Historic Rivalry for Regional Dominance at the Root of Saudi-Qatar Crisis

The battle for regional power between Saudi Arabia and Qatar dates back to the very creation of the State of Qatar; back then, just as it is now, it was about regional dominance, explains Professor Seif Da’na

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Acting as a mediator, Kuwait has presented Qatar, along with a list of demands from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt for Arab nations that cut diplomatic ties with Qatar early in June. On to talk about this with me is Seif Da’Na. He is an Associate Dean at the College of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at the University of Wisconsin Parkside, and a Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. I thank you so much for joining us today, Professor Da’Na.

SEIF DA’NA: Thank you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Professor, in terms of the set of demands that have just been released in the press, that is demands being made on Qatar by these countries in the Gulf, give us a sense of what the demands are.

SEIF DA’NA: Well, the demands consist of two kinds actually, or two types of demands. Foreign policies, and domestic policies. That basically entails losing sovereignty, so if Qatar agrees to these demands under pressure, it basically amounts to surrendering their sovereignty in foreign policy, and in domestic policies, to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia basically historically thinks that the whole Arab Peninsula, the so-called Arab Peninsula, which consists of all the Gulf States, including Yemen as well, but Yemen is not part of the GCC, the Gulf Corporation Council. Saudi Arabia historically thinks, and acts as if these are part of Saudi Arabia. Qatar is part of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates is part of Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain is part of Saudi Arabia, and Oman as well.

Qatar has been acting to some extent independent of the GCC and the hegemony of Saudi Arabia in the GCC. These demands amount basically as I said, to surrendering totally, all their foreign policy and domestic policy to Saudi Arabia. The first demand basically is concerning, or basically asking Qatar to cut their diplomatic relations with Iran. Of course, Iran is item number one on the Saudi agenda, confronting Iran in the region is item number one on the Saudi agenda. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states did cut diplomatic relations with Iran recently, and Qatar did not join them. They’re demanding this. This is intervening in Qatar’s foreign policy, which is a sovereign issue, basically.

Another demand is related to the people Qatar hosts in Qatar, basically, which Saudi Arabia accuse of being terrorists, or part of terrorist groups. Mainly the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim Brotherhood leadership. They also fled Egypt after the military coup in Egypt, after President Sisi took over, or other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood from the whole region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in particular assume or consider the Muslim Brotherhood a very dangerous movement that is seeking to take over Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, because in certain circles, they are very popular in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

One WikiLeaks document, for example, shows that the United Arab Emirates second man, Mohammed bin Zayed, mentioning to American diplomats that if there is an election in the United Arab Emirates, the Muslim Brotherhood would win. Basically, they think this is very serious. The third demand, or the third most important demand is shutting down all the media outlets that Qatar is supporting or financing directly or indirectly, including Qatar’s most powerful tool actually, that promoted Qatar into a regional actor, since its inception in 1996, and that is Al Jazeera. They’re asking for ending support, Qatar’s financial support to other media outlets.

This is considered by Qatar and the Qatari leadership as a matter of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and an issue of sovereignty. They’re not going to accept that, at least as of now, they express rejection to these demands. Even before they were handed by Kuwait to them, they knew that these are part of the demands. Of course, there are certain figures and a list of what Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates consider terrorists, who reside and live in Qatar, and they are demanding that Qatar kick them out or handing some of them to Egypt, to Saudi Arabia, and to the United Arab Emirates.

Also, another demand which actually is part of again, requesting total subjugation of Qatar, is they’re asking Qatar to accept the terrorist list, a list of terrorist organizations and individuals that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates issued in the past two years, and Qatar did not really act accordingly. They’re asking Qatar to accept this list and any future list that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates might issue. What we’re having here is a demand that Qatar accept Saudi mandate, basically, over ruling Qatar, and a total loss of sovereignty in Qatar, of all affairs, whether political, foreign political, in the sense of foreign politics or political relations, and domestic.

As of now, we know that Qatar is not accepting most of these demands. Qatar has not only reasons to reject these demands, but I think they have reasons to believe they can face the Saudi pressure, especially with the Turkish support. Turkey has a military base in Qatar and the Turkish parliament basically recently issued or approved a treaty between Qatar and Turkey, not only to build a Turkish military base in Qatar, but also to send more soldiers and more troops and more Turkish troops to Qatar. They started doing that yesterday. Qatar has a good reason to resist or to assume they can resist the Saudi/Emirati pressures as of this point.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, as a part of the GCC nations has more or less gotten along until recently when things have come to a head. I’m not saying that there didn’t exist any conflict between them, but they were more or less dealt with in diplomatic fashion. But recently, it’s come to a head. What’s driving that?

SEIF DA’NA: The tension has always existed, and in 1996 when the father of the current Qatari prince took over in a coup basically, against his father, and Saudi Arabia at that time almost threatened to invade Qatar to restore the ruling of the Emir at that time. It was resolved. Basically, since 1996, and after Prince Hamad took over, and ousted his father, Qatar has been acting relatively independent of Saudi Arabia and relatively independent of the GCC. After 1996, they discovered or at least they found at that using certain tools, they can become an important regional actor, provided that they have money and wealth to support certain activities all over the region, and to support certain media outlets.

Jazeera started in 1996 actually, after that event, but eventually the military invasion of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to restore the rule of the ousted prince did not happen because of American intervention at that time, and other interventions. Now, since then Qatar has been acted independently to some extent, relatively, and Saudi Arabia did not really like that. Now, after the Syrian event, we started seeing three political camps in the region, or three regional camps. One is basically the Saudi/Emirati and to some extent the Israelis are kind of united, at least in their agenda in the region. There is a second one that consisted of Qatar, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the region.

Qatar basically was hoping after the Muslim Brotherhood took over Egypt, and Tunisia, of course in a fair and democratic elections, but were hoping that since the Muslim Brotherhood was their regional tool and they finance the Muslim Brotherhood, that they can play a more important role in the region. Of course, the third group in the region is what is called the resistance camp, and that’s Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and certain Palestine resistance groups like Hamas. But in certain areas in the region, particularly in Syria, and later in Yemen, the differences between the Saudi/Emirati camp and the Qatari camp was not really clear.

They had similar agenda, but recently after the defeat of that agenda in Syria, in Yemen, and to some extent in Libya, I think the Qataris and the Turkish have been trying to minimize their losses, and they started to distance themselves from the Saudi/Emirati camp, and acting not only independently, but having different agenda in the region. They became somewhere in the middle between the resistance camp or the Syrian/Iranian/Lebanese/Palestine camp, and the Saudi/Emirati camp. They became in the middle, and that’s something that Saudi Arabia did not really like. It upset Saudi Arabia, especially that it came at a time that Saudi Arabia was losing in Yemen, after two years in the war of Yemen.

Of course, despite all the tragedies and the civilian causalities in Yemen, Saudi Arabia did not achieve their purpose there. They’re still fighting two years after, which is amazing that the richest country in the region couldn’t achieve its purpose using the most powerful military might against the poorest country in the region. In Syria, what we’re seeing is an advance of the Syrian Army and victories for the Syrian government all over Syria. The Syrian alliance with Iran and Hezbollah is actually basically winning on the grounds in Syria, and that basically is translated into a defeat for Saudi Arabia, for the United Arab Emirates, and of course, for Qatar and Turkey.

This act, this independent act, added to the old tension between the current regime in Qatar and Saudi Arabia inflamed the situation at this point. After that, recently we were witnessing for the past two years a power struggle in Saudi Arabia that was dominated two days ago with the triumph of Mohammad bin Salman, and ousting Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, his cousin. Basically, Muhammad bin Nayef was closer to Qatar and I think part of inflaming this crisis was this power struggle, because Qatar was supporting bin Nayef over bin Salman, and the United Arab Emirates was supporting bin Salman over bin Nayef.

A group of factors actually that have led to this crisis, but I think it’s not going to be resolved easily, because Saudi Arabia’s main goal now is to confront Iran and they think Iran is the main threat to their regional hegemony, or at least their hegemony over Islamic and Arab countries in the region. Qatar is not siding 100% with Saudi Arabia. They still have diplomatic relations with Iran, despite suspending these relations between Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States with Iran. They still have economic relations with Iran, although the United Arab Emirates have more economic exchanges with Iran than Qatar, much more actually.

But Qatar’s acting independently regionally, and assuming they are relatively independent player, regional player, is something that is upsetting Saudi Arabia. All in all, whoever wins this struggle is going to be according to them at least, that’s how they understand it, that a representative of the American hegemony in the region, or the American power in the region. I think part of this is Saudi Arabia wants to be America’s main force in the Gulf, and Qatar is challenging that Saudi role now, and that’s upsetting Saudi Arabia.

SHARMINI PERIES: Exactly what I was going to ask you. Since President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and speaking to the GCC countries, Saudi Arabia seems more emboldened in terms of their position as the regional power, but it’s not that US hasn’t had good relations with Qatar. I mean, Central Command during the Iraq War was just on the Gulf off Qatar there, posted. I mean, if you were in Qatar, you can actually see Central Command and the ships that were parked on the marine there. The relations with the US has always been good, but since Trump’s visit, the Saudis seem to be rising in terms of their relations with the United States and I’m sure the hundred billion dollar military agreement sealed during that visit also helped Saudi Arabia take that position of power in the region.

SEIF DA’NA: Well, true, but I think the American position on the issue is not very clear. We hear something from the State Department, from Secretary Tillerson, and then we hear something different from President Trump on Twitter. Essentially I think there are theories out there, and I tend to accept or at least see a rationale for some of them that it doesn’t make sense for the United States, a country with about 20 trillion dollar GDP to take over almost a 500 billion dollar from the Saudi savings, which leaving Saudi Arabia with nothing to rely on in times of crisis, especially that their oil prices are declining significantly by about 60% now since 2003.

So, the idea here I think is instability in the Gulf Region could be actually helpful to the American strategy in facing China. Essentially, any instability in the oil and energy would harm China significantly and that’s really the Achilles heel of China, energy and oil, which is not the case for the United States. We don’t import most of our oil, we import at least not from the Middle East. Therefore, any instability in that region could possibly harm China seriously, and the Chinese rise, the Chinese economic rise. That is a potential scenario. I’m just saying it’s a scenario, because in international relations, when you try to construct a scenario, you just put all the available information and data and see where this is heading.

But my guess is either way, regardless of the outcome of this struggle or this conflict in the Gulf, American interests, if my scenario was wrong, the American interests are not going to be harmed. Whether it is Qatar winning this struggle and I think Qatar managed to really overcome most of the Saudi pressure as of now, managed to create an alliance in the region to limit or minimize significantly Saudi’s abilities to pressure them, regardless of that, the American interests would still be protected. Saudi Arabia’s not going to harm the American interest, neither does Qatar. Whoever comes over victorious out of this conflict I think will be fine with the United States, and I think that explains to some extent the American non-intervention in resolving this conflict.

Yes, true, we hear sometimes serious criticisms from the State Department, like we heard a couple of days ago against Saudi Arabia, at least demanding that this issue be resolved, but we don’t see serious intervention in the conflict that is ongoing now in the Gulf. I think the United States doesn’t see any harm in this conflict, taking more time, taking longer. Probably they see that it could serve their agenda in Eastern Asia or in facing China, especially with the issue of oil. That is a potential scenario, but because I can not understand why would President Trump go to Saudi Arabia, one of America’s main allies in the region, that supposedly America is interested in keeping Saudi Arabia strong, and take over almost in agreements, directly or indirectly, about 400 to 500 billion dollars, and all the Saudi’s savings are really 650 billion dollars.

Saudi Arabia’s revenues, oil revenues, declined by about 60%, Saudi Arabia’s oil revenues used to be 650 billion dollars when the oil barrel was about $110. Now their annual revenues are less than 250 billion dollars, so they’re facing a serious economic crisis now. They cannot sustain the state’s operation, whether locally, domestically, or outside Saudi Arabia. If the United States was interested, that’s my guess, again, this is only a potential scenario, it’s not a conspiracy theory, in protecting Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia’s regime, I think they should support Saudi Arabia rather than taking 500 billion dollars from Saudi Arabia, leaving them with nothing to face the future challenges.

But since trying to bring down the Iranian regime failed as of now, I think it doesn’t cause any harm if instability increases in the Gulf area, because that’s not going to harm the United States interests. It could only affect the Chinese interests, and that’s a potential scenario. Otherwise, we should have seen an American intervention in this crisis that could have ended it in the first week.

SHARMINI PERIES: Interesting scenario. Dr. Seif Da’Na, I thank you so much for joining us today.

SEIF DA’NA: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.