The Arab League, which is generally known for siding with the US against secular Arab states like Syria and formerly Libya, now has some of its key members turning against a high ranking member of the club.
Qatar, like Saudi Arabia practices a variety of Salafi Islam, an extreme version of Islam, one that many Islamic scholars consider aberrant or an apostasy. Similarly, Qatar like Saudi Arabia generally follows the same pro-US foreign policy in the region and has been deeply desirous to overthrow the secular government of the Syrian Arab Republic in order to more easily construct a pipeline running through Syria.
Generally Saudi and Qatar are more or less on the same page in terms of both foreign policy and indeed in terms of domestic policy, but now a spat between the two countries has erupted and its reverberations are shaking the wider Arab world.
The proximate cause of the dispute is a not so private attempt on the part of the Qatari leadership to make amends with Iran.
Recently, the official state Qatar News Agency ran a story on Twitter carrying a statement by Qatar’s supreme ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani which called for a wider rapprochement between the Sunni Arab world and Iran. In the statement, the Qatari leader was also reported as praising the Lebanese party Hezbollah which is allied with both secular Syria and Shi’a Iran.
The comments were quickly deleted and hackers were blamed for the post, but a great deal of damage was done and few in the Gulf believed the ‘hacker’ story. Qatari media outlet Al Jazeera has also been accused in the wider Arab world of supporting US backed Islamist extremists throughout the region, a claim which happens to be objectively true.
It has emerged that since the infamous deleted Tweets from the Qatar News Agency, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani held a positive phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, something which infuriated the leaders of Saudi and the UAE.
As a result, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and also Egypt and the Yemeni factional government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, have severed all relations with Qatar.
Iranian deputy chief of staff Hamid Aboutalebi has condemned the move saying,
“The era of cutting diplomatic ties and closing borders… is not a way to resolve crisis… as I said before, aggression and occupation will have no result but instability”.
Iran understands the real reason behind the Saudi led moves to isolate Qatar, but in a move of sheer hypocrisy. The public excuse for the cutting of ties is that Qatar supports terrorism.
Making things even more ironic, many in the Gulf are citing the following report from Wikileaks as the proximate cause of the severing of relations with Qatar,
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) June 5, 2017
Here, Wikileaks once again affirmed that Hillary Clinton was well aware of both Saudi and Qatar’s funding of ISIS. It beggars belief that Saudi should lead the call for Qatar’s isolation for doing what Saudi also does. But then again it would look rather odd to cut off relations with one’s self.
Behind the clear charade there are subtle differences. Qatar continues to support extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas while Saudi opts to limit itself to covertly supporting even more extreme groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Egypt has been the victim of terrorist groups funded by Saudi and Qatar. The fact that Egypt would also join the Gulf states severing ties with Qatar in this sense actually has a real legitimacy behind it. The sad fact that Egypt for example, would sever ties with Qatar and not Saudi, demonstrates the political influence of Saudi on the wider Middle East. Even Egypt, the largest Arab state was afraid to cut off ties with Qatar until Saudi did the same, albeit for totally disingenuous reasons.
The Egyptian government released the following statement regarding its decision to sever ties with Qatar,
“The Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt has decided to sever diplomatic relations with Qatar because of the continued hostility of the Qatari authorities towards Egypt”.
Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood led Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to sever ties briefly in 2014, but this ultimately led to little in the long term. Today’s wider severing of ties could be more profound.
The Republic of Maldives as well as the Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk has also now cut ties with Qatar.
According to Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Dairi,
“Qatar has been the main source of supplying weapons to the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and other armed Islamist groups since 2012 and poses a threat to the national security of the Arab world”.
In respect of Yemen, The Saudis who back the Hadi government of Yemen, also accuse Qatar of aiding Houthi fighters who are backed by Iran and support the contested Presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Again, Qatar’s covert and at times not so covert aid of the Houthi backed factions in Yemen is best understood as a geo-political portfolio diversification than anything more ideological.
Saudi Arabia is well aware that its handsomely funded military remains among the most poorly trained in the wider region. The Saudi military is losing a war to poorly armed Houthi fighters in neighbouring Yemen. The idea that they could militarily take on Iran, which has one of the most professionally trained armies in the world, is simply laughable and deep down the Saudis know this. Because of this, Saudi have tried to bribe the rest of the Sunni Arab world into its anti-Iranian jihad, something which the United States has supported.
The problem with Qatar is that it cannot be bought. Although far smaller than Saudi, Qatar is a rich, extremist, Sunni state, but it apparently does not like competition and in that respect and consequently it is diversifying its geo-political portfolio.
The first rule of diplomatic analysis is not to listen to what Saudi Arabia says. Instead one ought to observe what Saudi Arabia does. In this case, they are afraid that Qatar is using the Iranian Trump card to attempt to break Saudi’s geo-political monopoly on Gulfi policy positions.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said of the row,
“We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences”.
He went on to say that the spat would not affect America’s role in the region.
The fact that Saudi and its allies, as well as secular Egypt and war torn Yemen have also joined in proves that as Nikolay Chernyshevsky once said “the worse, the better”.