Two opposing coalitions in the Middle East define a rivalry that threatens to tear the region apart. As competition for dominance intensifies, the confrontation between Iran’s network of state and non-state actors, and a counter-front of traditional Western allies – centred on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel – has become the region’s central battle line.
The members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) disagree on how best to temper Iranian activity in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain have openly and strongly opposed Iran, and are pushing for a united Arab front against the country. But Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait have tended to implement a policy of strategic hedging, cooperating closely with Saudi Arabia while maintaining economic and political relations with Iran.
Before it came under a Saudi-led embargo in June 2017, Qatar had for many years played a delicate role in which it avoided overly antagonising either of its two largest neighbours, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Doha generally refused to take sides in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, distancing itself from heated Emirati and Bahraini rhetoric on Tehran. Due to the extensive US military presence on its territory, Qatar ostensibly believes that it remains secure and independent from its neighbours.
As part of its balancing act, Qatar participated in the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen between 2015 and 2016, and agreed to withdraw its ambassador to Tehran in retaliation for the 2016 attack on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. Despite this, Qatar felt compelled to maintain cordial relations with Iran – and able to do so because it did not view Tehran as posing an imminent security threat.
Unlike some other GCC states, Qatar has only a small Shia community, with Sunnis accounting for around 90 percent of its population. For this reason, Doha views Tehran’s perceived attempts to incite sectarian discord in the region as less of a threat than do some of its allies in the GCC. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are especially concerned about the issue, as their Shia communities make up a far larger proportion of the population and have recently mounted considerable opposition to their ruling monarchies.
Qatar views its relations with Iran as essential to its economic and security interests. Qatar’s ties to Iran are critical in protecting its natural resources, as the countries share the largest gas field in the world, North Dome/South Pars. Thus, in 2007, Qatar invited then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the 28th GCC summit in Doha. Moreover, Doha and Tehran signed in 2010 a security agreement designed to combat terrorism and promote security cooperation. (Due to the GCC’s sensitivities around cooperation with Tehran, the agreement was merely symbolic.)
The June 2017 embargo on Qatar provided Iran with an opportunity to drive a wedge between members of the GCC. Tehran supported Doha in the dispute, partly by providing substitutes for embargoed food exports. Iran also permitted Qatari aircraft and ships to access its territory and thereby bypass a joint Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini blockade. In July 2017, Doha and Tehran signed a trade agreement. The following month, Qatar restored full diplomatic relations with Iran.
However, Doha conducts its relations with Tehran in a calculated and careful manner, so as not to unduly upset its GCC neighbours or, indeed, a Trump administration bent on a showdown with Iran. The latter consideration is especially important given Washington’s important role in easing tension among GCC states since June 2017. By carefully managing its relations with Iran, Doha has been able to position itself as a regional mediator – as seen, for example, in its use of back-channels with Iran to broker deals over Syria and the release of a Qatari falcon-hunting party taken hostage by an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq. Like Oman, Qatar has called for Iran’s inclusion in any security arrangements in the region.
Oman’s historical relationship with Iran, dating back to the era of the Iranian Pahlavi dynasty, sets it apart from other GCC members. Sharing access to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, the countries have conducted joint naval exercises in the Sea of Oman. Oman’s good relations with Iran did not change following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Unlike other Gulf Arab countries, Oman did not fear the revolutionary regime in Iran nor support the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. As a result, Oman was able to mediate a peace deal between the sides – and has mediated on many other issues involving Iran since.
In 2009, Muscat and Tehran agreed to cooperate on anti-smuggling efforts in the Gulf of Oman (which separates the countries). On 4 August 2010, they signed a security pact under which they would cooperate in patrolling the Strait of Hormuz and would hold joint military exercises – an arrangement they expanded in 2013 by signing a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation. The countries have held five joint exercises, the most recent of them a December 2015 naval exercise, under these agreements. They have maintained good military relations for many years, often deploying their armed forces in joint exercises. Since the Arab Spring, Oman and Iran have also developed close economic, energy, and cultural ties.
Under Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s foreign policy strategy has been to maintain equilibrium between major powers in the Middle East, avoiding conflict and interference in other states’ domestic affairs, while offering to act as a mediator in regional disputes and stressing the need for dialogue. For example, Muscat sponsored secretive ceasefire talks between Tehran and Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War and recently attempted to ease the tension between the US and Iran. Prior to 2013, Muscat acted as a go-between for the parties in, and a host for, the secret talks that led to the Iranian nuclear deal. However, with Saudi Arabia now pressing all smaller GCC states to fall in line and oppose Iran, the political space for Omani mediation is fast shrinking. Nevertheless, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis’s March 2018 visit may indicate that Oman has revived its role in regional mediation.
Relations between Kuwait and Iran have often fluctuated. Although Kuwait was one of the first countries to diplomatically recognise Iran following the 1979 revolution, their relationship became tense following the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War. Kuwait initially took on a neutral stance on the conflict and asked both countries to end the war, while offering to mediate. However, as it became more likely that Iran would win and Iranian missiles began to strike Kuwait, the Kuwaiti government announced its support for Iraq. The situation changed in August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and Tehran denounced the invasion, stressing that it would not accept an Iraqi takeover of the country.
In 2011, Kuwait accused Iran’s Quds Force of engaging in subversive activity in its territory, expelling Iranian diplomats from Kuwait in retaliation. Nevertheless, Kuwait’s geographical proximity to Iran and its intention to secure imports of Iranian gas have led the emirate to uphold its relationship with Iran, with the Kuwaiti emir conducting a state visit to Tehran in 2014.
Like Oman and Qatar, Kuwait has opted to hedge its relationships with regional and international partners. For example, Kuwait has recently attempted to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Kuwait’s substantial Shia community has caused the emirate to approach Iran with more caution than have Oman and Qatar. Although Kuwait has publicly expressed support for Iran’s right to maintain a peaceful nuclear programme, it has so far agreed to comply with all sanctions the United States and the United Nations Security Council have levied on Iran. Following the attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Kuwait recalled its ambassador to Iran as a gesture of solidarity with Saudi Arabia. But Kuwait also maintained relations with Iran, leaving the door open for rapprochement between them. Kuwait has also participated in the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthis, but has denied its allies permission to use its territory as a base for airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Toeing the GCC line
There is unlikely to be a quick fix to intra-GCC tension over Iran. Qatar, Oman, and, to a lesser extent, Kuwait are increasingly under pressure from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, and the United States to reduce their political and economic relationships with Tehran. Indeed, GCC members’ diverging views on Iran were the tipping point for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt – the self-styled Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) – in their decision to cut ties with Qatar in June 2017. One of the ATQ’s main charges against Qatar was that it allegedly established back-channel communications with Iran. As a result, the group demanded that Qatar revise its relations with Tehran – one of 13 stated requirements for ending the embargo.
However, the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the ATQ goes far beyond the split over Iran. Since Qatar’s 1995 palace coup, in which Sheikh Hamad al-Thani overthrew his father, relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been strained. Prior to the coup, Qatar had tended to side with Saudi Arabia in matters of foreign policy. But the change in leadership saw Doha adopt a more independent foreign policy, primarily in its support for the Arab uprisings and the Muslim Brotherhood. This dismayed the counter-revolutionary Saudi and Emirati governments, as well as opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, Qatar has come under pressure from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Trump administration to cut ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
However, the ATQ boycott of Qatar seems to have backfired. Rather than force Qatar to minimise its relationship with Iran or more faithfully toe the Saudi line, the move has, if anything, strengthened the countries’ relationship.
Left to their own strategic calculations, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait would not willingly join the anti-Iran coalition. Indeed, they prefer to play a neutral role and, at times, to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. These smaller states are likely to maintain this position, carefully watching how the tension between Riyadh and Tehran unfolds – particularly in relation to whether the Trump administration will adopt a more confrontational policy on Iran. Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait therefore hope that the intra-GCC crisis and the dispute over the nuclear agreement will end soon, preventing an even more destabilising regional confrontation between Iran and an alliance of the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. In this way, they will be able to revert to their normal policies of strategic hedging and balancing while maintaining their independence.
Abdullah Baabood is the director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University. Prior to that, he was director of the Gulf Research Center at the University of Cambridge, where he also holds a PhD in international relations and affairs.
 See Yoel Guzansky, “The Foreign-Policy Tools Of Small Powers: Strategic Hedging In The Persian Gulf”, Middle East Policy Council, available at http://www.mepc.org/foreign-policy-tools-small-powers-strategic-hedging-persian-gulf.
 “In Davos, Gulf Arabs Slam An Absent Iran”, 24 January 2018, Reuters, available at https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKBN1FD2YV.
 Brad Lendon, “Qatar Hosts Largest US Military Base In Mideast” CNN, 6 June 2017, available at https://edition.cnn.com/2017/06/05/middleeast/qatar-us-largest-base-in-mideast/index.html.
 “Qatar Recalls Envoy To Iran After Attacks On Saudi Missions: State News”, Reuters, 6 January 2016, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-iran-qatar/qatar-recalls-envoy-to-iran-after-attacks-on-saudi-missions-state-news-idUSKBN0UK23Z20160106.
 Michael Stephens, “Ashura In Qatar”, openDemocracy, 26 November 2012.
 Simon Mabon, “The Battle For Bahrain: Iranian-Saudi Rivalry”, Middle East Policy Council, available at http://www.mepc.org/battle-bahrain-iranian-saudi-rivalry.
 “Qatar-Iran Ties: Sharing The World’s Largest Gas Field”, Al Jazeera, 15 June 2017, available at https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2017/06/qatar-north-dome-iran-south-pars-glance-lng-gas-field-170614131849685.html.
 Giorgio Cafiero, “ANALYSIS: Qatar’s Controversial Foreign Policy And GCC-Iran Relations”, 30 May 2017, Al Arabiya, available at https://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/features/2017/05/30/ANALYSIS-Qatar-s-controversial-foreign-policy-and-GCC-Iran-relations.html; see also, “Iran, Qatar Sign Defense Cooperation Agreement”, Mehr, 24 February 2010, available at https://en.mehrnews.com/news/38732/Iran-Qatar-sign-defense-cooperation-agreement.
 “Turkey, Iran And Qatar Sign New Trade-Transport Agreement”, Middle East Monitor, 27 November 2017, available at https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171127-turkey-iran-and-qatar-sign-new-trade-transport-agreement/.
 “Qatar Calls For EU-Style Security Pact For Middle East”, Reuters, 16 February 2018, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-security-qatar/qatar-calls-for-eu-style-security-pact-for-middle-east-idUSKCN1G01TK.
 Richard J. Schmierer, “The Sultanate Of Oman And The Iran Nuclear Deal”, Middle East Policy, 1 December 2015.
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 Cafiero, “ANALYSIS: Qatar’s Controversial Foreign Policy And GCC-Iran Relations”; Kenneth Katzman, “Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy”, Congressional Research Service, 8 March 2018.
 Will Fulton and Ariel Farrar-Wellman, “Oman-Iran Foreign Relations”, American Enterprise Institute, 21 July 2011.
 Maryam Al-Bolushi, “The effect of Omani-Iranian relations on the security of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries after the Arab Spring”, Contemporary Arab Affairs, 2 August 2016.
 Daniel Wagner and Giorgio Cafiero, “Can Oman And Iran‘s ‘Special' Relationship Last?’, HuffPost, 5 September 2014, available at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-wagner/can-oman-and-irans-specia_b_3671994.html.
 Schmierer, “The Sultanate Of Oman And The Iran Nuclear Deal”.
 “Mattis Aims To Curb Iran’s Influence On The Arabian Peninsula”, NPR, 12 March 2018, available at https://www.npr.org/2018/03/12/592823591/mattiss-middle-east-priority-curbing-irans-influence-on-the-arabian-peninsula.
 Habib Toumi,“Kuwait And Iran: A Fluctuating History”, Gulf News, 23 April 2018, available at http://gulfnews.com/news/mena/iran/kuwait-and-iran-a-fluctuating-history-1.1341755.
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 Giorgio Miotto,“Kuwaiti-Iranian Relations: The Energy Angle”, Atlantic Council, 2018, available at http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/kuwaiti-iranian-relations-the-energy-angle.
 “Kuwait Applies UN Sanctions Against Iran”, National Council of Resistance of Iran, 14 November 2010, available at https://www.ncr-iran.org/en/about/128-news1613067580/news-sp-256/economy/9262-kuwait-applies-un-sanctions-against-iran-; Will Fulton, “Kuwait-Iran Foreign Relations”, Critical Threats, 23 February 2010, available at https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/kuwait-iran-foreign-relations.
 Miotto, “Kuwaiti-Iranian Relations: The Energy Angle”.
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 Giorgio Cafiero and Theodore Karasik, “Kuwait, Oman, And The Qatar Crisis”, 22 June 2017, Middle East Institute, available at http://www.mei.edu/content/article/kuwait-oman-and-qatar-crisis.
 Anne Barnard and David Kirkpatrick, “5 Arab Nations Move To Isolate Qatar, Putting The U.S. In A Bind”, New York Times, 5 June 2017, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/05/world/middleeast/qatar-saudi-arabia-egypt-bahrain-united-arab-emirates.html.
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 Giorgio Cafiero, “Saudi Arabia And Qatar: Dueling Monarchies ”, Foreign Policy In Focus, 26 September 2012, available at http://fpif.org/saudi_arabia_and_qatar_dueling_monarchies/.
 “Qatar Says Its Ambassador to Return to Iran: Foreign Ministry”, Reuters, 23 August 2017, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gulf-qatar-iran/qatar-says-its-ambassador-to-return-to-iran-foreign-ministry-idUSKCN1B32J6.