Two weeks after President Donald Trump left Riyadh, the first reverberations of the “doctrine” articulated by him are being felt across West Asia. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen have snapped diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing the island nation of supporting terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and those backed by Iran, and destabilising the region. Qatar’s partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have also blocked all transport and communication links with Qatar and asked its nationals to leave within two weeks.
Qatar has alienated some of its Arab neighbours, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, in the past due to its close links with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members are hate-figures in many authoritarian Arab countries, and for espousing an engagement with Iran. Thus, Qatar was the only GCC country that backed the resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the Arab Spring, and then supported the Mohamed Morsi government in Egypt. Later, in the early days of the Syrian conflict, when Saudi Arabia was backing the “secular” Free Syrian Army, Qatar, allied with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, was promoting Brotherhood- affiliated militia. In 2014, Qatar was accused of giving sanctuary to Brotherhood members, which led to the withdrawal of the Saudi, UAE and Bahraini ambassadors from Doha for eight months.
The origins of the current discord and the harsh Saudi response may be traced to the Trump foray in the region a fortnight ago. The president, in deep trouble at home, sailed into the turbulent waters of West Asia and firmly placed the US as the political and military ally of Saudi Arabia and its allies, who together constitute a “Sunni” Arab NATO against Iran. Trump has reversed Barack Obama’s insistence on avoiding entanglements in West Asian conflicts. He has unleashed US military force in Mosul, where a few hundred civilians were killed in one bombardment; in Syria, where it bombed a Syrian airfield in retaliation for an alleged chemical attack by the Assad government, and then in Afghanistan, where this wounded nation experienced the “mother of all bombs” as a demonstration of US prowess.
The Saudi-US alliance has been lubricated with some lucrative defence deals valued at $110 billion, with the promise that they could go up to $350 billion over the next ten years. These were supplemented by energy and industry contracts of about $40 billion, and an investment in US infrastructure of $20 billion. These deals will create a million jobs in the US directly, the White House has gloated, with “millions” others indirectly.
For Saudi Arabia, the Trump presidency has brought an end to the nightmare of the Obama era, when the US had failed to back the kingdom to effect regime change in Syria, and had been reluctant to support Saudi military action in Yemen, both theatres where Saudi Arabia saw Iranian attempts to expand its influence in Arab lands through its Shia surrogates. Above all, Obama had vigorously pushed the nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic, opening the possibility of Iran seeking to play a high- profile role in regional affairs.
With the US now firmly on its side, Saudi Arabia is prepared to flex its muscles both against recalcitrant Qatar as also Iran, with its hegemonic aspirations in West Asia. Qatar provoked Saudi Arabia within two days of Trump’s departure from Riyadh. Speaking at a military parade, on May 25, Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, articulated his views on several matters that seriously undercut Saudi positions. He said that the kingdom had become much too dependent on Trump, who was facing serious political difficulties at home. He criticised the demonisation of Iran, which he described as a major regional and Islamic power, and called for engagement and dialogue.
He also praised Hamas and Hezbollah as legitimate resistance movements. This was particularly galling for the kingdom which sees the latter as an Iran-sponsored terrorist group, that, among its other sins, is also robustly backing the Assad regime against Saudi-supported militia.While Qatar denied the veracity of these remarks, saying that its sites had been hacked, Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies immediately unleashed a well-orchestrated campaign against Qatar. Besides vilification in the media, this included a letter signed by 200 descendants of the 18th century cleric, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, whose doctrines constitute the basis of the Saudi (and Qatari) doctrinal belief system, where it was asserted that the claim of the Qatari royal family to descend from their revered ancestor was fabricated, thus questioning the right of the Al Thani royal family to rule their island nation.
The virulence of the latest Saudi attacks on Qatar is quite different from the relatively low-key approach of the kingdom towards its maverick neighbour and reflects its ties not just with the Trump presidency but also with pro-Israel groups in the US. Thus, in the attacks on Qatar after the emir’s remarks, a lead role was played by the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD), a hardcore anti-Iran organisation, with close ties to right-wing elements in Israel. This fits in with the Trump “doctrine” which encourages an affiliation of Sunni Arabs with Israel against Iran.
In fact, unnamed GCC officials have briefed friendly commentators about the plans being put in place by Saudi Arabia to foment unrest in Iran by inciting ethnic minorities and encourage regime change; the other part of the plan being mentioned is to effect a change in Qatar’s posture and bring it in line with that of the kingdom and its allies. The US appears to be backing these plans by appointing a veteran intelligence official to promote the US-Saudi agenda in Iran and possibly Qatar. Given the fraught environment prevailing in the region and the strong coalition ranged against it, Qatar needs to review its positions, or change will be enforced from outside.