Trump’s jamboree in Riyadh was intended as part of a US plan to ‘confront’ Iran. This certainly will be good for the stock prices of Northrop Grumman, Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon as Saudi Arabia, fresh from spinning its way out of responsibility for the 9/11 attacks in NY, piles up an unbelievable amount of weaponry, most of which it can’t possibly use. Nobody has told the Saudis that the Iranians have developed an asymmetrical style of warfare for the past 35 years, which has defeated all attempts by even the US to overcome it.
But from the Saudi point of view the $110bn arms (+ $220bn commercial) deal signed with Trump is nothing but a bribe to get the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) repealed, to keep the US onside in the increasingly unpopular Yemen War, and to buy the US President’s acquiescence to the whims of Saudi foreign policy. This, Trump is quite happy to do for the money, being as it is in character for him to issue contradictory statements within minutes of each other, even if, in the case of the Saudi/UAE sanctions against Qatar, this stands in stark contrast to the Pentagon’s statements on the effectiveness of its alliance with the country and the importance of CENTCOM’s HQ there.
On the face of it Saudi and the UAE leaders came out of the Trump meeting feeling they had carte blanche to crush Qatar as part of the ‘anti-Iran’ front, because of Qatar’s friendly relations with Iran with whom it shares its most important asset, the South Pars/North Dome Gas Condensate field. The odd thing is that the UAE is actually itself one of Iran’s largest trading partners. Nevertheless, this doesn’t compare with the strategic importance of Qatar’s cooperation with Iran over LNG exports from the joint field and through the Straits of Hormuz. This lies at the centre of Qatar’s independent foreign policy which Saudi and the UAE view antagonistically.
Over the past four years the relationship Between Qatar and the UAE has been strained over Qatar’s independent stand against UAE leader Mohamed bin Zayed’s (MbZ) counterrevolutionary rampage across the Middle East.
The UAE media has developed and promulgated the meme that Qatar ‘supports terrorism’ which the help of neocon think-tanks such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which are only too thankful for the new UAE largesse coming their way and for the attention they are getting, having been marginalised within the Washington Beltway after the advent of Trump.
In sum, Trump’s anti-Iranian project is being invested by MbZ, who has considerable personal influence on the ambitious and highly impetuous Mohamed bin Salman (MbS), son of the dementia-afflicted Saudi king, to further his personal goals. These have been understood to have always centered on the division of Saudi Arabia, and the integration of the Eastern Province into the UAE. The fact that Qatar lies next to this area, and that its leadership is keenly aware of MbZ’s machinations, has made them traditional enemies.
Oddly, while MbZ’s previous involvement in a plot against King Salman, MbS’s father, during the last Saudi succession, is well known, all seems to have been forgotten from the Saudi government perspective since the UAE agreed to join MbS’s signature war in Yemen: a war which he would direct as effective Prime Minister and Defence Minister and which was supposed to catapult the young man over two generations of claimants onto the throne in short measure. This meant MbZ turning against the Houthi rebellion, which he had backed and funded against the Yemeni government led by the Muslim Brotherhood party, al-Islah, from the start.
The sudden sanctioning and cutting of relations with Qatar is clearly a step beyond the 2014 diplomatic row, and an invitation for a coup to take place in Qatar. But while UAE media claims that Qatar, among its ‘terrorist’ activities, is supporting the rebel Houthis in Yemen, it is well known that MbZ is actually host in Abu Dhabi to Ali Abdulla al-Saleh the ex-Yemeni president and chief backer of the Houthis to this day, and that his support for the Houthis had never really ended. MbZ is playing both sides against the middle.
Meanwhile, Qatari soldiers are regularly reported killed, fighting the Houthis in support of Saudi Arabia. The Qatari Emir’s resistance to MbZ’s idea of a formal north/south division of Yemen was the most recent flashpoint between the two leaders. Called the ‘Aden Coup’ plot, the UAE leader was planning to control Aden, which would have then given him control of both sides of Bab el-Mandab, given his newly acquired military bases on the Horn of Africa, in the twilight zone of Somaliland.
There is no end to MbZ’s ambitions. He runs a police state in the UAE almost out of science fiction, which has followed a systematic counterrevolutionary policy against Muslim Brotherhood political parties throughout the region. Having funded the military coup in Egypt, he now controls Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, and he followed that gambit with similar but less-successful ones in Libya and Tunisia. He was opposed to pro-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Assad Qatari and Turkish policy in Syria, and backed Turkish coup plotters in July 2016 (recently confirmed in email leaks from the UAE Ambassador’s computer in Washington).
Russia’s announcement that it doesn’t care about this new row between Gulf States, in the face of contradictory US statements, reflects its new geostrategic strength in the Middle East region. If the Gulf states become an area of instability, this massively enhance Russia’s position as a reliable source of energy, and will boost its oil and gas exports. But a Saudi/UAE invasion of Qatar, given the failure of the expected coup, is highly unlikely given the open wound of the Yemen War. Such a move would also open up a direct front with Iran, which will respond aggressively in defence of what it will understand as a threat to the South Pars Field, exactly where CENTCOM HQ is located.
If MbS might be thinking of such a move, under the influence of MbZ, this would destabilise his position within the Saudi Royal Family, given that his signature war isn’t going that well. The Yemenis didn’t roll over like he expected. Furthermore, many powerful elements in Saudi society have close relations with the Qatari al-Thani family. The Saudi/UAE move against Qatar is unlikely to achieve it objectives, and an embarrassed retreat will be more than likely.
As it is, Qatari sources deny the UAE media reports of panic buying in the shops in Doha. The Prime Minister’s office announced that food supplies have been secured for the foreseeable future, despite the closure of the Saudi border. Indeed, on the evening following the Saudi/UAE gambit the Qatari Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, was filmed hosting iftar with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood scholar, as a guest. The message was clearly that he was unmoved.
After Javad Zarif’s hurried visit to Ankara, Erdoğan now deploys Turkish troops to its Qatar military base ahead of the relevant legislation which has also been fast-tracked, and also changes his tune to take a hard line against the Saudi position after earlier making more diplomatic statements. With Turkish and Iranian help, Qatar will easily ride this storm. Even if there is reconciliation with Saudi, the die are cast. Qatar will have moved further away from the GCC axis and strengthened it relationship not just with Turkey, but Iran. The future looks bleak for MbS and more generally for Saudi Arabia.
Also read David Hearst on this subject.