WHY THE QATAR-SAUDI CRISIS
US President Donald Trump with the king of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman
understand what goes on in the Persian Gulf we must take the
latest, significant, events and connect them. It is not an easy
task because there are intersecting interests, overlapping
circumstances and much external interference. Convenience and
negative side-effects cancel each other out and choices often
produce advantages and disadvantages at the same time. This is due
to the presence of multiple ongoing conflicts in the Middle East;
there is much uncertainty about the future and there is a very
concrete danger that some of the Middle Eastern States will be
dismembered in the near future.
What triggered the crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are both members of the Guf Cooperation Council and signatories of agreements for mutual defense. Both are Sunni monarchies and this should put them on the same side against the Iranian Shiite hegemony.
However, Qatar has recently developed a foreign policy that is in contrast with Saudi policy. Qatar has a television station, Al Jazeera, that broadcasts programs – sometimes frowned upon by the Saudis – independently. In other words, Qatar overshadows the Saudi leadership over the Sunni communities of the Gulf. If that weren’t enough, Qatar supports the Muslim Brothers, whose leadership is based in the small emirate. And the Saudi monarchy has never had a good relationship with the political/religious movement of the Brothers.
On top of that, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have adopted conflicting policies in many other Middle Eastern regional contexts. In Egypt, Qatar backed President Morsi, who was later deposed by General Al Sisi’s military coup, while Saudi Arabia supported the military regime from the start. Qatar supports Hamas in Gaza, since it is a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brothers, while Saudi Arabia and Egypt are sworn enemies of Palestinian extremism. In Libya, Qatar backs the Islamic government in Tripoli while the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt support the military ambitions of General Haftar. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are at odds on the Syrian front as well, where Qatar and Saudi Arabia support separate armed factions against Bashar al Assad’s regime.
But the aspect that exacerbates the Saudi position against emir Al Thani is his scarce inclination to take part in the fight against Iran. Teheran is one of the other ‘superpowers’ in the region, in direct competition with Riyadh on the political, military and even religious level. Qatar’s reluctance to join the fight against Iran is therefore interpreted as a betrayal.
All of the elements above pushed Saudi Arabia to accuse Qatar of financing terrorism (it is not clear when and where they would have done such thing; while it is certain that Sunni extremism – such as Al Qaeda and ISIS – received both their ideology and money from Saudi Wahhabi groups). But the truthfulness of the accusation is not so important after all; it’s real aim is to demonize and oppose Qatar.
Qatar cannot afford to adopt a hostile stance with regards to Iran because most of its gas fields are located in the Persian Gulf, where the Iranian military is all powerful. The South Pars fields are administered by both Qatar and Iran. A conflicting relationship with Iran would hamper Qatar’s financial interests.
After all, the Qatari emir can afford a measure of ambiguity in his behavior since he provides the US with their biggest military base in the Persian Gulf. Qatar thus compensates the Iranian hostility against US presence in the Gulf with a more friendly relationship with the Ayatollahs.
The problem within Saudi Arabia
The Saudi-Qatari crisis was sparked by the Saudi monarchy’s intention to solve regional crises in an interventionist manner. They did so with the Sunni emir Al Khalifa of Bahrein, who reigns over a largely Shiite population. The same happened in Yemen, where the Saudis stepped in to defeat the Shiite/Zaidi Houthis. Last but not least, the Saudis are attempting to create an Islamic NATO in juxtaposition with Iran.
This same approach determined the closure of the borders and the embargo against Qatar. The new Saudi policy of force and scarce diplomacy is sponsored by the king’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, who used his position to increase his power among the ranks of the dynasty and of the Royal court. The practical results of this policy were the recent designation of bin Salman as crown prince and the exclusion of his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, from the line of pretenders to the throne. With the help of his father, Mohammen bin Salman wants to become the protector of the Sunni; the champion in the fight against terrorism; and the great reformist at home.
It is not yet clear whether this will be enough to legitimize his future rise to the Saudi throne and whether his father’s nepotistic manners will be sufficient to silence the perplexity of the many aspirant kings present within the Royal court. All of these circumstances are destabilizing a monarchy where geriatric power has been the norm (Mohammed bin Salman is but 32), where succession was stipulated through precise rules and where foreign policy was always based on a very prudent approach, mediation and compromise.
It is not by change that the crisis against Qatar worsened after the visit of US President Donald Trump in Ryiadh. During said visit, not only did the sides sign a contract for the sale of weapons, but the monarchy finally felt legitimized by the US friendship after the cooler stretch with Obama at the helm. Trump’s hostility towards Iran is notorious, as is his will to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran. The above elements have given the Saudis the courage to stand first in line against Iran. If anyone, like Qatar, shows reluctance in siding with the Saudis, they must be sanctioned, punished and marginalized.
The consequences of the crisis
The first, direct, consequence of the crisis is that Iran declared its support of Qatar’s emir Al Thani. This choice reflects the direct interests of Iran in the region, because it puts Qatar, a Sunni country, directly under its protective wing.
The second consequence was Turkey siding with Qatar. After all, Turkey is headed by an Islamic Party, the AKP, which is affiliated to the Muslim Brothers. Turkey is the strongest ‘superpower’ in the region and President Erdogan just issued legislation aimed at allowing Turkish troops to be stationed in a Qatar base and to train the local Qatari army. Turkey’s choice is also dictated by economics: almost 70% of the oil and gas used by Turkey comes from Qatar.
Then there are other countries like Sudan, which receive large sums from Qatar and are thus reluctant to side with Saudi Arabia. Sudan has lent their territory to the Muslim Brothers for years, has recently participated in a joint air force training mission with Saudi Arabia and is in the midst of a struggle that they would much rather ignore. Thus they try to mediate: in fact, Sudan has recently cooled their historical relationship with Iran but still need the financial support of the wealthy Gulf monarchies, especially after the secession of South Sudan, which caused Sudan’s oil revenues to be axed by 75%.
Kuwait is also in an uncomfortable position. They, like Qatar, need to be allies of Iran, both because Kuwait borders Shiite Iraq and because, like Doha, they have their oil fields in the Persian Gulf. Also, about 30% of Kuwait’s population is Shiite.
Oman, although a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, has a traditionally neutral stance in regional matters. They refused to send their troops to Yemen; they didn’t support the emir of Bahrain and have good relationships with Iran. Sultan Qaboos’ policy is both religiously motivated and guided by the need to give continuity to the country after his death: Omanis are mostly Ibadis, a sect that sits somewhere between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Clearly, there are countries that found it convenient to share in the Saudi militaristic ambitions. The United Arab Emirates, for one, have always been close to the Saudis; Yemen (where reigns a regime which is internationally recognized, albeit in place solely by virtue of Saudi military support); Bahrain (they joined in exchange for survival, granted by Saudi Arabia and UAE); Jordan and Egypt (convinced by the money that the Saudis pour in both countries at regular intervals); the Maldives (which have become a Saudi financial fief); the government of Benghazi, Libya, of which General Haftar is a part. After all, the Arab and Muslim support for Saudi’s aims is well below expectations.
Internationally speaking, while the US sides with Saudi Arabia, there is a clear Russian interest in siding with Iran. And then there is another, great, country, which is generally silent on Middle Eastern policy, but which is lately trying to find a placement on the regional chessboard. On that note, a series of joint military exercises by the Chinese and Iranian navies have been held in the strait of Hormuz during the past weeks.
The emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani
The Saudi choice
The choice of the Saudis to end relationships with Qatar seems foolhardy. If they hoped to reinforce the anti-Iran axis and “punish” reluctant allies, the effect obtained by the sanctions did not reflect Saudi intentions. What they produced was instead a fracture in the Sunni communities and a reinforcing of the Iranian stance.
If in the past Saudi Arabia was unsettled by the Shiite axis between Iran, Iraq and Syria (and would have thus liked to put an end to Assad’s regime), now the Syrian dictator has yet another chance to survive because Qatar is accepting the idea – as is Iran – that Bashar al Assad can stay in place and that financing other rebel militias to topple the dictator could be counterproductive.
So has Qatar bowed to the Saudi ultimatum as king Salman and his son Mohammed wished? In fact, no. They conceded that they will not give refuge to representatives of Hamas anymore but, rather than please the Saudis, they did Israel a favor. All of the other requests, which were blatantly detrimental to Qatar’s sovereignty (like the request to shut down Al Jazeera) were, of course, rejected. In addition, Qatar pulled its troops, which were fighting alongside the Saudis, out of Yemen and re-deployed them on the border with Saudi Arabia.
The other requests/ultimatums against Qatar were to put an end to diplomatic and commercial exchanges with Iran, to pay a settlement for unspecified damages endured by Saudi Arabia, to close the Turkish base, to hand over wanted individuals and put an end to Qatari support of terrorism in general (Truth be told, Qatar has ties with Hamas, Hezbollah and the Talibans. But Saudi Arabia, with the backing of Egypt, managed to convince the UN Security Council not to include the Saudi ISIS in the list of terrorist groups). The request to shut down Al Jazeera and to stop supporting other media (Qatar said it could shut down Al Jazeera if the same was done with Al Arabiya) were aimed at creating a ‘casus belli’ or, alternatively, at humiliating the emir of Qatar.
Has Saudi Arabia gained prestige among the Sunni community or internationally by attacking Qatar? Not really.
If Saudi Arabia was hoping to destabilize Qatar politically and financially by isolating the emirate, closing its air and maritime space and inflicting an embargo on all of its products, they failed miserably. Turkish support for Qatar changes the balance of powers in the fight for Sunni hegemony. Turkey was an ally of Saudi Arabia; now they are a competitor. And their competition will become more heated when the Turkish military base in Qatar is reinforced.
The Saudi initiatives have created problems for the US as well because, regardless of President Trump’s colorful statements, the Udeid base in Qatar harbors 10,000 US soldiers: these troops are needed to carry out operations in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. That is why the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, decided to try a mediation rather than play along with Saudi ambitions. And perhaps that is why Qatar recently signed a contract to buy arms from the US.