President Trump’s simplistic siding with Saudi Arabia and Israel – and his callous reaction to a terror attack on Iran – are fueling new tensions in the Middle East, including the Qatar crisis, as ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke explains.
By Alastair Crooke
Have “MbS” and “MbZ” overreached themselves? It is still early in the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, but yes, it seems so. And in so doing, the hubris of Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the Saudi defense minister and the powerful son of Saudi King Salman, and Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, will change the region’s geopolitical architecture.
President’s Trump’s (flawed) base strategic premises (and narratives) that Iran is the ultimate source of all instability in the region, and that the smacking down of Qatar, a major patron of Palestinian Hamas, per se, was a good thing, and should be applauded, bear direct responsibility for the direction in which regional geopolitics will now flow.
President Trump returned from his first overseas trip convinced that he had unified the United States’ historic Arab allies, and dealt a strong blow against terrorism. He did neither. He has been badly informed.
The fissure between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is an old, storied affair, which harks back to longstanding al-Saud angst at the original British decision to empower the al-Thani family in their Qatar foothold in an otherwise all-Saudi fiefdom. But if we lay aside, for a moment, the airing of the long list of Saudi and UAE contemporary complaints against Qatar, which for most part, simply serve as justification for recent action, we should return to the two principles that fundamentally shape the al-Saud mindset and strategy – and which lie at the heart of this current spat with Qatar.
The Reactionary Saudis
Firstly, the al-Saud are convinced that there can be absolutely no legitimate or admissible challenge to the Islamic purity of their credentials as successors-in-authority to the Quresh (the tribe of The Prophet), or as the guardians of Islam’s two holy shrines. And secondly, as followers of Mohammad al-Wahhab, they are convinced that they alone – the representatives of the Wahhabi orientation – constitute the true and only Islam. The Shi’a, by contrast, are viewed as apostates, innovators, revisionists and “rejectionists” (i.e. deniers of this history of legitimate transmission of Islamic authority to the al-Saud).
What has this to do with Qatar (which is Wahhabi too)? Well, a number of things: firstly, the Qatari leadership in the Saudi view, is upstart (i.e. purely a product of British colonial politics), and does not – through its independent actions – show any due respect for the legitimacy and rightness of Saudi authority and leadership. Rather, Qatar sets itself up as a peer rival – as a usurper.
Secondly, Hamas: The point here is not that Hamas is a Palestinian resistance movement, or “terrorist.” It is that it is a part of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that during its Nasserist exile in the Gulf, it gave intellectual polish to the Wahhabist doctrine (i.e. Salafism) at the Saudi behest, but then added a mean “twist” to its tail: Instead of awarding worldly sovereignty to the Saudi monarchs – horror of horror – the Muslim Brothers (MB) ascribed sovereignty to the Umma (the community of Believers).
Qatar, in patronizing Hamas therefore, is seen as empowering the strain of Sunni Islamism, which directly challenges Saudi kingship and legitimacy. They (the al-Saud) want the MB crushed – not because they are “terrorist” (as Trump evidently assumes), but because they disdain hereditary, monarchial rulership.
But additionally, Qatar harbored, and still harbors (and pays for), an irreverent, “disrespectful” press that both questions the status quo and gives play to Muslim Brotherhood “democratic” sentiments. The UAE and Saudi Arabia want Qatar’s irritating media closed. All of it: Al Jazeera, Al Arabi al Jadid, Al Quds al Arabi, and the Arabic edition of Huffington Post, along with the expulsion of Azmi Bishara, a Qatar-based Palestinian public intellectual and author who is now general director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.
Diplomacy with Iran
And as the final “sin,” Qatar (in company with GCC members Oman and Kuwait), seeks a modus vivendi with Iran (i.e. with the “rejectionists,” themselves), and therefore is putting the very principles of the “Sunni Alliance” at risk.
As Dr. Emile Nakhleh, a former Senior Intelligence Service officer, and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the CIA, notes: “Tensions within the GCC go back to its creation in May 1981. However reluctantly, Gulf Arab emirates acceded to Riyadh’s invitation to enlist because they supported the organization’s three main objectives: to help preserve tribal family rule; stifle all anti-regime democratic protests and preserve autocracy; and enlist Western military support to defend the Gulf Arab littoral from the perceived threat of Iran following its 1979 revolution.”
In brief, this dispute has nothing to do with simplistic Western notions of fighting “terrorism” – it has everything to do with power — restoring and bolstering Saudi power. Saudi Arabia’s leaders are feeling weak and vulnerable. It is time, they feel, to draw “a line in the sand”: The unexpected, but plainly pre-prepared, strike at Qatar represented the drawing of a “line.”
Saudi Defense Minister MbS’s friends, long before this, had begun to frame the conflict with Iran as a religious war against the Shi’a by using the language of jihad both in order to mobilize the base, and to promote a Sunni military alliance (led by Saudi Arabia), that would restore Saudi influence across the Middle East. Call to religious jihad is a well-tried tool for forcing cohesion.
But as Gregory Copley noted in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy recently, [by the time MbS met President Trump in the Oval Office on March 14] “Prince Mohammad had already committed Saudi Arabia to a path from which it was difficult to retire gracefully. As a result, Riyadh was pushing its erstwhile friends deeper into a commitment to fight its wars, with it – or for it. Prince Mohammad continues to demand that Pakistan enter the conflict in Yemen, despite the fact that this was being promoted by Riyadh as a war against the Shi’a sect of Islam (and therefore against Iran), whilst Pakistan has a significant (20 percent plus) Shi’a minority.”
Sweeping Up Trump
Copley summed up the March 14 meeting thus: “Prince Mohammad seemed to want to sweep President Trump into the Saudi camp – and to speak for all Muslims [on Trump’s behalf] on how the Trump Administration would be good for them.”
But here was the rub, not only Pakistan, but GCC members Qatar, Oman and Kuwait disagreed. They did not want this sectarian war: they wanted accommodation with the Shi’a (Kuwait has a sizeable population of Shi’a). The Qatari leader too, had recently reconciled the Sunni and Shi’a branches of the influential Tamim tribe (which extends into the Saudi Nejd) under his leadership. This represented a direct slap in the face to bin Salman’s deliberately polarizing, “jihad” rhetoric – and to his hope of enlisting Trump to the (weakening Saudi camp).
Why did Trump go along? His two key “tweets” during this week, give compelling evidence of his “capture” by a one-sided “narrative.” Firstly, we had Trump’s tweet claiming credit for the UAE and Saudi ultimatum and blockade of Qatar. It gives the impression that the President thought that this MbS and MbZ ploy was somehow striking a blow at the financing of terrorism, and cornering Iran.
Then as Ishaan Tharoor wrote in the Washington Post in the wake of the assault on Tehran (ISIS attack on Parliament and a shrine), condemnations and condolences rained in (to Tehran) from around the world:
“And then there was President Trump. The White House has made a particular habit of commenting swiftly on Islamic State-related attacks elsewhere, be they in Paris, London, Manchester or even a phantom episode in the Philippines. But for many hours Wednesday, Trump was conspicuously quiet. The State Department’s spokeswoman issued a pro forma condemnation, asserting that ‘the depravity of terrorism has no place in a peaceful, civilized world.’
“When Trump ultimately broke his silence, though, his message snuffed out whatever goodwill American diplomats may have wanted to convey [emphasis added].
“‘We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times,’ began the statement, before concluding with a startling swipe at Tehran. ‘We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.’”
A Grave Insult
These tweets imply clearly President Trump’s wholesale embrace of the agenda and rhetoric of Iran’s major rivals in the region: Saudi Arabia and Israel. This was a landmark tweet, which neither will be forgotten, nor forgiven in the region. It was not some political slip-up. It was more serious than mere politics, or whether Trump likes or dislikes Iran. It transgresses in terms of human feelings; it disrespects human “being.”
The Manchester bombing, the London Bridge cutting of throats, were abhorrent, but still – mercifully – exceptional occurrences. Shi’a men, women and children suffer a “Manchester” every day in Iraq, in Syria and Yemen. A total of 163 civilians, including women and children, escaping Mosul, were slaughtered by ISIS just days ago. Hundreds of thousands of Shi’a Arabs, Turkmen and others today sit in refugee camps mourning their beheaded husbands, sons and brothers. And the bodies of those fighting ISIS in Iraq arrive in the Mosques to a daily rhythm.
Trump effectively said these people “had it coming to them” for supporting “terrorism.” Until this point, Iran and the Shi’a world were truly willing to give Trump the benefit of their doubts. That has changed now, I believe. Trump has made himself – unnecessarily – into a callous, ideological enemy of the Shi’a.
There is no one “truth” in the Middle East: Prince Bandar, when still head of Saudi Intelligence, once told the head of MI6 that: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia.’ More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”
The MI6 Chief understood from these words that the subsequent anti-Shi’a jihad in Iraq and Syria and the rise of ISIS was not, somehow unconnected with Bandar’s somber warnings.
Trump’s Bad Advice
“Terrorism” is never as straight-forward as it may seem, when observed from a safe distance. The two tweets, in short, make the U.S. President appear naïve and bigoted (which generally, he is not). Trump is quite capable of thinking out of the box – but he needs less self-serving, one-sided, factional advice. A better policy would be for him simply to maintain ties with all the main regional players.
What will be the outcome of this crisis, which is, in fact, a reactionary strike against the forces for change? Reports suggest that the Saudi leadership expected Qatar’s complete capitulation to the blockade within 24 hours. They may have misjudged egregiously. Qatar, may be tiny, but its financial tentacles have real reach, and muscle (in an economically needy time).
It has big friends too (Turkey and, more cautiously, Iran and perhaps Russia and Iraq standing in the background, too). Qatar may try to compromise, and to play it long, but initial reports suggest that MbS and MbZ are immoveable (they treated the Kuwaiti Emir with disdain and discourtesy). We shall see.
In any event, it is questionable whether the GCC as such, will survive such a bludgeoning by Saudi Arabia. We may see a fracture of the Gulf world, with Turkey or Egypt trying to gather up enough pieces to displace Saudi leadership. In any event, the geo-political landscape will shift: either the political center of gravity will displace to the north, with Turkey gaining a strategic foothold in the Arab world, or MbS will attempt to double down.
However, any desperate attempt such as a military occupation of Qatar (on Bahrain lines) by Saudi Arabia, could lead to serious escalation – or even to a military clash. And one may question also, whether the al-Saud family will view a putsch – which is what may be intended – against a fellow Gulf leader, as just a bridge too far.
Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum.