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One way to understand the depths of the animosity that blew up the myth of brotherhood and cooperation among the monarchies of the Arab Gulf states on Monday is to look beyond the angry statements to a map published recently by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The shows the network of oil and natural gas pipelines that crisscross Qatar, east to west and north to south—except to the border with Saudi Arabia. Qatar, a country with only about 300,000 citizens, is the world’s second-largest exporter of natural gas. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest consumers of natural gas and demand is outpacing supply. Economic logic would dictate that the Saudis purchase gas from their neighbors, fellow Arabs who share the same religious ideology. Instead, the Qataris have invested billions to create facilities to liquefy their gas and export it to Europe and Asia, while the Saudis have invested billions in an effort to increase domestic supply.
Officials from both countries have acknowledged that extension of Qatar’s pipeline network across the border to link up with distribution lines in Saudi Arabia would be economically beneficial. But according to independent energy analysts it has never been seriously contemplated because the two regimes mistrust each other; the Saudis don’t want to be dependent on Qatar for a commodity that they see as the key to their industrial future; and the Qataris—who get most of their gas from one immense field shared with Saudi Arabia’s most feared regional and religious rival, Iran—do not want to be dependent on Saudi Arabia as a customer.
All six Arab monarchies on the Gulf coast are members of a regional alliance known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). But Qatar has often been at odds with the others over its policies toward Iran and its tolerance of some religious groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that the others regard as dangerous extremists. In the past those differences have usually been papered over, as they were most recently at President Trump’s anti-terrorism summit conference in Riyadh last month. But this latest break is by far the most serious and has implications far beyond the Gulf.