Look at any map and the Middle East is a region of straight-line states, a sure sign of the artificiality of borders. Not all states are artificial, however. Iran and Egypt have legacies stretching back millennia, and Moroccan identity goes back centuries. Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and perhaps even Bahrain likewise have identities that predate the establishment of modern nation-states. But other states do not. Saudi Arabia is an artificial country, a conglomeration of regions stitched together by military conquest, and Kuwait was essentially carved out to deny Germany a railhead in the waning years of the Great Game.
Qatar is about as artificial a state as they come. Historically, the Thani family that rules their kingdom absolutely were traitors: From the late 18th century, Qatar was a province of Bahrain, and the Thanis were simply governors subordinate to the Khalifas; but they split off in the 1860s. That split might have been a blip—an insignificant rebellion—had it not been for the British, who imposed a truce that essentially made Qatar its own distinct entity. Thani rule and Qatari identity, however, remain relatively recent phenomena and are not imbued with the historical permanence that many other monarchies and kingdoms enjoy.
Saudi Arabia might also make a claim on Qatar. Both regimes are Wahhabi, and Saudi Arabia has similar historic claims on the peninsula. But given Saudi expansionism throughout history, many of the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries would oppose any precedent of Saudi Arabia acquiring more territory. Indeed, when Bahrain invited Saudi forces onto the island in 2011 to quell sectarian unrest, both Bahraini’s ruling Sunnis and Kuwaitis worried that Saudi rhetoric about confederation might undercut the independence of the tiny emirates and monarchies and spark a broader proxy war throughout the region.
Qatar also has a long history with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While visitors to the UAE might think of it as a unified country, it is very much a confederation of seven separate emirates, the best known of which are Dubai and Abu Dhabi (the others are Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Fujairah, and Ras al-Khaimah). Initially, however, there was much discussion about Qatar joining the union. Ultimately, it did not, but the Qatari ruling family isn’t all that different from those of any of the other emirates; the only difference is that Qatar chose independence and then got lucky with gas fields.
It’s not the place of the United States to erase other countries; indeed, while critics of U.S. policy often say the United States fights wars for oil, the most common (but not only) factor bringing the United States into wars beginning with World War II is one country’s seeking to annex other countries by force. Still, the longer the Qataris dig in their heels and refuse to stop financing extremism, the more people in the region will question the basis of Qatar as an independent entity. It won’t be long before those same states leading the blockade of Qatar start to ask whether the region and the world would have been a better place with Qatar as the eighth United Arab Emirate. That’s certainly not on the table now, and Qatar may believe that Turkish or perhaps Iranian support will be enough to blunt the Arab action. But the longer Doha allows the crisis to play out, the more intractable the debate may become and the more unpredictable the outcomes. More than a week into the crisis, Qatari authorities should be very cautious about how far they want to escalate because they may not fully understand how great the stakes may become.