The cold war in the desert may become a new medium term reality for the Gulf and wider Middle East as both sides become more entrenched in their positions.
Qatar has refused a Saudi authored ultimatum whose contents were leaked to the press. A Qatari official has called the ultimatum “unrealistic” and “unreasonable” and it is not difficult to see why as capitulation to Saudi Arabia’s demands would essentially reduce Qatar to the status of a Saudi client state.
Now the UAE which has strongly backed the Saudi position, has implied that the countries currently boycotting Qatar do not intend to engage Qatar militarily nor do they seek regime change in Doha. According to the UAE’s Foreign Minister, the anti-Qatar parties instead seek to change the “behaviour” of the government in Doha.
Enter a classic cold war scenario where economic disputes and a competition for geo-political authority and prestige are cloaked in an ideological struggle that ultimately no one is willing to die for.
Anwar Gargash the UAE’s Foreign Minister has described the situation from the pro-Saudi viewpoint, saying,
“The alternative is not escalation, the alternative is parting of ways, because it is very difficult for us to maintain a collective grouping”.
With both sides seemingly unwilling to compromise and with Qatar given a list of ultimatums that no state could reasonably expect to voluntarily abide by, one could witness this cold war in the desert having wider implications in a broader regional shift in the Middle East. The first victim of this shift will be the functionality of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
With Iran growing sympathetic to the plight of Qatar and Turkey openly advocating for a pro-Qatari settlement, the two most important non-Arab powers in the region are now in alignment on a key issue after years being on opposite sides of the war in Syria for years.
With the war in Syria winding down and Turkey increasingly infuriated at America’s alignment with Kurdish fighters, there is a very real possibility that Turkey, Iran and more broadly Russia could find themselves as allies in the Middle East. Such a triumvirate already forms the basis of the Astana Group, the only realistic collective working for peace in Syria. The western backed Geneva process is by contrast, largely a talking shop that cannot really accomplish anything.
Furthermore, with the main Sunni powers of the Gulf plus the Arab world’s largest predominately Sunni state, Egypt all stacked against Qatar, one is now witnessing the odd reality that a Salafist Sunni kleptocracy, Qatar may be tempted into making connections with the Shi’a powers in the region. Indeed, statements from the Emir of Qatar praising the Shi’a Lebanese party Hezbollah were widely interpreted as geo-political sacrilege by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
What this shows is that while Saudi propagandists have been promoting the idea that a Shi’a crescent is being formed between Iran, Iraq, Syria and southern Lebanon, the truth is that the political realities in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are vastly more manifold than the simplistic Sunni versus Shi’a narrative that Saudi has been propagandising.
Ironically though, in isolating Qatar in the name of being a ‘lapsed Sunni power’, Saudi has created a Shi’a crescent running from the Gulf across the Red Sea into Egypt with Qatar being isolated in the centre of this crescent and Shi’a Houthis in Yemen being the biggest victims ‘in the way’ of completing this crescent.
Although secular Egypt is not about to turn into a Gulf style state, Egypt’s hatred of both Qatar and Turkey’s support for its ousted Muslim Brotherhood government mean that Riyadh and Cairo now have a common enemy, albeit for different reasons.
Egypt’s anger at Qatar is actually based on something more meaningful than pride and greed. It is based on Egypt’s survival which as any Nasserist can explain, is put in peril by the Brotherhood whenever it comes close to power. Secular Syrians feel the same hatred for the Brotherhood under their secular Shi’a leadership as Egypt does under its secular Sunni leadership.
Israel in spite of being a Zionist state and not a Wahhabi Kingdom is firmly on the side of Saudi in this new cold war. Cold wars after all make for strange bedfellows and the emerging new relationship between Saudi and Israel is less strange than many. Just consider Hindu India’s close relationship with the communist/atheist USSR.
Like in any Cold War, countries that do not conform into one sphere of influence or another are in the unique position of being non-aligned. As such both major powers will try to court the non-aligned states.
If Iran represents the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia represents the USA in the cold war in the desert, each side will seek to attract those who do not fit into the mould of a staunch Iranian or Saudi ally.
When the Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu started exercising a unilateral foreign policy in spite of being part of the Warsaw Pact, he was courted by the United States.
Likewise, Egypt’s Nasser was masterful at courting both Moscow and Washington, certainly for a time.
It seems that Saudi and the UAE will now vacillate between increased threats towards Qatar and an increased private acceptance that Qatar has been ‘lost’, just as Moscow ‘lost’ Yugoslavia in the 1940s.
The Cold War between communist and capitalist states in the second half of the 20th century led to many proxy wars. In the case of the Middle East, the proxy wars came first, many which were outgrowths of the original Cold War.
In this new cold war in the desert, perhaps suspicion and propaganda will replace terrorism and war. In this sense, the developments in the Gulf might be positive. After all, a cold war gets its name because it is a conflict in which no shots are formally fired. If the Middle East cannot attain peace, at least it can perhaps function under a perpetual stalemate which might create a less-violent balance of power.