Ingroup identification since 2017
Ingroup identification can help de-escalate problems, as the case studies in this book have shown. But does the ingroup identification still exist between Qatar and its fellow monarchies? The institutional context factors have mostly remained the same: Qatar and the other Gulf states have not changed their political or economic systems to such an extent as to weaken their institutional similarity - although Muhammad bin Salman's domestic reforms have led to a certain “presidentializa-tion” of the Saudi monarchy, which might be a step toward greater dissimilarity (cf. Sunik2019).
The salience of monarchic identity has declined in recent years, because the common threat posed by anti-regime uprisings has mostly evaporated. Other factors affecting salience have remained constant: there is no significant divisiveideology shared by members of the group, apart from quotidian geopolitical power balancing and the fac that the number of monarchies in the system has not changed. Thus, we would expect a naturally lowered salience, meaning a lowered perception of similarity - but not a change significant enough to rupture the bonds that have so far precluded violent conflict.
As salience is lowered, we must look to the social processes of ingroup identification for significant developments. We can observe several changes in key indicators. The blockade and disruption of relations means that there are less-personalized bonds from visits and shared summits, at least between the Anti-Terror Quartet and Qatar. On the other hand, the personalization due to marriage, kinship, and shared socialization has remained. Indeed, personalized relations continue to play an important role in de-escalating and mediating the conflict. One example is the Saudi concession to allow Qataris access to the hajj pilgrimage following a meeting of Qatari royal Abdullah Al Thani (one of the rival rulers the quartet attempted to support) with Muhammad bin Salman and later with Saudi King Salman himself, who at the time was vacationing in fellow monarchy Morocco (Gambrell 2017a).
Historical narratives do not appear to have changed, although the interpretation of the current situation differs significantly for the conflict actors. Other-ing attempts are balanced by appeals to similarity and brotherhood. Of particular note is the continued family rhetoric by external observers as well as by GCC representatives, similar to the Hawar dispute period. There are constant references to the idea of a "Gulf family” (see e.g. Al-Haida 2019). Kuwait's ruler and foreign minister emphasized the "brotherly relations” (“al- ‘alaqat al-akhawiya") and described the GCC members as “siblings” (“ashiqqa ’”) while mediating the conflict (BBC Arabic 2017). Qatar's Foreign Minister Mohammad Al Thani also referred to "talks with the brothers in Saudi Arabia” after the kingdom had invited Qatar's ruler to attend the GCC summit in Riyadh in December 2019 (Hamid 2019).
Although some othering attempts were also employed by both sides, a main point of contention of the other GCC states toward Qatar is its seeming detachment from Gulf values and community. Qatar’s belonging to the GCC club is not questioned. However, in order to belong, it is expected to act in a certain way. This point could be seen in the Hawar crisis but also in the more recent disagreements concerning Qatari foreign policy in 2013-2014. As an Emirati expert explained, “what strains their relations is not rivalry or competition. It is the extent of commitment to the legacy of Gulf values and traditions”, while another Emirati analyst emphasized that “neither Turkey nor the Muslim Brotherhood would do any good to Doha” and that “only sisterly Gulf countries are the real supporters of Qatar at good and bad times” (both quotes in Salama 2014).
In addition, the blocs are not as clear-cut as they appear. It is not a conflict between Qatar and the rest of the GCC: Kuwait and Oman refrained from taking sides, and the stance of Bahrain and even Dubai is to a large extent influenced by their larger and richer neighbors. It is even much less a conflict between Qatar and the rest of the monarchies: Morocco joined Kuwait and Oman in attempting to mediate, and Jordan downgraded its ties with Qatar under pressure but stopped short of cutting them off completely and restored formal diplomatic relations in summer 2019 (Rubin 2019).
What does that mean for the SPSP? Is the conflict serious enough to disnipt ingroup identification among Middle Eastern monarchies? Although predictions are difficult, especially about the future, as the old adage goes, the answer so far seems to be that it is unlikely.
First of all, the mechanism relates first and foremost to war, which did not occur, and despite rumors to the contrary, it is unlikely that it was ever a realistic option. So far, most provocations that might have resulted in irreversible damage (shooting down planes, eliminating Qatar’s only land border, and advocating leadership change) have not been followed through on.
Of the social processes in play, the forces that lead to othering and escalation are countered by those emphasizing commonality and family belonging. The end of this conflict will be reached when that balance tips onto one side or the other. Given our theoretical expectations in the case of intact ingroup identification, the likelihood of eventual rapprochement is higher than rupture is. It is likely that even if the rift continues for the following years, Qatar will eventually rejoin the fold of the Gulf monarchies. The fact is that Qatar left OPEC but did not leave the GCC - nor were there serious demands to expel it. In addition, the continued family rhetoric both support this interpretation of a long-term view of history by the participants. This conclusion is, however, not set in stone.
How the “royal chib” might break apart
There are some developments that could have a centrifugal effect, making the drift away from the cozy royal club irreversible. A main factor is Qatar's developing national identity, catalyzed by the crisis. While structural similarities remain constant, a strong separate national identity based on subsistence and self-reliance on the level of citizenry and ruling elite could weaken inter-regime identification. A possible tipping point may be the future relation to regime security. The SPSP mechanism hinges on the link to regime survival because similar systems recognize that their fates are linked and that they better hang together or hang separately. This might be one reason why the blockade states were so far not too concerned with regime (instead of leadership) change, as that would threaten them with a domino effect. Even the attempts to parade around Al Thani contenders to the throne against Emir Tamim substantiates this interpretation: while the emir is vilified, his replacement should come from his own family, i.e. the monarchic system with its khaleeji dynasty linchpin would be preserved, and thus, system similarity would not suffer.
However, Qatar is the monarchy whose regime is least threatened: it is a much more homogeneous state (at least in relation to the citizenry), with hardly any domestic cleavage like the Sunni-Shia division in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain; no domestic rival for power like Muslim Brotherhood-aligned factions in the UAE; no significant economic problems and class gaps like in most other GCC states;
and no looming succession challenges like it seemed to be in Oman before the quick succession of the new sultan in 2020. Along with the UAE, Qatar has been the Arab country least affected by protests in the past. This means that the incentive for Qatar to preserve its attachment to the GCC and to monarchism is lower than for its other members, while the cost is currently much higher. Qatar’s carefree attitude to regime security was also possibly one of the causes of the Qatar Crisis in the first place: being unencumbered by domestic unrest and opposition, Qatar was free to support revolutionary movements and actors across the Arab world, which its neighbors saw as a threat to their own systems (Bianco and Stansfield 2018). It is therefore possible that the crisis might trigger a process of disentanglement of Qatar's ontological security from those of its fellow monarchies and thus lead to the emirate’s disidentification with them.