THE GULF CRISIS
Last June 5, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia led a ‘cabal’ of seven Islamic countries including the fellow Gulf Cooperation Council States (GCC) members United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, the Maldives and Egypt to cut all ties to Qatar.
The Saudis offered Qatari citizens on its soil mere hours to leave before shutting their mutual border. They imposed 13 demands with which Qatar must comply before this Saudi led ‘coalition of the Sunnis’ would consider lifting the total embargo imposed four months ago. They not only accuse Qatar of being a supporter of terrorism – that is of supporting or maintaining diplomatic ties to Hamas, Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah and Iran. They consider Qatar itself a direct threat, demanding the tiny but powerful State end any perceived challenge to the Gulf monarchies. Among the 13 points is also a demand, perhaps the most important one, that Qatar close the Al-Jazeera channel. Qatar has not complied with a single demand. Indeed, Qatar has survived quite well, thus far. It may have lost some friends – with friends like those, who needs enemies? – but it has also retained some key allies and strengthened ties to others.
The Libyan Roots of the Crisis
On June 8, The Guardian published an opinion piece
that suggested the blockade against Qatar represented nothing less than a challenge against the very values of the Arab Spring. The demand to close Al-Jazeera implies the shutting down of one of the primary tools that, ostensibly, helped to spread the message of political renewal in the Middle East and North Africa that the Spring represented. Whether or not the ‘Arab Spring’ offered a viable form of democracy, as opposed to a dressed-up version of theocracy, is the subject for another article. But, Qatar’s role in that Spring, certainly no democracy itself, produced the ramifications that have led to the rift between Saudi Arabia, its main regional allies and Qatar. The route of this rift passes through Libya – and to some extent through Syria, more than it does through Iran. Short of a full-fledged military action, the recent crisis would appear to the ultimate evolution of a proxy war that has engaged Saudi Arabia and Qatar since 2011 – or earlier, going back to the first Al-Jazeera broadcasts in the mid-1990’s. Al-Jazeera offered a rare and surprisingly candid look at the Middle East, reflecting the Emir of Qatar’s more modern vision for his State, which contrasted with the ‘normal’ stale and reactionary monarchy in Riyadh and even the decaying socialist Republics and offshoots like the Qadhafi’s Jamahiriya in Libya.
Collapsing oil prices in the 90’s forced many unprepared governments to experiment with privatization, which unraveled the socioeconomic gains many Arab countries had achieved in the 1960’s and 70’s. In 2011, riding the wave of protest that began in Tunisia, as part of the so-called Jasmine Revolution, Qatar took a leading role in stirring up change, investing tens of billions of dollars in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the one truly organized alternative political force that combined the Islamic element dear to the Wahhabi Emir of Qatar – even if ‘Wahhabi lite,’ compared to his Saudi counterpart – it has the revolutionary zeal for breaking the old and starting anew. The Saudis, meanwhile were reactionaries; like Qataris they inherit their power and wealth but do not take well to change, particularly the kind that promotes the political ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) which aspires to toppling monarchies (!) and military dictatorships.
Qatar’s present isolation will have deprived some of that country’s Islamists of resources, needed to advance their stake in the rebuilding of Libya. This also explains why Egypt has joined the Saudi blockade. Not only does President al-Sisi want to reduce the impact of remaining elements of ‘the Brotherhood’ having politically crushed them in Egypt, where they had for a short time, become the elected government and still remain, though powerless, deeply integrated within the wider, poorer, population throughout Egypt, in which they are rooted. He also wants to improve Egypt’s own security, predictably favouring the emergence of General Khalifa Haftar in next door Libya, whom Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and possibly Saudi Arabia, have backed, against forces which have received support from Qatar and Turkey.
The Immediate Crisis Begins with Trump’s Speech in Riyadh
U.S. President Donald Trump delivered an overtly pro-Saudi speech just two weeks earlier in Riyadh. In it, he praised the role of Saudi Arabia, identifying as terrorists all of those groups and countries with which the Kingdom has engaged in hostility: Iran up front, Hezbollah and Hamas in primis. In a recent Washington Post interview, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor and campaign strategist seems convinced that Trump’s Riyadh speech sparked the recent Gulf Crisis involving Qatar. Addressing an audience at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, Bannon said that the White House had received advanced warning of the Saudi plan. He also praised Trump’s efforts to combat ‘radical Islamic extremism’ in that context. The plan came into action just as Qatar appeared intent on restoring diplomatic relations with Iran. Trump welcomed Qatar’s isolation, still, he apparently did not rigorously calculate how this would affect the relationship between Doha and Washington. Qatar is, after all, home to perhaps the most important American military base in the Middle East. It has been essential in facilitating attacks against Islamic State over Iraq and Syria as well as in supporting the US forces in Afghanistan. NATO member Turkey also keeps a base in Qatar.
Qatar broke such ties in January 2016 when some young men threw Molotov cocktails against the Saudi embassy and consulate in in the Iranian capital, Tehran; and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad, Iran’s second city, using Molotov petrol bombs. That episode occurred at a time when the State of Qatar and its ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, enjoyed close ties to Riyadh and other Sunni Gulf countries and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Thus, it changed regional policy to match the punitive measures that the Saudis themselves imposed against Iran. But, sixteen months can be a long time, even in the sleepy sands that surround the Persian Gulf petromonarchies. Qatar has succeeded in avoiding being trapped in a total embargo. Trade flows – thanks also to Iran – and the country has lost none of the grand ambition to emerge on the world scene, hosting such events as the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Moreover, the United States needs an ally like Qatar. They were obliged to transfer their military bases out of Saudi at the time of the Iraq war (because of Wahhabi religious sensitivities literally, to US army boots treading the sands once trodden by the prophet). Thus, while Trump and his advisors may have wanted to send the Emir in Doha a warning, the wiser members of his inner circle – including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, would likely object to the U.S. joining the anti-Qatar chorus, ruling out U.S. backing for any potential coup.
A clear sign to this effect came mere days after the latest ‘Gulf crisis’ erupted, the United States sold Qatar weapons for $12 billion. Without U.S. backing, it’s unlikely that the Saudis – the only ones with the military might and geography to do so – would attempt a military operation to topple Sheikh Tamim. The American Congress could simply veto the recent $300 billion arms deal signed last spring, should Riyadh launch a ground attack. Moreover, apart from Iran through which Qatar continues to conduct trade to import crucial goods, which would otherwise have arrived via the land border with Saudi Arabia; Turkey, a NATO member, it will be remembered, also have a military base in Qatar. The Qataris have also kept important allies within the GCC. If Bahrain and the UAE are hostile, Kuwait and Oman remain friendly. This can only add to Doha’s resilience and its pursuit of an independent foreign and regional policy that flies in the face of Saudi concerns and demands. The fact that crude prices barely budged as Qatar was being isolated, increasing the level of risk in the world’s most important oil producing region, suggests the U.S. will see no reason to intervene as it did when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Qatar itself only produces some 600,000 barrels a day. Apart from crucial imports, the Saudis have few tools at their disposal to force Qatar’s capitulating to its 13 demands. Above all, tiny Qatar does remain the leading global producer of natural gas.
Kuwait might be Qatar’s key friend – apart from Iran – within the GCC. Kuwait is also a close Washington ally and the White House has welcomed its intercession on Qatar’s behalf with the ‘coalition. Trump himself asked the ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, to work toward re-establishing dialogue between Qatar and its new Gulf enemies. Kuwait’s Emir al-Sabah risked relations between Kuwait and Riyadh by accepting. Kuwait has maintained good relations with Iran and some 30% of its population is Shiite (as are over 95% of Iranians). The confessional and ethnic mix – many Shiites are of Iranian descent – in Kuwait, has ensured that this small and oil rich State has also maintained a high degree of independence from Riyadh. The Qataris have even blessed the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, challenging the Saudis, who fear the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence on the movement that has controlled Gaza.
Now, almost a year and a half later, at the end of August 2017, Doha reopened its embassy in Tehran and sent back its ambassador to the Islamic Republic. The move will not have pleased the al-Saud monarch and his allies. The anti-Qatar ‘coalition’ demanded, as one of the conditions to lift the blockade, that Doha cut off all diplomatic ties to Iran. Nevertheless, Qatar has not conceded a single point to the Saudis. Indeed, the full restoration of Qatari-Iranian diplomatic ties may have been sparked by a justified suspicion that the Saudis might be plotting a coup. The New York Times suggested as much, reporting that in August, an exiled member of the Qatari family, Abdullah Al Thani and Saudi king Salman, met at the latter’s holiday villa in Tangiers, Morocco. Abdullah al Thani is one of those Qatari royals who were exiled after being ousted in a coup in 1972. Saudi Arabia said little about the meeting, but the NY Times suggested that because few believe Abdullah Al Thani to be a threat, the Saudi press featured news of the Tangiers meeting prominently. Certainly, the impression the Saudis have been promoting is that the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, should be expecting a challenge to his authority.
Qatar vs. Saudi Arabia and Irreconcilable Differences
As hinted earlier, the crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has at its heart a different vision for the Middle East with the Muslim Brotherhood at its heart. The Arab Spring of 2011 created an opportunity for Doha to star as the financial ‘Napoleon’ of the region, riding the wave of political Islam (ISIS is different), spending billions throughout the Middle East to allow it to establish roots and grow. Qatar, a tiny State, got the chance to act out the progressive part it had been rehearsing for some time. Qatar has always had a penchant for change. The Al Thani family has ruled Qatar since the State declared independence from the Federation that would become the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971. Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani ruled from 1995 to 2013. He led a bloodless coup against his father Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani. Hamad promptly set about changing Qatar, modernizing it (by Gulf and Wahhabi canons). Unlike, the al-Saudis in Riyadh, the al Thani’s have promoted political and social progress, most notable in the extent to which women's rights have advanced, by comparison.
Hamad even adopted a Constitution. The Saudi equivalent is the Qur’an. In 2013, Hamad ben Khalifa Al Thani abdicated in favor of his son, 33-year old Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who is the youngest Arab ruler. It’s no coincidence that the Saudis took the exceptional step of moving away from their most recent succession schemes, appointing the King’s energetic 31-year old nephew Mohammad bin-Salman as Crown Prince, rather than one of King’s brothers. The risk in the crisis is greater for the Saudis. If the blockade fails to persuade Qatar to agree to the 13 terms, Saudi Arabia itself could be forced to consider some existential questions, leading to its own ‘change’ away from the status quo, it has upheld. For the Saudis to become more like the Qataris, instead of begrudging their international presence (which probably outweighs that of their own Kingdom, square meter by square meter), they would have to start by promoting tourism. That would create a clash with ultra-conservative and powerful Wahhabi clerics, seeking at all costs to minimise any foreign presence in the Kingdom, even if it would set the stage to take a protagonist role in major world events. The new Saudi Crown Prince has been making unusual statements about the role and type of Islam in Saudi State affairs, saying in effect that it has had negative consequences over the past thirty years, and that this will change!
Such is the context that allowed Qatar to win the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The Emir has shopped around for good Arab players, importing them from Algeria and offering them Qatari citizenship to improve their chances. The World Cup is one of the symbols of Qatar’s success and global standing. But, it has not come free of controversy or price. There is now even a doubt that Qatar will be allowed to retain the 2022 World Cup. As the NY Times and the European Press have widely recently reported, the shadow of corruption hangs over the Qatar World Cup as few others have. International football authorities are themselves at a low ebb in international esteem due to well publicised accounts of corruption on a vast scale.
Bookmakers are apparently suggesting there’s now just a 75% chance the Cup will go on as planned, given these charges and the current blockade. The
Times reported that Swiss authorities have accused the Qatari businessman Nasser al-Khelaifi, of having bribed former FIFA general secretary Jérôme Valcke to secure soccer broadcast contracts – which bring in the millions. Khelaifi is the ‘point man’ of Qatari’s soccer involvement, also the chairman of the Paris St.-Germain soccer team, that recently paid the record figure for a player, the Brazilian Neymar Jr. snatching him from Barcelona.
Still, Qatar’s blockade symbolizes a wound to its ego that not even the World Cup can heal. There’s no doubt that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are engaging in an intense contest for regional influence. The two monarchies have taken a similar stance in Syria, since the civil war began. The Qataris and Saudis both backed ‘ Islamists’ (meaning sponsoring Islamic terrorist jihadi groups – Brotherhood or not – who belonged to groups other than al-Nusra, which is the infamous-in-the-west al Qaeda; and excluding possibly ISIS, about which at this time their financial sponsoring is generally ‘unknown,’ in the public domain, at any rate).
Elsewhere, they have taken radically different stances. Qatar embraced the electoral victory of Mohammad Morsi, who led the Moslem Brotherhood to power in 2012 in Egypt. But, a mere year later, the Saudis hailed the nationalist coup in Egypt of July 2013, headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. To keep it in soccer terms, this represented Saudi Arabia’s counterattack. This clash between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which established its focus in Egypt has radiated from there to the rest of the region with its most important repercussions in Libya. Trump’s and his predecessor’s policy of non-intervention has weakened the Saudi-Qatari axis in Syria, because it has allowed the Russians to complete their mission, defeating the various Islamist rebels backed by the two otherwise rival Gulf States in Syria, relieving the pressure on President Asad as well as contributing to the demise of ISIS.
In Libya, Trump’s non-intervention has allowed General Haftar to score some important military victories, even if the situation in Niger and Mali remains uncertain (but neither the Saudis nor the Qataris seem to have any influence there).
Finally, The Qatar-Saudi dispute has exposed to the world that there remains an existential conflict within the Sunni world – and between the Sunni Salafists; which has taken on a dimension which could soon be more significant, at least in the Arabian peninsula than the Sunni-Shiite one. Mohammad Ibn abd al-Wahhab, the preacher who gave ‘Wahhabis’ their name, rose in the territory of present day Saudi Arabia in the late 1700’s. They propped up the then powerful tribal House of al-Saud, who took over the Hejaz from the Hashemites in the early 20th Century with its custodianship of ‘the Holy Places’ of Medina and Mecca. This process, finally dominating the Arabian peninsula, culminated in the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where Wahhabi Islam consequently dominated religious discourse.
The Qataris may have claimed to also be Wahhabis, but they backed the Brotherhood in Egypt. Both represent facets of the Salafi world view – that is a radical and uncompromising reading of the faith (the Quran). The Saudis’ Salafi Islamism differs from that of the Brotherhood in that the Wahhabi advances the concept of an emirate, such as that ISIS has tried to create. The Brotherhood allows for a parliamentary construct, that even involves elections. But, it opposes monarchies! Unless the United States were to intervene more directly, the Saudi inspired blockade of Qatar, could last well into the 2022 World Cup, if, that is, Qatar manages to retain it