Qatar exposes limit of Saudi power
By Simon Korner
The summer 2017 blockade against Qatar – led by Saudi Arabia, and backed by United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – has exposed the limits of Saudi power to control the rivalrous Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) after weeks of warlike rhetoric.
At issue are Qatar’s growing economic and military ties with Iran – a country that stands in the way of Saudi, Israeli and thus US, hegemony in the Gulf.
The Saudi demands were for Qatar to follow Saudi policy in every sphere. This meant cutting diplomatic ties with Iran and expelling the Revolutionary Guards with whom it co-operates, as well as stopping Qatari-Iranian co-operation in the shared North Dome/South Pars energy fields.
Other demands sought the shutting down of the Turkish military base in Qatar, an end to support for the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist groups such as IS and al Qaeda, and the closure of Al Jazeera, which is a disproportionately powerful mouthpiece for Qatari foreign policy.
Most commentators regarded these demands as unrealistic and a provocation. The air, land and sea blockade of Qatar’s food imports, half of which normally come through Saudi Arabia, has been circumvented by flights through Iranian airspace. More difficult for Qatar have been the economic sanctions causing damage to its banks, airlines and media, such as Al Jazeera.
By late July, after US attempts to defuse the crisis had failed, a spate of US media stories embarrassing the Saudis forced them to reduce their demands to six watered down ‘principles’. The closure of Al Jazeera is no longer on the list but the blockade remains in force.
Qatar’s discussions with Iran over energy began after Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which changed the balance of forces in the war. The negotiations were for a new gas pipeline to run from Qatar’s massive Gulf Pars energy fields through Iran, Iraq and Syria to Europe – known as the ‘Friendship pipeline’.
This pipeline would replace an earlier Saudi plan for piping Qatari natural gas through Saudi Arabia and a fragmented Syria to Turkey. Qatar, which had earlier made a $3 billion contribution to the war against the Syrian government, adapted its foreign policy when it became clear that western-backed forces would be unable to topple Assad.
The success of the ‘Friendship pipeline’ would represent a significant weakening of Saudi power, as well as a wider threat to western energy control. Hence the Saudi attempt to disrupt it.
The Saudis are also concerned at the reach of Qatari power through its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s reactionary politics, its youthful mass base in Egypt and Gaza poses a threat to both the absolute monarchies of the Gulf and Sisi. The Muslim Brotherhood connection extends to Turkey, bringing that powerful regional player directly into the conflict, with Turkish troops stationed in Qatar posing a further obstacle to Saudi domination.
The Saudi demand that Qatar stop funding terrorists is widely regarded as hypocritical. Both countries fund IS, al Qaeda and the Taliban. Qatar’s foreign minister admitted in 2012 that he was ‘very much against excluding anyone’ among the Islamist terrorist groups from funding by his country.
Saudi Arabia has spent £3.1 billion for the promulgation of Wahabist ideology in the UK and elsewhere, according to rightwing British think-tank the Henry Jackson Society. Historian Mark Curtis comments: “The British elite is perfectly aware of the insidious role that Saudi Arabia plays in fomenting terrorism.” Indeed, leaked documents published in the Egyptian Al-Badil newspaper recently revealed direct Saudi (and UAE) ruling family support for terrorist groups.
A report into Saudi terror links was blocked in mid-July by Theresa May for reasons of ‘national security’ – in other words, protecting the huge arms trade with Saudi Arabia which makes 83% of total UK arms exports.
Saudi anger with Qatar arises, then, not from Qatari support for terror groups as such, but for backing the wrong kind – the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Shia militants in eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and Hizbollah in Lebanon.
The trigger for the crisis came during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May, in which he wholeheartedly endorsed the regime and branded Iran a threat to peace. His aim is to create an ‘Arab Nato’ led by Riyadh, based on the GCC’s armed entity, the Peninsula Shield Force. A Saudi-led Arab military alliance would crush all non-compliance with imperialism in the region: Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah, the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, and any signs of democratic struggle.
Though Trump appears to have encouraged the Saudi aggression against Qatar, White House policy is being diluted by the US state department. Qatar has the second-largest US military presence in the Gulf, including its command center for Syrian action. Many US air raids leave from the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and the US has recently sold Qatar $12 billion worth of F-15 fighters.
At the same time, US arms sales to the Saudis worth $100bn show its clear intention to promote a major regional gendarme. But Qatar’s refusal to cave in to Saudi threats has led to a messy stalemate. Hence Rex Tillerson’s visit to Qatar again in July – ostensibly to agree collective counter-terrorism measures, but really to try to restore order.
However, Qatar’s upstart foreign policy against Saudi Arabia’s bullying cannot easily be negotiated away. And the ousting of the CIA’s preferred Saudi leader Mohamed bin Nayef – who opposed the Qatar blockade – by hothead crown prince Mohamed bin Salman suggests increased instability ahead.
WIDER CAUSES OF THE CONFLICT
There is a wider aspect to the crisis, according to commentator Pepe Escobar, who points to Qatar’s natural gas exports to China and the fact that these will soon be paid for in Renminbi not dollars, threatening US petrodollar domination.
The US takes dollar dominance seriously. Part of its animosity towards Gadaffi, according to a Wikileaks email from Hillary Clinton’s adviser Sid Blumental to his boss in April 2011, derived from the fact that Gadaffi was initiating a Pan-Arab bank with Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak, with the aim of establishing an Arab gold dinar and being paid for oil exports in it rather than dollars. This, along with France’s push to control Libyan oil, became a threat to US influence. In the same way, the Qatar conflict can be seen as part of large large-power rivalries. With 35% of all shipped oil passing through the Straits of Hormuz to China and the Far East, if the US can control Qatar and the chokepoints of Suez and the Straits of Hormuz, it can squeeze China – and by extension other Gulf energy users like Russia and Europe too.
This explains the recent naval exercises in the Straits by the Chinese and Iranian navies, part of the growing closeness between Iran and China – with Iran soon to become a full member of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (a rival to US economic supremacy) and a strategic participant in China’s New Silk Road project.
Saudi threats against Qatar have failed, in the face of Qatari intransigence and US state department disquiet.
A Saudi war with Qatar was never very likely, given the presence of US and Turkish troops on Qatari soil, and Qatar’s own massive arms stocks, including British weapons worth £120 million in a deal signed two years ago – as well as Qatar’s growing ties with Iran, Turkey and Iraq.
Overall, Saudi regional leadership has been weakened by the blockade, with Kuwait and Oman breaking ranks to urge restraint and refusing to expel Qatar from the GCC. The new Saudi crown prince, the hawk in charge of its failing war in Yemen and probably behind the terrorist bombing of Teheran, represents an unreliable partner for US policy, which itself is strategically unclear.
Given this Saudi incompetence, the wider threat of a Saudi war on Iran is also currently unlikely – with the Saudi military bogged down in Yemen. Not that this precludes such a war breaking out through an accident or mistake.
As for Trump’s election pledge to tear up Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, he has so far not done so. His equivocation reveals US isolation. Europe is seeking rapprochement with Iran – France’s Total, for instance, has just signed a $4.8 billion deal with Iran for natural gas. China and Russia support Iran too. Thus, US options are limited.
By encouraging the Saudis to threaten Qatar, Trump hoped at least to rein in the latter and limit its autonomous policy. But his bid to strengthen Saudi leadership of the region has backfired, pushing Qatar closer to Iran.
The GCC, formed in 1981 as a counter to Iran, is unlikely to recover. As the individual GCC powers increasingly seek advantage for themselves, co-operation will inevitably turn to antagonism. With no choice but to continue dividing and ruling the Middle East, the US is creating problems it cannot control.