Analysis by Jotam Confino.
The sudden diplomatic breakdown between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain, seems rather confusing at first glance. To decipher this enigma one needs to understand the unpredictable nature of the Middle East, as well as the often-ambiguous policies and allies that prevails. In this case, the ‘Sunni coalition’ shows its vulnerability, although Saudi Arabia has tried to portray it as a harmonious entity, ready to contain Iranian aggression. The decision to isolate and punish Qatar is an attempt to strong arm the Gulf State into choosing sides; ‘You are either with us or against us’, as one can imagine King Salman and Al-Sissi articulate it. Let’s have a look at why Qatar is being punished only weeks after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in which he had a friendly talk to Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
The official decision to punish Qatar was a result of its continuous support of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and al-Qaeda, as well as being the main sponsor of al-Jazeera, which is often critical of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Additionally, yet very important, is the fact that Qatar refuses to cut ties with Iran, which it shares the world’s biggest natural gas field in the world with. Thus, the co-ownership with Iran has made Qatar the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). It’s therefore not surprising that Qatar has been reluctant to join the ‘Sunni coalition’ in its feud with Iran.
From a foreign policy view, it makes perfect sense that Qatar continues its cooperation with Iran in order to protect its access to the gas field. Risking a conflict with Iran by giving in to Saudi orders could first be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, thus igniting an actual military conflict with Iran. Second, Qatar wants to be treated equal to the other members of the ‘Sunni coalition’, such as Turkey. Saudi Arabia and Egypt haven’t punished Turkey for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, which is one of the main reasons for punishing Qatar, at least officially.
Turkey is currently deeply entangled in Syria where it needs to deal with Iran diplomatically in order not to clash on the battlefield. But because Turkey is a stronger and more influential state, it hasn’t been close to being punished the same way Qatar has. You could easily replace Qatar with Turkey in the equation, and the accusations would be almost the same, except Qatar’s support of al-Qaeda is much more known. On the other hand, Turkey has been accused of ignoring oil trade with ISIS, reported by a group of researchers from Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Apparently, this hasn’t been reason enough to isolate Turkey from the ‘Sunni coalition’.
Not surprisingly, Erdogan has already stated his support of Qatar, saying that “the sanctions taken against Qatar are not good. Turkey will continue and develop our ties with Qatar, as with all our friends who have supported us in the most difficult times”.
Trump once again quickly responded to the diplomatic crisis, and once again, he didn’t assess the situation wisely before reacting. The Saudi’s played their cards well by foreseeing that accusing Qatar of sponsoring terrorism would make Trump follow suit, which his tweets rightly proved. After all, he was just welcomed in Riyadh like a superstar, where he danced with swords and received a shiny medallion from his new friend, King Salman.
What is striking in this particular foreign policy issue is that the biggest US air base in the Middle East is based in Qatar. If Trump had bothered checking the US State Department report on Qatar, he would have realized that in addition to having a major US military base stationed in Qatar, “the United Sates and Qatar have extensive economic ties”, and that “Qatar has announced a plan to invest $45 billion of its sovereign wealth fund in the United States by 2021”. It may not be the same size as the Saudi investment in US, but Qatar remains a vital partner in the Middle East. Supporting the ‘Sunni coalition’ in isolating Qatar would only strengthen the already existing distrust of the US.
One can easily understand the need to counter extremism in the Middle East, but Saudi Arabia can hardly claim the moral high ground in this case. Saudi export and finance of Islamic fundamentalism through Wahabbi Madrassas to other Sunni countries such as Pakistan, has been widely documented. It’s true that Saudi Arabia has been active in countering Islamic extremism ever since it suddenly became the victim of it, but punishing Qatar for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and al-Qaeda is merely a smokescreen.
Now that Hamas and Iran are cooperating again, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are watching Iran slowly expanding its influence in the region. It’s therefore vital for the Saudi led coalition to make sure that Qatar doesn’t become an Iranian proxy, although the fear is most likely exaggerated. The decision to strong arm Qatar should therefore be considered yet another signal to the members of the ‘Sunni’ coalition that cooperating with Iran isn’t acceptable. Unless, of course, you are a strong and influential state, such as Turkey.
The Qatar crisis illustrates beautifully how complex and unpredictable the Middle East is, and at the same time proves that dividing the region in a Sunni and a Shia block is too simplistic. Religion undoubtedly plays a major role, but national interests and power politics are often what influences decision making in the Middle East. You can easily be a Sunni state allying with the US, while exporting an ideology that loathes western values and ultimately leads to attacks against the very same ally. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are guilty of that.
While the Sunni states are busy accusing each other of treason and being supporters of extremism, Iran is watching from the other side of the Gulf, slowly expanding its role across the region.
Jotam Confino is the editor of Republic Paper and has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.