The move by a group of countries led by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt – with Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Maldives toeing the line – to severe ties with Qatar and to isolate that tiny country in the Persian Gulf region comes as a surprise. It is happening hardly a fortnight after the US President Donald Trump’s high profile visit to Saudi Arabia with an agenda, amongst other things, to resurrect the old pragmatic Sunni alliance against Iran comprised of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, Morocco – with Israel discreetly behind. (New York Times)
Possibly, Saudis estimated that with the relations with the US almost back to the halcyon days of the era of the Bush family, this is an opportune moment to discipline Qatar, the only other Wahhabi state in the region. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had uneasy relations all along, the latter harbouring the fear that someday Riyadh might do a “Bahrain” on it too.
Two years back, Qatar invited Turkey to establish a military base in Doha. Both Qatar and Turkey patronise the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis and the UAE, on the other hand, view the Brothers as having a secret agenda to overthrow their regimes. Things become a little more complicated when we also factor in Qatar’s dalliance with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archetypal rival.
Qatar is an utterly fascinating country which has made a fine art of punching far above its weight – and getting away with it most of the time. Of course, it suffered a severe setback in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi, which it supported, was deposed in a military coup in July 2013 backed by Saudi Arabia and UAE. The military dictator General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (presently Egypt’s president) sent the Qataris packing. Qatar has been in the dog house in Cairo ever since. Of course, Qatar is a smart investor in western capitals and was credited with having much clout with the French elite. The US Central Command is headquartered in Doha, too.
What brings together Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt to devise a containment strategy against Qatar is their common interest in getting the Brothers evicted from their safe haven in Qatar. Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Maldives have simply complied with Saudi diktat. (New Delhi must take note of the growing Saudi influence in Male.) Interestingly, amongst the GCC states, Kuwait and Oman have taken a neutral stance.
Qatar is unlikely to be cowed down, but it is a pragmatic regime which is always open to compromise. Turkey and Iran have counselled restraint, dialogue and reconciliation by the two sides. In 2014 when a similar showdown took place between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it lasted for 8 months.
The good thing is that this rift between the Sheikhs in the Arab world virtually means that the Saudi progeny known as the Islamic Military Alliance is not going to take off. Although projected originally as an anti-terrorism alliance, it has since emerged that the Saudis intend to deploy the IMA against Shi’ite Iran.
Trump also fancies an “Arab NATO” to counter Iran’s regional influence. But, precisely because of this sectarian overtone, most Muslim countries will develop cold feet apropos the IMA. Some rethink is going on even in Pakistan as regards its association with the IMA. (See an editorial in Dawn newspaper, Dangerous alliance.)
The “Arab NATO” is a pernicious idea because it can only end up as an instrument of US regional strategy. It means, quintessentially, the perpetuation of the US hegemony without direct military interventions by pitting the countries in the Muslim Middle East against each other. The US would ensure that “Arab NATO” remains a big buyer of American weaponry too.
Unfortunately, Trump is fuelling Saudi belligerence. Yet, he knows fully well that it was Saudi Wahhabism, which laid the theological foundation for modern radical Islam. Wahhabism is directly responsible for the creation of Taliban and Al Qaeda and the propagation of Islam in the West. In a devastating critique of Trump’s Middle East policy, a former Israeli ambassador wrote in today’s Jerusalem Post:
For Trump’s vision to be implemented, all places of higher learning in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, including Al Azhar in Egypt, would have to thoroughly change the teachings of the Sharia and oral traditions (including the Hadith and the Life of Mohammad) which are the theological basis of the creation and operations of Jihadi Islamic organizations.
It must be noted that the Egyptian president has already urged Al Azhar to do away with extremist trends in Islam, so far to no avail. Can Trump be more successful? It does not seem likely. Arab countries will fight terror organizations more forcefully but will be reluctant to touch the tenets of their religion.