Saudi Arabia’s isolation of Qatar has been brewing since 1995, and the dispute’s long past and likely lingering future are best explained by natural gas.
Not only was that the year when the father of the current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, toppled his own pro-Saudi father, it was also when the tiny desert peninsula was about to make its first shipment of liquid natural gas from the world’s largest reservoir. The offshore North Field, which provides virtually all of Qatar’s gas, is shared with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s hated rival.
The wealth that followed turned Qatar into not just the world’s richest nation, with an annual per-capita income of $130,000, but also the world’s largest LNG exporter. The focus on gas set it apart from its oil producing neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council and allowed it to break from domination by Saudi Arabia, which in Monday’s statement of complaint described Qataris as an “extension of their brethren in the Kingdom” as it cut off diplomatic relations and closed the border.
Instead, Qatar built its own ties with other powers including Iran, the U.S. — Qatar hosts U.S. Central Command — and more recently, Russia. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund agreed last year to invest $2.7 billion in Russia’s state-run Rosneft Oil Co. PJSC.
“Qatar used to be a kind of Saudi vassal state, but it used the autonomy that its gas wealth created to carve out an independent role for itself,” said Jim Krane, energy research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, in Houston, Texas. “The rest of the region has been looking for an opportunity to clip Qatar’s wings.”
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