There has been considerable debate about the reasons for the extraordinary diplomatic and economic attack on Qatar organised by Saudi Arabia today. What makes it baffling is that there is no real explanation for it.
It is well known that the Gulf’s two Wahhabi monarchies don’t get on well with each other. The Saudis and the Qataris have regularly competed with each for influence, for example by backing different groups of Jihadis in Libya and Syria. Qatar is also a major supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, opposes the Saudi backed Egyptian government which came to power through a military coup launched against Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s democratically elected President who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and has supported the Palestinian group Hamas, which is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, and which has also in the past had close connections with Saudi Arabia’s enemies, Syria and Iran.
The Saudis like other Gulf autocracies are also known to have been made extremely angry by some of the reporting of Al-Jazeera, the Qatari based and funded media group, which has become the most internationally known media group in the Arab world, whose displays of independence have incensed the other Gulf monarchies.
Strikingly one of the very first steps taken by Saudi Arabia following the severing of diplomatic ties with Qatar was to close down Al-Jazeera’s Saudi office and revoke its broadcasting licence. This was explained by the following somewhat bizarre announcement, which implies that Al-Jazeera has been inciting mutiny amongst Saudi troops fighting the Houthis in Yemen
The move came after Al-Jazeera has promoted plots of terrorist groups, supported the Houthi militias in Yemen, and tried to break the Saudi internal ranks by inciting them to leave the country and harm the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Lastly, there have been hints that the Qataris have been unhappy with the ultra hard line Saudi Arabia has recently been following against Iran.
Certainly it is true that the Qataris have maintained a slightly less hostile attitude towards Iran than the other Gulf States. Qatar’s ruler, emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, even had the temerity to telephone Iran’s President Rouhani recently to congratulate him on his re-election.
However, though the the ruling families of Saudi Arabia and Qatar – the Al-Sauds and the Al-Thanis – are known to dislike each other, and have long had a rivalrous relationship, they have nonetheless more often than not managed to work closely with each other, and were doing so until just hours ago in the war against the Houthis in Yemen. This is unsurprising since as both are Wahhabi Gulf oil monarchies they have so much in common with each other that it is all but inevitable that they should align with each other on most issues.
In this case what is genuinely extraordinary about the Saudi move is that the Saudis have provided no real explanation for it. As if to underscore the fact, the Saudi Press Agency has released a multiplicity of statements over the course of the day purporting to explain this decision, none of which however does so to any truly satisfactory degree.
Here is the first statement
An official source stated that the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia emanating from exercising its sovereign rights guaranteed by the international law and protecting its national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism has decided to sever diplomatic and consular relations with the State of Qatar, close all land, sea and air ports, prevent crossing into Saudi territories, airspace and territorial waters, and start immediate legal procedures for understanding with fraternal and friendly countries and international companies to implement the same procedure as soon as possible for all means of transport to and from the State of Qatar for reasons relating to Saudi national security.
Here is the second
The Command of Coalition to Support the Legitimacy in Yemen announced that it has decided to end the participation of the State of Qatar in the coalition due to its practices that enhance terrorism, support for its organisations in Yemen including Al-Qaeda and Da’esh (ISIS), and dealing with coup militias in Yemen which is contrary to the coalition’s objectives of which the most important one is fighting terrorism.
Here is the third
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken this decisive decision as a result of grave violations being committed by the authorities in Doha over the past years in secret and public aiming at dividing internal Saudi ranks, instigating against the State, infringing on its sovereignty, adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region including the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, promoting the ethics and plans of these groups through its media permanently, supporting the activities of Iranian-backed terrorist groups in the governorate of Qatif of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom of Bahrain, financing, adopting and sheltering extremists who seek to undermine the stability and unity of the homeland at home and abroad, and using the media that seek to fuel the strife internally; and it was clear to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the support and backing from the authorities in Doha for coup Al-Houthi militias even after the announcement of the Coalition to Support the Legitimacy in Yemen.
The Kingdom has also taken this decision in solidarity with the Kingdom of Bahrain being subjected to terrorist campaigns and operations supported by the authorities in Doha.
and here is the fourth and last
Since 1995, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its brothers have made strenuous and continued efforts to urge the authorities in Doha to abide by its commitments and agreements, yet, they have repeatedly violated their international obligations and the agreements they signed under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for Arab States to cease the hostilities against the Kingdom and stand against terrorist groups and activities of which the latest one was their failure to implement Riyadh Agreement.
In accordance with the decision to cut off diplomatic and consular relations, Saudi citizens are prohibited from traveling to Qatar, residing in or passing through it while they, residents and visitors have to hurry leaving its territories within 14 days.
The decision, for security reasons, unfortunately prevents Qatari citizens’ entry to or transit through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and those Qatari residents and visitors have to leave Saudi territories within 14 days, confirming the Kingdom’s commitment and keenness to provide all facilities and services for Qatari pilgrims and Umrah performers.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia affirms that it has long been patient despite the fact that the authorities in Doha continue to evade their commitments and conspire against it in the interest of the Qatari people, which is a natural and genuine extension of their brethren in the Kingdom and an integral part of their pillars. The Kingdom will continue to support the people of Qatar, its security and stability regardless of the hostile practices being carried out by the authorities in Doha.
This multiplicity of statements, which make accusations against Qatar which are so vague and general as to be all but meaningless, and which accuse Qatar of things like supporting Jihadi terrorism of which Saudi Arabia is universally known to be equally guilty, suggest that the Saudis themselves are unable to pinpoint any single action of Qatar’s that explains or justifies their decision.
There have been some suggestions that the Saudis were angered by statements carried by Qatar’s news agency on 23rd May 2017 which had Qatar’s ruler emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani criticising recent tensions with Iran and calling Hamas and Hezbollah ‘resistance organisations’.
The Qataris claim these statements were false, and were inserted on their news agency’s website as a result of a hack. I have no doubt they are right, and moreover I strongly suspect that the hackers were the Saudis, looking to manufacture pretexts for the action against Qatar which they took today.
The second and the third of the series of statements published by the Saudi Press Agency refer to the conflict in Yemen, in which Qatari troops have been fighting the Houthi militia alongside the Saudis and under Saudi command. These statements, echoing the accusations the Saudis are making against Al-Jazeera, suggest that the Saudis may have been angered by contacts between the Qataris and the Houthi militia, as well as by some of Al-Jazeera’s reporting of the Yemen war.
It is no secret that the Saudi led war against the Houthis in Yemen is not going well, and it could be that in their anger the Saudis have turned on the Qataris, who they have long resented as difficult and unruly allies, and are blaming them for the failures of the war.
Whilst this makes a kind of sense, going so far as to sever diplomatic relations and impose a land and air blockade seems a wildly precipitate and disproportionate way to express this anger.
It is also counterproductive. It suggests that Saudi Arabia is no longer willing to tolerate any show of independence by any of its allies, and take extreme action to impose its will on them.
This is bound to create resentment, with Saudi Arabia’s fellow Gulf monarchies now aware that they too may face the crack of the whip if they step out of line at any time.
In international relations it is always better to try to keep the mailed fist concealed as much as possible inside a velvet glove. The Saudis have always known this in the past, and their conduct of diplomacy has always been based on it. On this occasion they have heedlessly and pointlessly cast the glove off. Though their Gulf allies and Egypt have done as ordered, they will be quietly seething, and their populations will be even more.
There is also the question of whether this move makes any sense in geo-strategic terms. However angry Saudi Arabia may be with Qatar, whether about its failures in Yemen or over any other issue, acting in this way against Qatar is not going to solve Saudi Arabia’s problems whether in Yemen or anywhere else. Instead what Saudi Arabia has done has been to break the ranks of the Saudi led regional alliance, the Gulf Cooperation Council, handing an unlooked for diplomatic victory to Iran, which is bound to try to capitalise on the development by seeking to forge quietly closer links with a now otherwise isolated Qatar.
Qatar is also a vital ally of the US, which has a major air base in Qatar. There have been some suggestions that Saudi Arabia’s action against Qatar was cleared with Donald Trump during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia.
This is actually extremely unlikely, and though the US is unlikely to intervene directly in the quarrel on Qatar’s side, it will not be happy at a Saudi action that puts a key US ally under pressure, which threatens instability across the whole region, and which provides a potential opening for Iran.
As to the question of instability, what is so strange about the Saudi action is that the last of the four statements issued by the Saudi Press Agency today shows that the Saudis themselves are worried by the potential for instability their own action today has caused. How else to explain the following words in this statement?
The Kingdom will continue to support the people of Qatar, its security and stability regardless of the hostile practices being carried out by the authorities in Doha.
(bold italics added)
These words, saying that Saudi Arabia will continue to support Qatar’s “security and stability”, sound very strange when it is Saudi Arabia itself which by severing relations and imposing a land and air blockade is putting Qatar’s “security and stability” at risk.
If the action Saudi Arabia has taken against Qatar today is precipitate and counterproductive, then why was it taken?
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that we are seeing yet another example of the wild and reckless decision making that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, the 31 year old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is prone to.
I have already written of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s wildly overambitious plans for Saudi Arabia’s economic development, and of his paranoid plans for a pre-emptive war against Iran.
The decision to sever diplomatic relations with Qatar and to impose a land and air blockade on the country looks like another of these impulsive and ill-though-out decisions Prince Mohammed bin Salman seems prone to making.
Another example is of course the decision to invade Yemen, which is widely known to have been made by Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself, overruling the advice of more experienced Saudi Princes, and which may be the ultimate cause of the current crisis in Saudi Arabia’s relations with Qatar.
Saudi Arabia is a notoriously closed and secretive society, whose inner counsels are very difficult for outsiders to read or penetrate. However there must be people within Saudi Arabia who must be becoming increasingly worried at the erratic and increasingly reckless way in which the affairs of the Kingdom are being managed.
Not so long ago Saudi Arabia was famous throughout the region for always acting quietly and with discretion. Today under the leadership of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman it acts brazenly and irresponsibly.
One wonders for how long this will continue before opposition to Prince Mohammed bin Salman crystallises.
The Saudi Princes have in the past shown a ruthless ability to act decisively in order to preserve their positions, and it is not unknown for a Saudi King to be removed from the throne if his behaviour comes to be seen as destabilising.
Perhaps it is time for Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who is not even King yet – to start watching his back.
Better still, he needs – urgently – to start listening to some advice.