John Kerry is not the only one doing a Middle East tour this week to shore up regional alliances. Qatar’s new emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani just completed a three day tour of neighboring Gulf states, pledging on Thursday his support for greater Gulf Arab unity. The gesture is a significant one considering the tension between Qatar and its Gulf allies since the Arab Spring, from which it emerged a regional heavyweight under the auspices of former emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies may have eyed Qatar’s robust diplomatic engagement in the midst of the tumult sweeping the region warily. However, its support for Islamist parties, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, threatened to put a serious rift between it and the other monarchies, who have long reviled political Islam. Since the abdication of Sheikh Hamid in June 2013, however, the country’s new leadership has made a point of highlighting its ties to other Gulf monarchies and have avoided antagonizing them, especially in the case of Egypt, where it quietly walked back its support for the Brotherhood following the ouster of Mohammed Morsi. In contrast to his predecessor, the new emir’s more cautious approach to foreign policy seems designed to jibe with the rest of the Gulf, bringing Qatar back into the bloc’s diplomatic fold. (Though Qatar has effectively taken the backseat to Saudi Arabia in this diplomatic reshuffle, it’s likely a wise move for the time being as dynamics remain in flux.)
And backing Saudi Arabia’s pet project of uniting Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states in a regional union similar to that of the E.U. is probably the strongest way Qatar could have expressed its newfound commitment to the priorities of the bloc. Given the testiness of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and its American allies — and the insecurity about the balance of regional power underlying that tension — a display of regional unity in the form of a stronger GCC is a good way of highlighting the geopolitical formidability of the Gulf.
If Kerry’s task of soothing the Saudi leadership was not already daunting enough, doing so after the Qataris have essentially ceded the ground entirely to the monarchy will be doubly so. With the Saudis feeling their oats after having their regional supremacy affirmed, it might be a futile one as well.