By Pier Francesco Zarcone*
The sudden rupture of diplomatic relations with Qatar announced by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Yemen on Jun. 5 triggers a crisis with unexpected outcomes and is likely to spell big trouble as much for those who wanted it as for the likely behind-the-scenes co-protagonist: the United States.
It takes no stretch of the imagination to argue that this situation, which exploded shortly after US President Donald Trump’s May 20-21 visit to Saudi Arabia for the Riyadh Summit, is connected with this trip. On that occasion, the US president assumed two positions that were only formally contradictory but, in substance, reveal the existence of a precise design for further destabilisation in the area.
Trump both riled against jihadist terrorism and pointed to Iran as his great enemy. So, on one hand, he sides with that Saudi Arabia which has spread and fuelled the real feeding ground of that terrorism around the world, namely Wahhabi Islamic radicalism; on the other, picks on Iran which is not spreading that terrorism if for no other reason than jihadism is Sunni while the Iranian state is Shiite. Iran certainly has something to do with the Qatar crisis, but not as the only factor.
The issue is complex and has to be put in context.
In Trump’s view, two “mistakes” made by the United States in the Middle East have to be rectified: the first was the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime, with the consequence of allowing the Iraqi Shiite majority to gain power, thus extending Iranian influence in the region, then expanding with the Syrian crisis; the second was former US President Barack Obama’s “clearance” of Iran by reaching an agreement with Tehran on the nuclear issue. For Trump, the logical outcome of this is strengthening ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
From this point of view, Qatar became a target because of its ambiguous and opportunistic policy. At the Riyadh Summit, the government of this small state failed to adhere to the Saudi programmes – which are shared by Trump – and furthermore the media of Qatar carried the fiery declarations of Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani against the decisions of the summit: namely the lines against Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Hamas movement, two organisations that Qatar supports and finances. Add to this the fact that Qatar maintains excellent political and trade relations with Iran.
The lack of religious and ideological homogeneity between Doha and Tehran is totally irrelevant both because Middle East policies have particular logics – in fact, Qatar is a well-known supporter of jihadism in Syria and Libya – and because economic interests have their weight – in fact, Qatar and Iran share exploitation of a very rich offshore gas field, the South Pars/North Dome field.
The latter is already sufficient for Qatar not to break its relations with Tehran, given that it accounts for more than two-thirds of the gas production of both countries.
At the same time, Qatar is home to the headquarters in the Middle East of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), where at least 10,000 soldiers are stationed.
Arab politics is sometimes two-sided, sometimes three-sided.
In the current situation, Qatar’s eccentric position with respect to the political interests of the other countries of the Arabian Peninsula could not remain without consequences: in Syria and Iraq, the jihadists are close to defeat, and Arab monarchies have hurried to “reposition” themselves, aligning with the United States as if they had never supported Jihadist radicalism and collecting the reward of generous US military aid for their about-turn. Qatar instead insists on wanting to play on its own.
It is always difficult at the start of an international crisis to rule out or not whether talk will give way to arms. For the time being it can only be noted how the well-known Qatar TV channel Al Jazeera has modified the language about Syria, speaking for the first time of a “government army” or “Syrian army” when referring to President Bashar al-Assad’s troops, hitherto called “troops of the regime”. Furthermore, due to closure of the only land border (that with Saudi Arabia), the more than probable hypothesis is being ventilated in Doha of increasing sea-going trade with Iran.
However, it is not at all a foregone conclusion that Qatar will become part of the Iranian block: to do so would, with all probability, mean war.
Iran aside, the divergence between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has nothing to do with religious ideology, given that both are Wahhabi states. The contrast is political and personal, and has deep roots: as early as 1955, when the father of the current emir seized power in Qatar through a coup d’état, Saudi Arabia came to the point of asking Egypt for a military intervention against the usurper, without obtaining it.
Then, when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt with Saudi support, there was a brief suspension of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Doha, which instead supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s support for this organisation has never ceased and, although not definable hostile a priori to Wahhabism, it is however a bitter political enemy of the Saudi monarchy – not to mention the current Egyptian and Syrian regimes.
In addition, Saudi Arabia has long accused Qatar of providing active support to Shiite minorities in the territories of Riyadh and Bahrain, and this casts dangerous shadows over Yemen, where the Saudis are bogged down in a war against Houthi rebels (Shiites), a conflict that they have not been able to win so far, even with US aid.
Ultimately, what was supposed to be the “Arab NATO” wanted by Washington is dead even before being born, and the consequence could be great instability throughout the Persian Gulf. Trump has wanted to play a dangerous card and it will come as no surprise if misguided US attempts at destabilisation backfire once again.
Especially if it were to be true that Trump is aiming for a military clash with Iran.
* Pier Francesco Zarcone, with a degree in canonical law, is a historian of the labour movement and a scholar of Islam, among others. He is a member of Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia), an international association working for the unity of revolutionary movements around the world in a new International: la Quinta (The Fifth). This article originally appeared in Italian under the title Perché il Qatar? in Utopia Rossa. Translated by Phil Harris.