If things had gone according to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan, Al-Jazeera’s bustling offices would now be deserted, its television channels off the air after 22 years of broadcasts that helped reshape the Middle East. The Iranian embassy would also be shuttered, the diplomats inside expelled. Most importantly, Qatar – a tiny but troublesome independent state in the Persian Gulf – would stick to doing what neighbouring Saudi Arabia wanted it to do.
Nearly a year and a half into a Saudi-led boycott that was supposed to bring this country and its foreign policy into line with Riyadh, Qatar hasn’t budged. Nor, despite mounting pressure on Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed to change course after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has its angry big neighbour.
It’s the latter bit of intransigence that has many in this region worried. The international outrage spawned by the murder last month of Mr. Khashoggi – a critic of Prince Mohammed who was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – could have been humbling for the 33-year-old Crown Prince, his country’s de facto ruler. But there’s been no apology from Riyadh.
The CIA reportedly concluded last week that Prince Mohammed personally directed the assassination. Even beforehand, the Trump administration was quietly pressuring Riyadh to wind down the partial blockade of Qatar. U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have more publicly called for a halt to the fighting in nearby Yemen, where a Saudi-led offensive aimed at installing a friendly government has triggered a mounting humanitarian tragedy.
Neither appears to be happening. The deep-pocketed Qatari government – which has survived the boycott by opening other, more expensive, trade routes, and subsidizing the costs of imports in order to minimize the impact on citizens – says it sees no signals that the Saudi-led boycott will end any time soon. And while Saudi-led forces said on Thursday that they were halting their attack on the strategic Yemeni port of Hodeidah, media affiliated with the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents who hold the city reported no let up in the fighting.
Riyadh is also conceding little in the Khashoggi case. While Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said on Thursday that he will seek the death penalty for five Saudis allegedly involved in the killing, he raised eyebrows abroad by insisting the Crown Prince “did not have any knowledge” of the operation, which saw a 15-man team – including members of Prince Mohammed’s personal security entourage – dispatched to Istanbul to lie in wait for the journalist.
There is now rare but growing acrimony in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department hit 17 Saudi officials with sanctions for their alleged involvement in the Khashoggi murder, a policy that Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada is “actively considering” following. Meanwhile, reports last week indicated that Riyadh was preparing to cut oil production, a move that would showcase Saudi Arabia’s economic clout by driving up pump prices in the West.
In other words, Prince Mohammed is digging in for a fight. “I don’t think the Crown Prince will back down now. I feel he is trying to be defiant against the pressure,” said Abdullah Baabood, an Omani academic who was a personal friend of Mr. Khashoggi’s. “If he will [make any concessions], he doesn’t want to do it under pressure. He will do it on his own time.”
Prince Mohammed has turned this region on its side during his short era as his country’s de facto ruler. Shortly after he was named heir to the throne in 2017, he made waves at home and abroad by challenging some of the ultraconservative norms in his country, most notably by allowing women to drive and permitting movie theatres to open after a 35-year ban. Such moves generated optimism at home, where almost 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 30.
The Crown Prince was also hailed abroad, particularly in the United States, where he developed a close relationship with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. He was welcomed in the White House during a three-week tour of the United States earlier this year, and was nicknamed “MBS” by an American foreign policy establishment that cheered his opposition to Iran, as well as his willingness to forge a new relationship with Israel.
The rest of MBS’s foreign policy record is less attractive. As Defence Minister, a post he still holds, he assembled the Sunni coalition that intervened in Yemen in March, 2015, after Houthi rebels seized the capital of Sanaa. More than 10,000 people have since died in almost four years of fighting, and the United Nations has warned that the siege of Hodeidah – the port that 80 per cent of Yemen’s food and medicine supplies pass through – could trigger a full-on famine in the impoverished country.
In June, 2017, the same month that King Salman named Prince Mohammed heir to his throne, Saudi Arabia – joined by its allies the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – launched the boycott of Qatar, severing all trade and diplomatic ties, and denying their airspace to Qatar-bound aircraft. Closing the Qatari-funded Al-Jazeera and severing the country’s ties with Iran, with which Qatar co-manages the world’s largest natural gas field, were just two of the 13 demands put to Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
Analysts say the moves against Yemen and Qatar – as well as the Khashoggi assassination and a crackdown of Saudi political activists – are linked by Prince Mohammed’s desire to crush all dissent not just inside Saudi Arabia but around the region. Qatar, in particular, was targeted because it used its cash, as well as the influence of Al-Jazeera, to support the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, which toppled several authoritarian governments and rattled the royal families in Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates.
“We’re talking about regimes that cannot tolerate any multiplicity of opinions, either domestically or regionally,” Lolwah al-Khater, a spokeswoman for Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in an interview. She pointed to Canada’s own summer spat with Riyadh – which saw Saudi Arabia expel Canada’s ambassador and freeze all new trade after Ms. Freeland tweeted her concern over the jailing of a women’s rights activist – as an example. “Take that and amplify it to account for [the size of] Al-Jazeera and maybe you can understand the backdrop,” Ms. al-Khater said.
While international attention has been focused on Prince Mohammed, the Qatar and Yemen adventures had a co-sponsor in Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and foreign policy architect of the United Arab Emirates. He and the Saudi prince share an extreme distaste for political Islam, and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, a regional movement that Al-Jazeera is accused of supporting. (Mr. Khashoggi also supported the Brotherhood as a young man, and later, at least, in some of his Washington Post columns.)
Another aspect of the Saudi-UAE plan was to build a unified Sunni Arab front that would be ready – along with a new ally, Israel, and an old one, the United States – to confront Iran and its Shia allies across the Middle East. That plan now appears to lie in shambles.
“The Israelis have lost their illusions about MBS. They’ve lost hope that the Saudis were capable of putting together a solid alliance and leading it,” said James Dorsey, a Middle East expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Mr. Dorsey said concerns about the crown prince were mounting in Israel and the United States even before the Khashoggi murder. Those concerns were confirmed by the assassination and Riyadh’s handling of the fallout.
The boycott of Qatar also backfired, driving Doha into closer relationships with Turkey and Iran, while leaving Riyadh’s other neighbours wondering if what happened to Qatar could happen to them.
Meanwhile, images of atrocities in Yemen, particularly an August air strike that hit a school bus, killing at least 29 children, badly tarnished the international image of Saudi Arabia in general, and Prince Mohammed in particular. Since the debacle of the Khashoggi murder, there have even been comparisons – most prominently in the Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine – of Prince Mohammed to Saddam Hussein, another Sunni Arab strongman who was admired by some in the West until he crossed a red line with his 1991 invasion of Kuwait.
“The murder of Khashoggi has changed the dynamic of the region. The whole Sunni Arab block is shaken,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, head of the Gulf Studies Centre at Qatar University.
Mr. Zweiri said it was not only Prince Mohammed’s ambition for the region that has been thwarted, but also Mr. Trump’s plan to use Saudi Arabia’s economic clout to help forge a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. “MBS was supposed to convince the Palestinians to accept Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ by saying ‘I’ll pay you,’ ” Mr. Zweiri said. “How can they accept this now? MBS is no longer MBS, and the Saudis are no longer the Saudis. He has lost the momentum.”