The Qatar question – a primer

I don’t know an awful lot about contemporary Middle Eastern politics, but this week’s panellists on the Talking Politics podcast clearly do.

Qatar have until tomorrow to agree to all 13 of the very exacting demands set by four neighbouring Arab states – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – on June 23rd. After this time, they will face economic and political sanctions; blockades and diplomatic isolation. This is a sudden and dramatic action that wildly destabilises the Middle East, and we should be under no illusions as to its potential future impact on us all.

These demands have ostensibly been presented as a last ditch attempt to force Qatar, in their eyes a rogue state, to stop funding international terrorism and aiding Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria. But by the time you reach demand number six – “Shut down Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations” – you should already be very suspicious of these claimed motivations. Al Jazeera is far and away the freest press in the Arabic language, and has not shied away from criticising violence in the name of Islam and abuses of power by Arab governments.

As is made clear by Dr Glen Rangwala, power politics is front and centre behind this move. There is the consolidation of power in Saudi Arabia by Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud over the last two years, unprecedented in its history, Saudi designs on leadership of the Arab nations, and the collective fear of Iran as a rising power and competitor following the Nuclear deal last year.

It’s likely that having Trump in the White House has emboldened the Saudis, as he and the Republicans are vehemently opposed to the nuclear deal with Iran, and easily swayed away from their historical responsibilities as neutral off-shore balancer by calls to ‘combat terrorism’.

As for the lukewarm response from every other Western state and potential mediator, it’s probably money. European governments are very eager for investment from the gargantuan sovereign wealth fund (predicted to exceed two trillion dollars(!)) that Saudi Arabia is building up to be their primary source of national income after oil.

While Qatar may well be involved with organisations labelled as terrorist by the US and others, so too are Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. All five support various groups and organisations in Syria and Iraq, and all five are trying to influence the internal politics of Yemen t suit their own ends. It’s not pretty, but Qatar are by no means the exception here.

You can listen to the full episode here, which also includes a very interesting take on the importance of oil in the global financial crisis of 2007/08. Alternatively, I have hosted just the thirty minutes of Qatar discussion below:

 

The conclusion I came away with is this; Saudi leaders feel that they have an opportunity to become the hegemon in the region. But Iran has recently freed itself from sanctions and is poised to once again become a dominant power in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia want to challenge Iran but can’t do so directly, so they target an ally of Iran’s, a proxy – Qatar. Other gulf states need to take sides, and as Sunni majority nations, would never side with the Islamic Republic. While Trump states that Qatar is “a funder of terrorism at a very high level“, Turkey have clearly stuck by them as an ally and continue to airlift in food. This pushes Turkey, our NATO ally, even further towards Russia.

Will this currently local struggle drag in the global great powers, a la the Balkans in the years and months up to the outbreak of World War in 1914? After all China is an ally of Iran, Russia is an ally of Syria and to some extent Iran, and the US aligns closer and closer to Saudia Arabia by the day. It might not happen now, as the nations involved know that if war stopped oil exports, their economies would collapse. But what about in a decade or two, when electric vehicles are commonplace, a number of European nations generate all their power renewably, and the gulf states all live off sovereign wealth funds?

Watch this space.

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