Middle East, espicially its Arab part, does not cease to surprise the rest of the world that would hardly be shocked after the turbulent Arab spring and recent political events in the US and Europe. Today the news starts with the developments of the new Qatar crisis that has both regional and global dimensions. To many goverments’ suprise, right before our eyes, another crisis between Qatar and several Arab countries headed by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates adds up to the existing ones. The operation that is now unfolding could be called «Let’s teach Qatar a lesson.»
The uneasy relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have persisted for quite some time. The Saudis are proud that they have never been colonized and believe that it was with divine assistance that the founder of their state, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, managed to bring together most of the Arab lands (though not all, as they would have preferred) under his rule, while regarding Qatar as essentially a product of British colonialism. Starting with ancient history, Riyadh has been increasingly irritated with the self-sustained, arbitrary policies of Doha failing to show due respect for Riyadh as the region’s natural hegemon, as well as with the claims by the House of Thani to an assertive role of a powerful regional player, with ambitions going far beyond the Arab peninsula and even the entire Middle East. One must candidly ask the question of how a ruler of a mini-state with an indigenous population of just over a quarter of a million could dare to take on the very Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques itself, the ruler of a G20 nation.
Is it possible that the intensifying confrontation will bring about the breakup of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC) that has, until very recently, seemed to be going so strong? Although marred by tensions and even occasional conflicts, including territorial disputes, ever since its inception in 1981, the council has been instrumental in promoting integration. While just a few years ago GCC member states came up with a joint settlement mechanism for Yemen causing President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, they are now themselves in need of mediation and conciliation. The GCC now presents, on the one hand, a united front of three nations, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, supported by Egypt and Jordan outside the Council, and Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, on the other hand, with Qatar standing somewhat apart from the others with the support of Turkey outside of Council, and recently to a certain extent Iran and Iraq. Oman and Kuwait are being prudent and are loathe to sour relations with either side. It is important to note that Oman opposed the Saudi initiative to unite the GCC armed forces under a joint military command and refused to support Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military operation in Yemen (nor did Kuwait or Pakistan, despite their close relations with Riyadh).
The war in Yemen is regarded in the Muslim world as a Sunni-Shia conflict, more so than those in Syria or Iraq. And Kuwait, for one, with its considerable Shia minority, is wary of stirring up sectarian conflicts at home (note that one in five Pakistanis is a Shia Muslim). Even in the Wahhabi Qatar, Emir Sheikh Tamim has recently managed to heal the divide between Sunnis and Shias of his own Banu Tamim tribe (the Emir himself bears the symbolic name of the founder of the tribe), which is part of one of the most ancient tribal associations of Arabia, mudra, and also spreads into Iraq and Saudi Arabia (in various regions of Najd, including Riyadh itself). Not only are the ruling family of Qatar, the House of Thani Tamimites, but the most influential religious families of the Saudi Kingdom are as well. These include, above all, the Al ash-Sheikh family descended from Sheikh Mohammad Abdel Wahab, the founder of Wahhabism, to which the incumbent Grand Mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia belongs, and second, the Uthaymeen family, to which belonged one of the most honored contemporary religious scholars of Salafism, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Saalih ibn Muhammad ibn al-Uthaymeen, belonged to the group before he died in 2001. There is also another powerful member of the Uthaymeen family: Sheikh Abdullah, brother of the deceased Sheikh Muhammad and a renowned historian of Arabia, whose work on Abdel Wahab has been translated into English and published in the United States. Even genealogical and confessional affinity could not prevent the rift between the Arabian monarchies.
I still believe that the parties will manage to reach an agreement, since no one wishes to incite a conflict involving the world’s leading oil and gas producing nations. Yet the pressure on Qatar is not lessening, and the concessions demanded from it are found to be extremely demeaning. If it yields, it will be labelled weak and Doha claims the demands violate its sovereignty (however, it fails to see its interference in Syria’s internal affairs in the same light and the current situation could be described in as “what goes around, comes around”). The demands on Qatar from its Arab neighbors have to do not so much with Qatar cutting financial flows to Islamic terrorist groups (which are being supported by other Arab states as well), as with Qatar putting an end to its rapprochement with Iran, driving the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas leaders out of the country and shutting down such Hamas-financed media as Al-Jazeera, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, the Arabic edition of The Huffington Post and the London-based Middle East Eye and Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, as well as deporting its editor and author Azmi Bishara — a former Knesset member, who fled Israel in 2007 and has been a nuisance to the Saudi establishment. No surprises there, since it is Editor-in-chief of the Middle East Eye David Hearst who writes today: “Qatar is not Gaza. It’s got friends with big armies — a country with a population smaller than Houston has a sovereign wealth fund worth USD 335 bn. It is the biggest producer of natural gas in the Middle East. It has a relationship with Exxon.” Yet, the Saudi Arabia-led group is annoyed not only by such messages from the publishers, but also the political unscrupulousness and boundless opportunism of the Qatari emirs, their “courtship rituals” with influential individuals. Doha is developing economic ties not only with Iran but also Israel, without much regard for the Arab League boycott, while simultaneously financing Hamas and the Palestinian resistance movement and assisting the Gaza population.
Many countries wish to act as mediators and peacemakers in the Qatar conflict. Kuwait, Oman, Turkey and even Russia are all ready to offer assistance in the hopes of alleviating the tensions. Rumors have it that the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah, who has just paid a visit to Doha, has already achieved some progress in reconciling the parties. Even so, the rigidity and irreconcilability of the positions taken by the opposing parties leave little room for optimism. Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani, has recently returned from talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, stating the following: “Qatar will never surrender to the pressure… and won’t change its independent foreign policy.” Critics of Qatari policies are just as unwavering in their distaste for compromise. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told Reuters there would be more “economic curbs” on Qatar if necessary and that Doha needed to make “ironclad commitments” to stop funding Islamist militants. In an interview with France24, he was even more unambiguous, stating that the steps would take the shape of “a sort of embargo on Qatar.” So much for integration.
Meanwhile, the list of demands may not be exhaustive, necessarily. Citing an off-the-record statement by a top Saudi official, they “will not rest until Emir Tamim steps down, this is the only solution to the crisis.” What kind of embargo are we referring to though? So far, the “economic curbs” on Qatar have left its vital sphere, the oil and gas industry, intact. As is well known, Qatar commands a vast offshore gas field, making it the world’s third biggest nation after Russia and Iran in terms of proven gas reserves (over 25 trillion cubic meters) and the fourth biggest gas producer after the United States, Russia and Iran. The gas pipeline to the UAE and Oman is still in operation. Otherwise the gas flow to the two countries would be cut off. Qatar supplies 40% of the total gas consumed in the Emirate of Dubai, and Egypt relies on Qatar for 60% of its gas imports. Moreover, Qatar’s Asian gas customers, who are even more dependent on Qatari gas, would find themselves in a serious problem if the gas flow were to be impeded. The world’s biggest natural gas buyer, Japan’s JERA, said it had received guarantees from Doha of an uninterrupted gas flow to Japan.
It should also be borne in mind that, apart from its enormous gas reserves, Qatar’s considerable helium resources put it among the world’s top four countries in terms of proven helium reserves, and it might well be among the world’s biggest producers of this strategic resource. In 2005, the Ras Laffan helium facility opened helium supply lines to Asian markets and, if disrupted, they could cause considerable damage to customers. The UAE and Saudi deposits with the Qatari banks remain intact, with these deposits accounting for 24% of the total. Lastly, a complete transport blockade of Qatar would be impossible without Iran.
The masterminds behind the pressure applied on Doha are also relying on the possible decision to take away the right to hold 2022 FIFA World Cup from Qatar because of allegations of serious corruption and abuse of migrant workers in the country. However, Qatar is not only Arab nation plagued by corruption and violations of the rights of migrant workers! And the decision to move the tournament elsewhere is strictly up to FIFA, as far as I can tell.
Some Middle Eastern and western political figures have also mentioned the possibility of the United States moving its forward quarters of the American Central Command from Qatar’s Al Udeid to Saudi Arabia or the UAE. The American media have stated that UAE Ambassador to the USA Yousef al-Otaiba, who reportedly has considerable clout, has launched an impressive lobbying campaign in favour of such a decision. Ed Royce, the Chairman of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs for the Republican party, warned: “If it doesn’t change [its ways], Qatar will come in for sanctions under a new bill I’m introducing to punish Hamas backers.” Even so, let us not forget that, in the 1990s, a United States air base was relocated to Qatar precisely from Saudi Arabia after the country’s government asked them to leave following large-scale protests against foreign troop deployment. Similarly, the UAE were not ready to accept castaways from overseas. That said, a mere glimpse on Google Maps at the base’s solid structures, housing approximately 10,000 American troops, hints at how expensive a shutdown and relocation to a different location would be. And, most importantly, what would be the purpose of the move and guarantees that the new headquarters would prove more reliable?
The brittle nature of the alliances revealed unequivocally by the latest developments, with the swiftly shifting sympathies of the players and the ever more opportunistic policies, calls to mind the ancient indigenous traditions of Arabic tribes. Tribes, forever in conflict with one another, would often switch sides, with yesterday’s allies becoming enemies and vice versa. It would seem it was just yesterday that everyone, left, right and moderate (even if completely unversed in the twists and turns of the Islamic world), would lament the allegedly hopelessly irreconcilable feud between Sunnis and Shias, and today Iran — the stronghold of the Shia world — is coming to the rescue of Wahhabi Qatar. Even before the ongoing Qatar crisis, Turkey was considering deploying a military contingent at the Qatar military base under a prior arrangement, supposedly for the purpose of restraining Iran, which is on the completely opposite side of the trenches. Yet, now that the crisis has broken out, the Turkish parliament promptly decided to dispatch the contingent (reportedly, up to 3,000 troops), but the purpose of its presence hardly appears to be for the protection of Qatar from Iran. The move by the ruling Justice and Development Party might, though, be fraught with serious consequences in a critical situation for President Recep Erdogan, who sees the Qatari rulers as his closest allies in the region. Through the mouth of Vice-Chairman of the Republican People’s Party Ozturk Yilmaz, Turkey’s opposition warns: “We know that some countries want to topple the Emir and replace him with a new ruler… If [Qatar wants] to use those troops to preserve the Qatari ruling family, should we be supporting that objective?”
Could the outcome be just like the boldest of regional analysts predicted: Turkey becomes all but an ally of Iran (even if by way of an “opportunistic marriage of convenience”)? Iran has not lost any time in offering assistance to Turkey’s ally — Qatar — with food supplies after they were cut off by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi (note that a third of Qatar’s total food imports, valued at USD 1.05 bn in 2015, is shipped into the country via Saudi Arabia and the UAE). What will be the effect, though, on the Sunni alliance led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, now accused by Tehran of complicity in the twin terrorist attacks on Iran’s Majlis and Imam Khomeini Mausoleum, which claimed the lives of 12 people?
Turkey’s stance will rely on one more factor: against the background of the raging jihad against the Muslim Brotherhood, Ankara cannot leave the following question unheeded: if Qatar, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, is defeated, will it be Turkey’s turn next?
The good news for us is that the “Astana troika” of Russia, Turkey and Iran, spearheaded by Russia, will most certainly gain an impetus to deepen cooperation in the Syrian peace process. Yet can Qatar be persuaded to ease its stance on Damascus and scale down support for any militant groups waging a war on the Syrian government?
Speculating on the prospective outcome of the Qatar crisis, one can think of a few basic, theoretically possible scenarios.
Scenario one: with the assistance of regional and global mediators, the parties manage to settle their differences. Qatar will agree to certain concessions to maintain solidarity with other GCC member nations, without sacrificing foreign policies of key importance, specifically, good relations with Iran and ties with the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Hamas will hardly suffer any substantial setback from its withdrawal from Qatar, since its new leadership remains in Gaza. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood will also receive a warm welcome in Turkey.
Scenario two: with the pressure on Qatar mounting, mediation efforts fail. The threat of a more serious confrontation might arise, possibly leading to a smooth transition of power in the emirate.
Scenario three: with confrontation intensifying, Qatar would resort to aggressive measures, disaffiliating from the GCC and would face further rapprochement with Turkey and Iran. In this case, Qatar’s policies on Syria might undergo certain changes, whereupon Doha is likely to join the Astana troika, turning it into a quartet.
Scenario four: the conflict escalates abruptly, giving rise to a military confrontation with grave consequences for all parties. Even if this unlikely scenario does arise, however, the confrontation cannot last very long.
Russia, with various instruments for influencing its Middle Eastern partners at its disposal, is well positioned to have a peacemaking effect on the parties to the conflict without directly interfering in it. This view is further confirmed by the historic ties, and various common interests, linking Russia to all actors in the region. Middle Easter peoples tend to have a stronger collective memory than ours, predetermining the perception of our country even now. Russia’s relations with Turkey, for one, have had many both dark and light chapters. In fact, the first diplomatic mission from Moscow to Constantinople was sent as far back as 1496 and the permanent embassy of Russia in Turkey, led by Pyotr Tolstoy (and later headed by Mikhail Kutuzov in 1792–1794), was opened in 1702. Although the Russian Empire fought against the Ottoman Empire for many years, Soviet Russia helped the new Turkish government maintain independence and sovereignty after World War 1, which they are not likely to easily forget. This is evidenced and eternalized by a monument to Russian military officer Semyon Aralov, the first head of the Intelligence Directorate of the Field Headquarters of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic, which would later evolve into the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of Russia, on Taksim Square in Istanbul. Turkey’s membership of NATO prevents it from actively cooperating with Moscow not only in matters of trade and economics, but also of political and security matters. Likewise, Saudi Arabia remembers that the Soviet Union was the first government to recognize it in 1926, and that Russia’s first permanent consulate in the country was opened in the capital city of Heijaz — Jiddah — in 1891. Russian-Iranian history also features a lot of drama but we have maintained a close partnership with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
No country in the region at this time can risk planning its actions in the international arena without due regard for Russia’s interests and its stance on the current developments. Consequently, foreign analysts are eagerly speculating whether Moscow will benefit from or be hurt by aggravation of the Qatar crisis. Some say it would benefit, since oil prices, and consequently gas prices as well, might rise (although this has not been the case so far) and, combined with a decline in natural gas supplies from Qatar to the world market, this might create a niche that Russian oil producers could well snatch. Others disagree, since any destabilization in the region will hurt everyone and, furthermore, to to honor its existing investment commitments to the Russian economy and continue investment cooperation, Qatar needs stability and security. Considering the developing collaboration between Russia and the Persian Gulf nations, as well as Egypt and Jordan, Moscow will most likely maintain an equal stance toward all parties to the conflict.