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Saudi Arabia’s attack on Qatar unravels

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani shake hands during a ceremony in Doha, Qatar, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. Erdogan is on a two-day state visit to the Gulf emirate.(AP Photo/Yasin Bulbul, Presidential Press Service, Pool)

A week into the crisis Saudi Arabia instigated when it broke diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed a land and air blockade of the tiny Gulf state, it is becoming clear that it is failing to bring Qatar to heel.

Instead Qatar has successfully secured pledges of support from Turkey and Iran – the two military giants in this region – appears to have the tacit support of Kuwait, and is gaining diplomatic traction with Russia.

As for the US, though US President Trump has seemed to tilt to Saudi Arabia’s side in this quarrel, US Secretary of State Tillerson – who as a former oil executive must know this region well – seems intent on taking a more conciliatory line towards Qatar, calling for the blockade on Qatar to be lifted.  I have no doubt it will be his counsels which in the US will eventually prevail.

The US cannot afford to break relations with Qatar.  Not only is Qatar strategically positioned as a key oil and gas producer but even more importantly it is home to the US’s gigantic Al Udeid Air Base, by far the biggest US air base in the Middle East, and a key element in the US’s whole military position in both the Middle East and the Gulf.  Suffice to say that the US military’s Central Command has its forward base in this region at Al Udeid Air Base.

Whilst I do not know this for a fact, I think it is at least possible that Saudi Arabia’s breaking of diplomatic relations and the land and air blockade it imposed on Qatar were intended to be followed up by a ground invasion of Qatar.

Such an aggressive step would be very much in character for Saudi Arabia’s volatile de facto leader Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Much as former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1990 mistook a conversation with the US ambassador as a green light from the US to invade Kuwait, so it is possible that the equally foolhardy Prince Mohammed bin Salman misread some comments of US President Trump during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia as a green light for a Saudi attack on Qatar.

If so I am quite sure that President Trump – who is completely inexperienced in the intricacies of inter-Arab quarrels, and has little experience of international diplomacy generally – meant by whatever comments he made no such thing.

One other person who I am sure also thinks that Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have had a ground invasion of Qatar on his mind is President Erdogan of Turkey.  His willingness to rush Turkish troops to Qatar has come in for some understandable criticism.  However it looks to me as if it was intended to warn the Saudis against any ideas they might have had about an invasion of Qatar.

President Erdogan’s decision to side with Qatar in this quarrel was actually fully predictable and is a consequence of Turkey’s domestic politics.

Erdogan’s party – the Justice and Development Party – has close links to the Muslim Brotherhood of which Qatar is the financial patron.  Indeed it would not be wholly wrong to think of the Justice and Development Party as the Turkish branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Given that the Saudi assault on Qatar is targeted as much at the Muslim Brotherhood as against Qatar itself, Erdogan has no realistic option but to side with Qatar in this quarrel or risk upsetting the activists of his own party.

Had Prince Mohammed bin Salman thought this all through carefully before he acted, he would have realised that US support for an attack on Qatar would not be forthcoming, and that Turkey was bound to side in any quarrel between Qatar and Saudi Arabia with Qatar.  Instead he seems to have thrown caution to the winds, with the result that he has managed to bring Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Kuwait all closer together.

Since Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s original objective – to the extent one can discern one – seems to have been to isolate Iran, an action which has instead resulted in Iran becoming de facto allied with Turkey, Qatar and Kuwait in a quarrel over Qatar in which Saudi Arabia does not have the unequivocal support of the US must be considered a failure.

As my colleague Adam Garrie correctly says, the US seems to have decided to take a backseat to Russia in this crisis.

It will be interesting to see what face-saving formula the Russians can come up with to get Prince Mohammed bin Salman out of the mess he has got himself into.

What do you think?

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