The Duck of Minerva

The Qatar crisis ends…in the most boring way possible

2 September 2022

The Qatar crisis threatened to upend Middle East politics. Instead, it fizzled out. That says a lot about international relations, and how to study it.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE–along with a few other states–announced a blockade of Qatar. Frustrated with Qatar’s tolerance of revolutionary actors during the Arab Spring protests and relative friendliness with Iran, these states cut Qatar off from international travel and commerce. They issued a series of demands, including ending support for groups the Saudis deemed extremist and limiting ties with Iran.

It’s worth noting how, for lack of a better word, how boring this war.

This raised the risk of war in the region, especially as the United States increased its own aggression towards Iran under Trump. Would Qatar formally align itself with Iran, upending the regional balance of power? Would Turkey and Qatar solidify a revolutionary axis against the conservative monarchies? Would a minor skirmish erupt into a major war, drawing in America?

None of that happened. Qatar resisted all Saudi demands, and the Saudi-led coalition gradually loosened its blockade. Tensions between Iran and the Gulf states eased, with everyone (including America) stepping back from the brink of war. Eventually Kuwait helped mediate an end to the blockade in early 2021.

The final end to the crisis seemed to occur recently. Qatar just signed an operational agreement with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, connecting its civil aviation system with theirs. This followed a similar agreement between Qatar and Iran. Meanwhile, Turkey and the UAE are close to finalizing a trade deal. Thus, both the blockade of Qatar and the tensions between the Saudi bloc and Turkey seem to finally be over.

It’s worth noting how, for lack of a better word, boring this was. This wasn’t a grand summit setting up a new regional order. It wasn’t a surrender by one side to the other. It was a series of technical and economic agreements that restored regular interactions to the region.

Pay attention to the boring parts of IR

This says something not just about Middle East politics, but international relations in general.

The study of international relations tends to focus on grand dramatic events. Influential studies look at the causes of war or why they last as long as they do. Others analyze peace agreements, the creation of international organizations, or alliance formation. Generally they involve discrete dependent variables that are often major observable events amenable to quantitative analysis.

But most of what occurs in international relations is boring, day to day, interactions. Diplomats work out technical agreements. Foreign ministry staff smooth over tensions in an alliance. Strategic communications efforts try to undermine support for a rival. None of this involves a war starting or alliance forming.

The issue isn’t the tools available to scholars; it’s the mindset of the sub-field’s gatekeepers.

As we see with the end of the Qatar crisis, however, this “boring” stuff matters. The crisis may have started with a dramatic event, but that event ultimately had little impact on the region. Meanwhile, politics returned to “normal” through slow, gradual shifts in the interactions between states. If we extend our scope beyond the Middle East, we will find similar examples of the importance of “boring” politics around the world.

So international relations needs to adjust its sense of what is important to capture this. As I’ve written about before, I worry that the use of regression analysis has affected our sense of what matters; if something can’t fit into an ordinal or dichotomous dependent variable it isn’t important. I’ve run into this in some of my work. I presented part of my current book, which analyzes how states use religious appeals in power politics, at a conference; it looked at Saudi attempts to form an Islamic Pact in the 1960s. I found significant evidence that these appeals freaked out (technical term) Egypt and other revolutionary states, increasing tensions, even if the Islamic alliance never came together. A senior rationalist scholar in the audience pointed out, however, that nothing “really happened” in my case study.

This attitude is common, and IR needs to shift to focus on the “boring” churn of politics, rather than just its outcome. There are a few ways to do this. New trends in international relations, such as the practice and relational turns, focus on day to day interactions. Qualitative methods are well suited to capturing more nuanced outcomes. But quantitative methods remain useful. Social network analysis can analyze more fine-grained interactions and shifts than conventional regression. Natural language processing allows us to measure complex issues that would not readily appear in a standard dataset.

The issue isn’t the availability of tools, however. It’s the mindset of the sub-field’s gatekeepers–dissertation advisors, journal editors, peer reviewers. Hopefully attention to real world events like the Qatar crisis will change that.