The recent unprecedented blockade of Qatar by its neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has the Persian Gulf region in uproar. Citizens are being expelled, Qatar’s only land border and main food supply line is closed, and their airline must do bizarre aerial calisthenics to avoid overflying most of the Arabian Peninsula.
Why should we care, with our energy independence and all? We should care, and quite a lot, because vital economies in East Asia rely almost exclusively on hydrocarbons from that neighborhood. A serious energy disruption in one of the world’s most sensitive pressure points could have immediate and lasting effects on, well, everything. Imagine the slim strategic hydrocarbon reserves of China, Japan, and Korea running short as a battle rages in the Gulf. Our world is intricately linked; supply chains, trade, and capital markets, so a regional scuffle can become a global disaster. A war between Iran and its Sunni neighbors, the various proxy wars raging at present writ large into The Big One, would be a planetary catastrophe. This is why we should care about a “quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing,” to quote Neville Chamberlain.
So the problem….
The Saudi have re-cast Qatar’s self-appointed role of peacemaker in all sorts of conflicts as support of terrorism. It’s almost a hobby at the small Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs to invite all players, no matter how obnoxious, to town to hammer out agreements. The return of kidnapped US servicemen in Afghanistan and the only new Taliban Embassy in the world opened in Doha are testimony to this. Qatar has brokered peace in Sudan, Lebanon, Libya and Afghanistan. Accusations against Qatar of “supporting terrorism” are rich coming from the Saudis who for decades have been promoting, subsidizing and exporting Wahhabi Islam: the sharp end of Islamic fundamentalism. They cite Qatar’s funding of groups in Syria, some of whom they themselves, and we too, have financed.
Another Saudi complaint: Iran. Even though Qatar’s conciliatory relationship with Iran is expedient as the bulk of their wealth derives from a joint marine gas reserve: sharing a geological bank account is a good motivator of friendly relations.
The Saudis biggest gripe, and one of the thirteen points on the list of their demands, is Al Jazeera and it’s at the center of this mess. Al Jazeera satellite TV and internet provide one of the most intellectual global news services available, particularly in the Arab world. It is an open, critical, and pretty evenhanded liberal network, but reviled in the palaces of the autocratic Arab world. Al Jazeera is the public face of Qatar and its royal family, and central to its national identity.
The UAE is piling on. This could be because they have fences to mend (literal fences: a border dispute) with the Saudis, and so take sides with them, the larger player by far against Qatar.
How it could go: badly or worse.
There are two possible endgames the Saudis and friends (Bahrain, Yemen, Senegal, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Eritrea, and Egypt) are pursuing. The first is a general bullying of Al Jazeera and a slap down of the uppity Qataris to re-establishing Saudi supremacy in the region, while also cowing Iran.
One theory assumes the Saudis want to, and feel they can get away with, fixing this Qatari-shaped thorn in their side by these actions which would, in any other context, be acts of war. They’d at least quiet Al Jazeera and dampen Qatar’s foreign adventurism.
As a bonus they can torment Iran. The line in the sand, or water, actually, through the Persian Gulf between Shi’ite, Persian Iran verses the richer and strategically more vulnerable Sunni Gulf Co-Operation Council (G.C.C.) countries, is nearly as deep as the line between all of them and Israel. Increasingly, the entire Middle East’s dynamic is sectarian now. From Saudis hanging Shi’ite activists, to minority Sunni-rule in Bahrain, the wars in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq: all have the Sunni-Shi’ite split at their center. Jew versus Muslim fades into the background these days, to Israel’s undoubted relief.
Obama’s rapprochement-lite with Iran made him very unwelcome in Saudi Arabia and snubbed on arrival, whereas Trump was met by the King, his portraits strung along Riyadh’s avenues, and given an orb and a sword dance. This, and the Trumps palling around with the Emiratis where he branded a golf course, of course, firmly plants him on the South, Saudi/Emirati side of the Gulf. There’s evidence that he, Steve Bannon, and the Republicans want a hot war with Iran.
With Trump’s blessing on twitter, the Saudis and Emiratis think they can at least muscle Qatar. “T-Rex” Tillerson had to walk back Trump’s mistake with cooler language.
A greater disaster
One could argue the Saudi demand list, which Qatar has now received, to shut down Al Jazeera, expel a Turkish base, and submit to intrusive “monitoring” for a decade seem so odious as to be unacceptable by any reasonable player. It’s possible that such absurd demands are the Saudis’ attempt to up the ante and escalate the situation. Why do that? Well, a full-scale invasion of Qatar is not an insane possibility here: it’s only marginally more unthinkable than the current total blockade.
It’s only 27 years ago that Iraq invaded Kuwait, 37 since Iraq tried to invade Iran, and more tellingly, in 2016 the G.C.C. (read: Saudi) troops intervened to “pacify” restive Shi’ites in Bahrain. They didn’t stay, but then Bahrain is on friendly terms with the Saudis.
Additionally, the Saudi economy is not in good shape and Qatar, the richest country per head on earth, is an undefended and tempting morsel. Economic growth by invasion is rare in these times, it’s more of a 19th Century dynamic, but when hydrocarbons are involved you keep what you steal. Qatar is undefended if you exclude our USAF Base there and the Turkish base, but neither government would necessarily stand up to the Saudis. Unlikely as this scenario may seem now, analysts at the Pentagon are doubtless all over it. Long Island-sized Qatar has 260,000 citizens and two million foreigners: the help. Perhaps the (invited) Saudi forces in Bahrain in 2011 was a practice run?
And why not? With Trump on their side, Saudi Arabia may feel “permitted” to go for it. There’s a terrifying historical precedent here. Saddam Hussein went ahead with invading Kuwait when, due to an epic miscommunication with US Ambassador Glaspie, he believed that the US didn’t have a dog in Iraq’s fight with Kuwait. Saddam saw it as a green light to invasion: perception and subtly matter in that part of the world.
That Turkish military base is another beef on the list: Qatar accepted it last year in part so they had another powerful ally beyond just the Saudis and the USA in case of trouble. In retrospect, this was a stroke of genius, given how things are playing out. Joint Turkish-Qatari military drills started there this week, a big middle finger to Qatar’s tormentors. The Saudi objection to the Turks is not the main story though, in fact this is the first we’ve heard of much objection to Turks in the neighborhood since the Ottoman Empire a century ago and that… is another story for another day.
Who knows whether recent changes in the Kingdom and Trump’s tweets will give the Saudis moral license to do something rash? Whatever they and their friends want from all this, whether they want a quieter and more humble Qatar, or want to gobble it down whole, will be seen in the months to come.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney in NYC who studied Middle East politics at Melbourne and Georgetown Universities and Arabic at the New School in NYC. He contributes to Forbes and counterpunch.org.
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