In the spring of 2006, Qatar's then energy minister broke his silence on a stalled, multibillion-dollar project to supply Qatari gas to Kuwait. "We have received no clearance from Saudi Arabia" he said. "Hence it is not feasible." Fast-forward five years and things couldn't look more different.
The gas-supply project is emblematic of the hot-cold relationship between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The deal was initially proposed by the Qataris in 2001, denied permission by the Saudis, then approved in 2003, and then denied once again in 2006. The roller-coaster-like diplomatic relations between the two energy-rich neighbors dates back to 1992, when a border clash caused the death of two guards. Relations went downhill from there.
Riyadh's vocal objections to Doha's plans stretched to a proposed bridge between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a bilateral gas pipeline now in operation, which according to Reuters prompted the kingdom to send official letters in 2006 to the pipeline's minority partners, France's Total and the United States' Occidental Petroleum Corp., questioning its proposed route.
Saudi Arabia's then crown prince, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, boycotted a summit of Islamic states in Qatar in 2000 to protest the presence to the Israeli trade office in Doha. Riyadh then withdrew its ambassador to Qatar in 2002 following controversial comments made by Saudi dissidents on Qatar's Al Jazeera satellite channel.
The dispute took a personal tone when lawyers for Qatar's first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, argued in a libel case she won against a London-based Arabic newspaper in 2005 that the paper was, as Dawn reported, "controlled by Saudi intelligence paymasters who used the newspaper as a mouthpiece for a propaganda campaign against Qatar and its leadership." In April 2008, the London-based, Saudi-owned Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat apologized for printing three "wholly untrue" articles back in 2006 alleging that Qatar's prime minister had visited Israel in secret.
During its decade of cold relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar warmed up to Syria, the leader of the so-called resistance axis in Arab politics. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani were frequent visitors to each other's countries, and Qatari investors poured billions of dollars into the struggling Syrian economy. Both states, along with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, were seen as a regional counterbalance to the pro-Western axis of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. (The Saudis made their displeasure with Qatar's maverick policies clear on a number of occasions. Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, refused to attend a January 2009 summit in Qatar supported by Syria and Hamas and instead held another summit in Riyadh just one day before.)
Wishing to put an end to the bad blood, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, widely seen as the architect of Qatar's foreign policy, accompanied the emir on a surprise visit to Riyadh in September 2007. Relations quickly improved following that visit, with the Saudi monarch attending the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Doha that December. By next March, the new Saudi crown prince, Sultan, had paid a three-day visit to Doha, the first since 2002. In July 2008, the Saudis played host to a high-level summit in Jeddah that saw the two neighbors demarcate their border and set up a joint council to be chaired by both states' crown princes -- who are more than 50 years apart in age -- to strengthen political, security, financial, economic, commercial, investment, cultural, and media relations.
It was perhaps that last aspect of the pact that drew the most attention. The New York Times reported in 2008 that the Qatari emir had taken the chairman and general manager of Al Jazeera with him to Riyadh in September 2007. One Al Jazeera employee claimed in an email message to the Times that "Orders were given not to tackle any Saudi issue without referring to the higher management" and that subsequently "All dissident voices disappeared from our screens." Al Jazeera is now accused of rarely taking on sensitive topics involving its larger neighbor.
Relations hit a high in May 2010 when the Qatari emir pardoned -- upon King Abdullah's request -- an undisclosed number of Saudis who were accused by Doha of taking part in a 1996 coup led by loyalists of Sheikh Hamad's ousted father. Upon arriving in Saudi Arabia, the released prisoners were received by the crown prince in his palace in Jeddah.