The Little Gang Who Couldn’t: Lessons from the Saudi-Qatar crisis

Harsh words for the world’s largest natural gas producer, with the highest per-capital income, and host of the 2022 Football World Cup—but to many, this West Asian crisis might seem like it can be condensed into three words: pot, kettle, black.

Written by Praveen Swami | Updated: June 5, 2017 10:14 pm
Qatar, Saudi Arabia cut ties to Qatar, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, diplomatic ties with Qatar Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, left, talks to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince (Image via AP)

SAUDI Arabia has charged Qatar with “infringing on its sovereignty, adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region including the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and al-Qaeda”. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have announced they are severing diplomatic relations. Flights to Qatar have been terminated; citizens of the Emirate have been given 14 days to leave.

Harsh words for the world’s largest natural gas producer, with the highest per-capita income, and host of the 2022 Football World Cup—but to many, this West Asian crisis might seem like it can be condensed into three words: pot, kettle, black.

“Entities and individuals within Qatar”, the United States alleged last year, “continue to serve as a source of financial support for terrorist and violent extremist groups, particularly regional al-Qa’ida affiliates”. “It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority,” wrote former United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in a leaked 2009 cable.

Behind both sides patronage of terror, though, is a larger struggle for survival, carried out by states under constant siege. The crisis Qatar now finds itself in is, ultimately, the story of a small gangster who tried to match up to the games of the big gangster—only to discover that it was the little guy who couldn’t.

The roots of the problem lie in the the regimes of both Saudi-UAE bloc and Qatar which have all the resilience of glass: monarchies with tiny populations far outnumbered by expatriates, the rulers are dependent on hydrocarbon revenues to purchase the loyalty of their own citizens. Both have adopted different policies to deal with their principal enemies, the Islamists: while Qatar has sought to co-opt Islamist parties as allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to stamp it out, seeing them as rivals.

In the late 1950s, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE gave refuge to members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a force then persecuted by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist government in Egypt. Later, though, concerned at the rise of Afghan-returned jihadists as a threat to the monarchy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE prohibited the Brotherhood’s activities.

Beginning in April 2011, the UAE instituted criminal proceedings against more than 100 people linked to the Brotherhood, whom it charged with running a secret revolutionary organisation. Qatar, however, with gargantuan oil revenues that made its population too rich to be restive and a Shi’a minority well-integrated into its bureaucracy, saw itself well poised to be a regional influence-broker. Indeed, in 1999, the local Muslim Brotherhood had dissolved its branch, on the grounds that “the State was carrying out its religious duties”.

Things really came to head in 2012, though, when Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, became the country’s first leader to travel to Tehran after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Saudi Arabia and the UAE saw this as a strategic breach. Helped by Doha, Morsi along with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey sought to create a new bloc of Islamist democracies. He sought to include Iran in a contact group to defuse the crisis on Syria, infuriating Riyadh.

Even worse followed the next year, when Essam el-Erian, a prominent Egyptian Islamist, threatened the UAE on the consequences of a nuclear Iran: “the Persians are coming, not the Egyptians, and you will become slaves of the Persians”, he said. QATAR’S royal family, though, saw the world in very different terms. Ever since the bloodless coup that brought the current Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to power in 1995, Qatar began engaging in an ever-expanding foreign policy which includes building ties with the Afghan Taliban, the Palestinian Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Put simply, al-Thani sought to avoid the small-nation anonymity and strategic irrelevance which allowed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to think he could overrun Kuwait, and get away with it. As the region’s largest organised Islamist group, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was a key medium for al-Thani’s ambitions. In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors to Qatar. The move paid off: at least some Egyptian Brotherhood figures who had taken refuge in Doha were forced out.

YEMEN, where Houthi tribes are fighting the Saudi-backed Islah party with Iranian support, is the Saudi-UAE block’s red line. From Saudi Arabia’s optic, Iran already wields substantial power in three Arab capitals—Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad. Allowing a Houthi victory in Yemen would give it control of a fourth, Sana’a, and open the way for Teheran to wield power in the Persian Gulf, too.

Thinking like this, regional experts say, deeply influences Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and deputy supreme commander of the UAE’s armed forces, as well as Saudi’s defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the fight against the Islamic State is of secondary importance. Ever since 2015, Saudi and Abu Dhabi have scaled back their participation in air-strikes—allowing the West to take the leading role.

Though Qatar joined in the coalition in Yemen, it saw the fight as being of relatively little importance. Indeed, it has a rock-solid reason for wanting peace with Iran, since the two countries share their gas-fields.

Home to a giant United States military base, Qatar’s likely strategy will now be to appeal to its superpower ally to mediate with the Saudis—and to distance itself from Iran. It’s becoming clear, though, Qatar’s diplomatic strategy suffered from hubris: in a warring neighbourhood, the best strategy for the little guy is to sit quietly in the basement, not to form his own gang.

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