Natural gas lies at the heart of the Gulf’s most acute crisis in decades.
Saudi Arabia says it’s waging diplomatic war against Qatar because of its support for terrorism. But if you drill below the surface, there’s actually something else that helps explain the crisis: Qatar’s hugely valuable natural gas reserves.
People often look at Gulf states in the Middle East and assume that the fantastic wealth in the region all emanates from oil. But oil is not evenly distributed in the area, nor is it the sole source of natural resource-driven cash in the region.
Enormous amounts of natural gas, not oil, have fueled Qatar’s rise to become one of the world’s wealthiest nations in per capita terms. It’s also the special ingredient that helps explain how it has become a renegade state in the Gulf region — and the target of an isolation campaign that marks the most acute diplomatic crisis in the Middle East in decades.
The fact that Qatar’s economy isn’t as beholden to oil means that it isn’t as beholden to Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and the leader of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a group that acts in unison to influence oil prices. Qatar generates four times more export revenue from natural gas than it does from oil, and doesn’t need to follow Saudi’s dictates the way it would if its survival were predicated on it.
In addition to this, the natural gas Qatar exports is liquefied, meaning it is compressed and shipped around the world, and isn’t primarily distributed through pipelines that are vulnerable to being meddled with by angry neighbors.
Then there’s the issue of the origins of Qatar’s natural gas: It gets most of it from an offshore gas field in the Persian Gulf that it shares with Iran. Which is to say Qatar has every interest in maintaining harmonious ties with Saudi Arabia’s nemesis.
Qatar’s economic independence has translated into an independent-minded foreign policy. The tiny former British protectorate has evolved in recent decades into a global player that competes with and defies Riyadh on several fronts, whether through the popularity of its robust international media operation Al Jazeera; its backing of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia and its allies consider to be an existential threat to their own regimes; or its friendly relationship with Saudi’s regional rivals, Iran and Turkey.