The initial leg of Donald Trump’s first overseas trip, in Saudi Arabia, was generally well received by pundits and the press in the United States. This rare moment of perceived success was quickly overshadowed by a series of unforced errors while visiting other allies, first in Israel and then in Europe.
Those who called the President’s stop in Riyadh a success may have been premature in their assessment. The Saudis gave Trump what he seems to crave most in this world: the red carpet treatment and vociferous praise. In return they, and many of the 50 mostly Sunni heads of state who participated in the meetings, were promised more massive arms deals and told that the United States is in their corner in regards to the Gulf states’ regional rival, Shia Iran.
At the same time, the U.S. President seems to have given the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and other regional despots, including Egyptian coup leader Abdel Al-Sisi, a green light to prosecute their own self-serving war on ‘terrorism’. We saw the results in Bahrain soon after, when security forces entered the town of Diraz to end a long-running peaceful sit-in by Shia dissidents supporting one of their religious leaders, Sheihk Isa Qassim, who was stripped of his citizenship last year.
Bahrain’s security forces killed 5 and arrested over 280 people, some of whom could face the death penalty for the crime of demanding the Sunni monarchy recognize their religious and civil rights.
Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet and will soon be home to a British naval base so we can expect them to continue to ignore the crimes of the country’s absolute monarchy against the country’s Shia majority.
The other shoe dropped shortly thereafter, with the Saudis, along with allies the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and the internationally recognized government of war-torn Yemen, not only cutting diplomatic but also air, sea and land crossings to tiny Qatar and demanding their citizens in the country return home and Qataris within their borders leave within two weeks.
These extreme measures followed the cutting off of Qatar-based media a couple of weeks earlier by the Saudis and its main GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) allies. This included the popular, Al Jazeera network, which is generally seen as sympathetic to the political Islam espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood and has been critical of the ongoing conflict in Yemen, despite the involvement of Qatar’s military in the conflict until the rupture.
In Israel, which seems to have at least unofficially grown closer to the main GCC countries over the last few years, many politicians, including the country’s defense minister, endorsed the idea of isolating Qatar, long a place of refuge for Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Hamas leaders.
In reaction, Qatar has already expelled several individuals, all members of the Hamas’ armed Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades rather than more political figures, marking the first of what could be many concessions in the weeks ahead.
A long-running feud
This isn’t the first time that Qatar has faced down its GCC neighbors, in 2014 the KSA, UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors for 8 months, citing many of the same reasons they do today. Under the current Emir’s father, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, who ruled from 1995 to 2013, the country moved to form its own foreign policy against the regional domination of Saudi Arabia and created Al Jazeera, which has massively increased its soft power not only in the region but throughout the world. Their success seems to have incensed their much larger neighbor.
While Qatar is currently the world’s richest country per capita it also imports 40% of its food, much of which comes across its only land border with the KSA. This led to some panic on the part of people in the country, who rushed out to stock up on essentials after the severing of ties was announced.
The spat supposedly arose over comments made by Qatar’s current ruler, Sheikh Tamim Al Hamad Al Thani to the country’s national broadcaster, saying of the Islamic Republic, “ Iran represents a regional and Islamic power that cannot be ignored and it is unwise to face up against it.”
The Qatari government claimed that the Emir never said this and that the news network where the quote had appeared on a ticker had been hacked. The excuse was ridiculed in the major media of most countries, with one major exception.
With what appears to be some cynicism, outlets like CNN have begun to promote the story that Russia was responsible for the alleged hack, and although no proof has been offered as to whether it was the government or unaligned hackers who are responsible, if indeed this is what took place, an unnamed U.S. official absurdly claimed that, “not much happens in that country (Russia) without the blessing of the government.”
A joint investigation between the Qatari Interior Ministry, the FBI and the British National Crime Agency is ongoing, so it is too early to come to any conclusions, but claims like these should be greeted with healthy skepticism rather than breathless enthusiasm by American and other Western journalists who pride themselves on their supposed objectivity.
For its part, Qatar has very good reasons to try and de-escalate tensions with the Islamic Republic. As an early April Reuters article explained, the two countries share the world’s largest natural gas field off their coasts which is called North Field by the Qataris and South Pars by Iran.
As explained by the CEO of Qatar Petroleum in the piece, the plan to end a 7-year self-imposed moratorium on development of the Qatari half of the field came in part from a desire to keep its share of the growing LNG (light natural gas) market and in part from technological developments.
QP’s chief executive, Saad al-Kaabi showed the desire within the Kingdom to work with its Persian neighbor, saying at the time these breakthroughs could be provided to Iran, “What we are doing today is something completely new and we will in future of course… share information with them.”
Rather than forcing Qatar to take an even more hostile position on Iran (it should be remembered that the country has been an active participant in Syria and, until it was kicked out of the coalition, in Yemen, both conflicts dubiously presented as countering the Islamic Republic’s regional influence) the Saudi leadership should consider the possible consequences of de-legitimizing the government of a country that so resembles its own.
Perhaps sensing a diplomatic opening, Iran has opened its airspace to Qatari flights and, along with NATO member Turkey (run by the Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood), has promised food aid.
Showing his usual casual disregard for consequences, President Trump took to Twitter to take credit for the KSA and its allies’ move, “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism.”
Leaving aside for a moment the ridiculousness of believing that terrorism as a tactic will ever be fully stamped out, as many 11,000 U.S. service personnel work at the Al Udeid base about 20 miles from Qatar’s capital Doha, an installation that’s vital to American and allied operations in Syria, Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan.
Others in the Trump Administration, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, seemed more aware of the implications of this than their boss, with the U.S.’ top diplomat offering his services if it could help to end the dispute.
It’s certainly true that Qatar has been a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and showed more sympathy than most of its neighbors for the 2011 uprisings collectively called the Arab Spring, which other GCC members saw as a challenge to their own authoritarian governments. However, the accusations that Qatar supports a whole host of terrorist groups on opposite sides of the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide, including ISIS, is pretty rich considering who’s doing the accusing.
There is little doubt that many of Qatar’s wealthy citizens, and likely its government, have given support to Salafist groups in Syria, as we learned from a leaked email showing that former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was well aware of this. The same comments also show that at the very least, some private citizens and charities in Saudi Arabia were also eager participants in funding many of these same groups, including ISIS.
Although they seem to believe that their lobbying strength with Western governments can obscure it, it’s important to note that the KSA has now led two actions that risk the food security of its neighbors.
The elephant in the room
The despotisms led by Saudi Arabia may have made a critical mistake in isolating yet another neighbor, this time with the added risk that its government mirrors their own. To hear the country that does the most to inspire militant groups through its support of the cult-like Wahabbi sect that dreams of a return to the 7th century would make one laugh if it wasn’t so clear that most Western politicians continue to go along with this ruse.
As explained by Shireen Hunter of Georgetown University‘s School of Foreign Service, “…Saudi activities and the propagation of its version of Islam have transformed the cultural map of these regions in a highly negative fashion. Their soft and tolerant Islam has been transformed into a rigid and intolerant one affecting all aspects of life from women’s clothing to communal relations. The mass killings of Shias and attacks on Sufi shrines in Pakistan and Afghanistan were unheard of before the spread of Wahhabism.”
While I have little sympathy for the reactionaries of the Muslim Brotherhood supported by Qatar, they at least have an ideology and political program when compared to Salafist groups like Al Qaida and ISIS who take much of their inspiration from Wahhabism. The vacuum in the region’s politics created by the death of Pan-Arab nationalism and the continuing repression of the left, along with the continued dominance of strong men and venal monarchies, leaves ordinary people in the most of the Middle East with few avenues to participate in politics. If the West really cared about democracy promotion it could use its leverage to help tackle this problem.
Iran’s system of government is far from free and fair but when it’s compared to the KSA’s (or Qatar’s) absolute monarchies, it is the much more susceptible to liberalization over time, especially as the old guard dies off and the country’s young people take the reins of power.
Regardless, this ongoing story in the Gulf could play out in many ways, the two most obvious being Qatari capitulation or a realignment of alliances in an already chaotic and war-torn region. At this point, it is too early to tell.