How Qatar is a (not quite blameless) victim of the greater Middle East battle for supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran
past After mixed success in my UK General Election predictions (here) I want to get back to a topic that has piqued my interest in the last week or so. The cutting of diplomatic relations between a number of Arab states and Qatar. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been simmering for a few years now though this is certainly the most dramatic escalation yet witnessed.
The battle for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been well documented in numerous sources and articles over the years . The causes are well known and while religion is undoubtedly a factor I don't want to focus on it in this article. Since the fall of the Shah in Iran in 1979, Iran has viewed itself as the champion of the Shia version of Islam. Saudi Arabia, as the gatekeeper of the two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina, bases a large part of it's legitimacy and prestige on being the protector of the religion.
As this battle has intensified over the 15 years it has become more and more difficult for Arab nations to remain unaligned. In fact it can nearly be seen as regional specific version of the Cold War, with a number of unfortunate states and regions becoming the proxy battlegrounds that were so tragically common before the fall of the USSR. The United States has been a long term ally of Saudi Arabia and an oft unapologetic enemy of the Islamic State of Iran. The same can be said of Israel, although their relationship with Saudi Arabia is less widely broadcast. Their foreign policy aims are both quite similar. A weak Iran and the the suppression of any other powerful Islamist movements (like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon or the less militant Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt) that could be a threat to Israel's security or challenge the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia.
So how does Qatar fit into all this? Saudi Arabia sees Qatar as one of it's client states. It believes Qatar, like the UAE and Bahrain, should immediately come to heel whenever Saudi whistles. As the situation in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has become more complex, Saudi simply expects Qatar to stand behind Saudi. They do not want a partnership of equals and certainly no diplomatic discourse with Iran (more on this later).
Since the bloodless coup in 1995, when Sheikh Hamas wrested power from his father, Qatar has harbored grand ambitions. With one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world and only 300,000 Qatari citizens their coffers are almost infinite. They have used this money to try and attain global influence. Al Jazeera, often alleged to be the media mouthpiece of the government, has become one of the largest global news agencies. This ability to frame the Qatari narrative of Middle Eastern events scares Saudi Arabia and they see this as a threat to their internal security.
Another element of tension is Qatar's funding (often covert) of Islamist rebels in Syria. Furthermore their official backing of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt after the Arab Spring was extremely dangerous to Saudi Arabia. One of the major differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is that Saudi Arabia has a population of almost 30 million people. The majority of these are Saudi nationals. Saudi Arabia has poor unemployed, Saudi Arabian men. Qatar doesn't have poor, unemployed Qatari men. This point can not be emphasised enough. Saudi Arabia's young population has the potential to become disillusioned with the gross extravagance of the Saudi royal family. It isn't beyond the realms of possibility than a protest movement with an Islamist element become mainstream in Saudi Arabia. Internal turmoil in Saudi Arabia would be a gift to the Iranians.
The conditions marked mentioned above have been around for a while. The catalyst for this spat to take place now is almost undoubtedly Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia. Trump was a vocal critic of the American- Iranian Peace Accord and threatened to tear it up upon entering the White House. When Trump announced his first foreign visit would be to Saudi Arabia and Israel, it was a clear indication where his loyalties lie. The $110 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia has undoubtedly emboldened the Saudis to challenge Qatar to get in line.
They have done this in a headline-grabbing yet clumsy fashion. There is no chance of war as there are currently 10,000 US troops in Qatar. I believe it is now a battle of will between the two nations which may have the unintended consequence of pushing the Qatar closer to Iran. I can guarantee it won't be the last time a rash foreign policy move is secretly toasted in Tehran...