By Riad Kahwaji*
What started off as a minor spat between the Arab Gulf neighbors ended in severing of ties and harsh tit-for-tat moves. The latest showdown between Qatar and other major players on the Arab scene, especially its Gulf neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, indicates that the “grey zone” has vanished and the region is headed towards an escalation in the “war on terrorism” and in the confrontation with Iranian expansionist schemes.
For several years the tiny oil and gas-rich Arab Gulf State of Qatar has managed to play a role that puzzled many observers. It often appeared as if one is dealing with two opposing entities or personalities. Among the many examples Qatar could be seen on the one hand being a member of the Saudi-led Arab Alliance that is fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi forces that took control of Yemen couple of years ago, while on the other it continues to praise Tehran and underlines its role in the stability of the region. Also Qatar on the one side it endorsed decisions of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in condemning the Muslim Brotherhood movement, while on the other it provided shelter and safe haven to many exiled members of the movement and the country’s powerful media outlets continued to support the movement and other groups regarded by its neighbors as extremist.
Therefore Doha managed to operate in a “grey zone” whereby it remained a strong and active member of the GCC and the U.S.-led Alliance fighting terrorism, while at the same time advocating policies and positions that contradicted their agendas. It established powerful media outlets in Arabic and English – the most famous of them is Aljazeera – that targeted many Arab regimes, branded US forces in parts of the region as occupiers and invaders and provided a platform to leaders of extremist groups to voice their agendas. It funded the creation of armed groups in Syria and Libya that were meant to take part in national movements to overthrow dictatorships there but afterwards turned into extremist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda. It paid tens of millions of dollars to Sunni and Shiite extremist groups under the pretext of ransoms to free hostages.
Qatar managed to get away with its policies under the former U.S. Administration of Barrak Obama which had adopted a policy of appeasement with Iran leading to the signing of the Vienna nuclear agreement. Being the base for the U.S. Central Command and the home for the largest American air base in the Middle East, Qatar acted with strong confidence that it is untouchable. Qatari officials have often told their guests in private sessions that U.S. forces in Qatar would protect it from any foreign aggression, not necessarily Iran but even from Arab countries. Hence the U.S. military presence in Doha seems to be part of the country’s agenda of securing a foreign protector to enable it to adopt whatever policies it chooses. It is worth noting that when Saudi Arabia asked the U.S. to remove its bases from the Kingdom after the September 11, 2001 incidents Qatar was quick to offer to host the bases and even built Al Udeid Air Base from its own pocket.
However, Saudi Arabia and UAE have now drawn the line and appear determined to subdue Qatar. They appear to have gathered strength from the new more hawkish American administration under President Donald Trump. Riyadh last month hosted a major American-Arab-Muslim summit that marked Trump’s first foreign trip as U.S. president. The Riyadh summit witnessed the forging of strong relation with Washington and the birth of an Arab-Islamic NATO that will assist the U.S. in its war on terrorism. The Summit declaration also criticized Iranian expansionist schemes and vowed to work together to confront them. The action against Qatar indicate that Saudi Arabia will be more bold and hawkish in its actions against Iran and extremist groups it has branded along with its allies as terrorist like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Unlike the previous time when the same Arab Gulf States broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, this time pressure on Doha will be intense. The confrontation will take on the shape of a strong commercial, economic and trade war that will squeeze the small Gulf island very hard, especially during tough economic times. The Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani will most likely come under immense internal pressure and increase his threat perception domestically. Qatar has a history of coup de tats and Tamim’s father Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani came to power in a coup against his own father in 1995. Sheikh Hamad passed on power to Sheikh Tamim, 37, in June 2013 in an unusual move that raised many questions that remain unanswered about the motives. However, many Qatari and Gulf officials and analysts still believe that Sheikh Hamad, 65, is still the ruler in the shadows.
The current crisis poses a serious test to the United States that has thus far called for self-restraint and for the preservation of unity amongst its Arab allies. Washington will certainly be glad to see Qatar clamp down on charity organizations suspected of funding terrorist groups and repositioning itself on Iran. However the U.S. does not want at this stage to take sides openly. It will most likely prefer a covert manner of mediating and pressuring concerned parties to reach a settlement soon. A strong leverage in U.S. hands is fate of Al Udeid base that Doha regards as an essential component of its national defense policy. However, if mediations fail and Qatar decides to be defiant and seek to counter Saudi actions by enhancing partnerships with players like Iran, Russia and Turkey, then Washington will likely have to reconsider its position and embark on moves that will secure its interests, especially the fate of its bases on the island.
Qatar so far appears in a state of shock due to the severity and scale of actions by its opponents that are taking an escalatory course. Its economy will be hard hit and its small population of less than half a million is feeling the impact already, and will subsequently put pressure on its leadership to resolve the situation. Doha will not find a strong ally at the White House as previously was the case and many of the European leaders have mixed feeling about it. Seeking to realign itself more openly with Iran, Turkey and Russia will only alienate it from the West and increase public descent among a good portion of the Western-educated Qatari society and military. So Sheikh Tamim is in a no-win situation where the only way forward is to make concessions and agree to most of the Saudi-Emirate terms to survive this crisis.
Riad Kahwaji, is the founder and director of INEGMA with a 28 years of experience as a journalist and a Middle East security analyst.