Middle eastern studies

Qatar and the Gulf Crisis, by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Oxford University Press, 2020, 224 pages, $37.50 (Hardcover)

On May 4, 2020, rumors spread on social media about a failed coup d’etat in Qatar, which was soon discredited as disinformation. This incident was reminiscent of the Gulf Crisis arising three years earlier, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and initiated an overall blockade/boycott by land, air and sea. Not coincidently, it was widely accepted that the crisis originated with a hack of the Qatar News Agency and a disinformation campaign aimed at delegitimating the Qatari ruling family. This, according to Ulrichsen, was the first “international crisis symptomatic of the ‘alternative facts’ era of the Donald Trump presidency” (2, 255), marked by “evident disregard for international norms and conventional diplomacy, and the blurring of fact and fiction” (6). The sudden announcement of the blockade/boycott took the world by surprise, but Qatar’s swift response and resilient survival have impressed the world even more. It is against this backdrop that Ulrichsen sets out to explain in this monograph “how and why [Qatar] was able to beat back a blockade that was supposed to isolate the country and force it into a position of submission to the would-be regional hegemony of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi (in the UAE), and how instead it emerged arguably stronger and more united as a result” (5).

Ulrichsen succeeds in giving a comprehensive and convincing answer to the questions he raises. He contextualizes the Gulf Crisis by first situating it in the long back-story of power struggles and territorial disputes in the Arabian Peninsula from the mid-nineteenth century until the Arab Spring in 2011 (Chapter 1). He then links the Gulf Crisis to the concerted actions Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE took in 2013–14 to challenge Sheikh Tamim—then the new Emir of Qatar (Chapter 2). This contextualization, which encompasses both remote and recent memories, paves the way for a detailed account of the events leading up to the crisis in 2017 (Chapter 3) and a thorough review and analysis of “the range of political, economic, energy, defense, security, regional, and foreign-policy measures” (9) that the Qatari leadership and population took to tackle the crisis (Chapter 4–8). Ulrichsen ends the book with an interesting final chapter addressing the tug-of-war around International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) World Cup 2022, a global carnival of sports scheduled to be held in Qatar, within the intricacies of the Gulf Crisis.

Ulrichsen gives what is so far one of the best accounts of a major international standoff that is still ongoing. He demonstrates how a seemingly regional power play can mobilize such a wide variety of material and symbolic recourses that involve and affect both local and international communities. In explaining the resilience of Qatar throughout the Gulf Crisis, he highlights the contrast between the rule-of-law approach that Qatari policymakers adopted and the pressure-and-force approach that the blockading/boycotting states used. Sympathetic approval of the former is manifest throughout his account and analysis.

Foreign policy as nation making: Turkey and Egypt in the cold war, by Reem Abou-El-Fadl, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 384 pages, $100 (Hardcover)

Reem Abou-El-Fadl takes a courageous and admirable step into the much-anticipated comparative politics of the Global South in general and the Middle East specifically. She digs out a historical puzzle that has been obscured within the grand narrative of the global Cold War that distinguishes the so-called Third World countries by their foreign policies, which were largely determined by the bipolar structure of the international system. The puzzle lies in the contrast between the pro-Western orientation Turkey’s Democrat Party pursued, and the neutral and pan-Arab stance Egypt’s Free Officers adopted, in the 1950s. In searching for a solution to the puzzle, Abou-El-Fadl finds both the neorealist and poststructuralist-constructivist approaches defective, as the former prioritizes the economic and diplomatic over identity-oriented considerations, which has proven to be insufficient and unpersuasive, while the latter is trapped in the ideational complexities of meaning, identity, subjectivity and power, depriving identity-oriented power politics of agency. She instead argues for a new framework that sets foreign policy as “a site for the making and projecting of the meaning of the ‘nation’” (17) and “moors” the nation-making process to the agency of political elites and leadership. This new framework links foreign policy making to domestic, national concerns and combines analyses of the realpolitik with ideology. In the context of Third World politics in the Cold War era, it emphasizes the continuation of the longue durée effects of imperialism and processes of decolonization beneath the superpower rivalry and ideological polarity.

Implementing this framework, Abou-El-Fadl begins her comparative study by tracing the evolution of nationalist traditions in Turkey and Egypt back to the imperial encroachment on these two territories during the period of late Ottoman rule (Chapter 1) and by describing in detail the political formation of the Democrats in Turkey (Chapter 2) and the Free Officers in Egypt (Chapter 3) in the decades prior to their rise and reign in the two countries, respectively, in the 1950s. With this historical contextualization in order, she moves on to examine the entanglements between foreign policymaking and agendas of nation-making in both countries. In the following seven chapters, she alternates between Turkey and Egypt to cover the former’s accession to NATO (1950–2) and its role in promoting the Baghdad Pact (1954–6), the latter’s negotiations with Britain, its campaign against the Baghdad Pact and the Suez War (1956), and the involvement of the two counties in the Syrian Crisis (1957–6), which almost led to direct confrontation between them. In conclusion, she observes that, for Turkey’s Democrats, “the Cold War was understood in continuity with prior, particularly Ottoman, conflicts and alliances, in which Britain, France and Russia were all historical adversaries” and that, for Egypt’s Free Officers, “it was a new framework within which to engage familiar colonial powers from the West, but also a relatively new encounter with Russia to the East” (289). This observation beautifully solves the historical puzzle raised at the very beginning.

The book makes an innovative contribution to the empirical and comparative studies of Middle Eastern politics as well as the decentering of the Cold War framework that often sidelines local contingencies and grievances of the Global South.

Break all the borders: separatism and the reshaping of the Middle East, by Ariel I. Ahram, Oxford University Press, 2019, 280 pages, $29.95 (Paperback)

This book focuses on a reappearance of the Wilsonian moment, referring to the moment when aspirations for and possibilities of realizing independent nation-states based on Woodrow Wilson’s principle of national self-determination peaked in the MENA region following the turbulent Arab Spring of 2011. This new Wilsonian moment is derived from separatist movements leveraging the opportunity of state weakness to assert or expand territorial control. Challenging the stereotype of Arab politics “as a contest of ancient clans, tribes, and sects masquerading under the banner of modern states and political parties” (4), author Ariel I. Ahram argues that “the legacies of early- and mid-twentieth-century state building in the MENA region are key factors in both fostering and constraining separatist conflicts” (4).

Ahram analyzes four recent cases of Wilsonian separatist conflict in the post-2011 MENA region. In Libya, Federalists “made direct reference to the Emirate of Cyrenaica and demand the restitution of autonomies enjoyed prior to the Qaddafi era” (15). In Yemen, the Southern Movement took advantage of a weakened central government and the civil war to gain control of the south, claiming “the once-independent South Yemen as its direct forebear” (15). In the Kurdish region, the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and Rojava, a de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria, sought to maximize their autonomy “by pointing to the denial of Kurdish self-determination at the end of World War I and engaged international society for support” (15). Finally, the Islamic State, though openly rejecting “the sovereignty of all existing states” (15) and claiming to revive the medieval Islamic caliphate, “used the vocabulary of self-determination derived from the Wilsonian moment to denounce the existing regional order and offer its own alternative” (16). Interestingly, Ahram also mentions the absence of separatism in Egypt and Tunisia due to lack of precedents of unfulfilled Wilsonian nations therein to support his argument.

Ahram perceptively reminds us that the sovereign nation-state system and the principle of national self-determination are still the driving forces behind political imagination and loyalty in the MENA region, framing both the efforts to consolidate and challenge the extant political arrangements of the region.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Chaoqun Lian.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lian, C. Middle eastern studies. China Int Strategy Rev. (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42533-020-00042-y

Download citation