National flags of Qatar.
Photo Credit: Philip Lange
As news came that Saudi Arabia and six other countries had cut ties with Qatar, I called an acquaintance who retired from the Qatari foreign service. ‘What do you think of this mess,’ I asked him. He was reticent to talk. ‘I fear an invasion from Saudi Arabia,’ he said.
I thought this was an exaggeration. Saudi Arabia had, as we both knew, forced the previous emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to abdicate in 2013 and give way to his son, the current emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Tensions had long been apparent between Saudi Arabia and its tiny neighbor and these had been resolved each time. Why would there be fear of an invasion?
News now comes that the Turkish parliament has approved the deployment of its troops to Qatar to guard against any such eventuality. In 2014, after the abdication of the previous emir, Turkey began construction of a base in Qatar. The next year, Turkey’s ambassador to Qatar, Ahmet Demirok, said his country would maintain 3,000 troops at the base. There are now a few hundred troops. More are to follow in the days ahead.
Meanwhile, a considerable number of troops from the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units have moved to the Iraqi-Saudi border over the past two days. This story was first reported by the Iraqi journalist Haidar Sumeri on June 6. ‘Qatar is being unfairly accused,’ said the Iraqi government. These troop deployments are not insignificant.
Perhaps the talk of a Saudi invasion is not as idle as I had thought.
Patrons of the Muslim Brotherhood
Turkey and Qatar’s cooperation began in 2007, but escalated in the past few years. The Turkey-Qatar Military Cooperation Agreement (March 2015) is the most comprehensive strategic alignment of these two countries. It suggests that the two states are united against ‘common enemies.’ Who these enemies are is not spelled out clearly.
What is clear is that both Turkey and Qatar, patrons of the Muslim Brotherhood, find that they are being isolated by the Saudi-driven Arab agenda in the region. The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in 2013, the abdication of the former emir in Qatar, the 2014 Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza, the defeat of the Turkish-Qatari proxies in Libya and the gradual isolation of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood suggested to both Qatar and Turkey that closer cooperation and coordination was necessary. The Military Cooperation Agreement came at the end of this slow process of the defeat for the Qatari-Turkish agenda in West Asia and North Africa.
The Qatari diplomat was the one to alert me in late 2015 to the increasingly close ties between Turkey and Qatar. He suggested both countries feared that their regional agenda was close to being vanquished. Saudi Arabia had cemented its ties with the new leader of Egypt, General Sisi, and its allies in Libya and Syria seemed to have the wind in their sails. The death of the old Saudi monarch in 2015 led to the ascension of the new king, Salman, who shortly thereafter confidently went to war against the poorest Arab state, Yemen. It was hoped that this military intervention in Yemen would result in a quick victory for Saudi Arabia, cementing its domination of the region. If Saudi Arabia had attained its goals in Yemen, then it would truly have sent a message to its enemies, Qatar and Turkey, as well as Iran.
But victory in Yemen has been elusive. The Russians intervened in Syria in 2015 and the West conducted a nuclear deal with Iran that same year. Suddenly, Saudi fortunes appeared to alter. Iran’s confidence returned and the Syrian war appeared to now move in the direction of the government of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian as well as Iranian partners. Saudi Arabia’s economy tanked and there was now talk of major restructuring of its oil industry. King Salman and his son appeared near humiliation.
By the close of 2015, the Saudi agenda appeared to be in disarray while Qatar and Turkey appeared to be fearful of the Saudis. Turkey, badly battered by its miscalculation in Syria, began to rely on Qatar’s natural gas revenue to stabilize its economy and leaned on Qatar to open discussions with Russia. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, went to the United States, brought more weapons and attempted to forge a new kind of Arab NATO against both Iran and the patrons of the Muslim Brotherhood, namely Turkey and Qatar. It is this attempt by the Saudis from the end of 2015 that has now resulted in this dramatic step to isolate Qatar.
What Do the Saudis Fear?
There are two reasons why Saudi Arabia wishes to put pressure on Qatar. First, the Saudis have long worried about the prospects of an Islamic theory of rule that rejects monarchs. Iran’s current ruling ideology, vilayat-e faqih, is deeply anti-monarchical. It suggests that the jurists should rule the country, not a king. In this, the Iranian political theory is much like that of a liberal democracy, although here the law is not seen as secular but Islamic. Iran, therefore, provides a republican alternative to Saudi Arabia’s Islamic monarchy.
The Muslim Brotherhood is also anti-monarchical. Its largely professional membership want their bourgeois privileges to be translated into the political domain. Both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood threaten not only Saudi Arabia, but all the monarchs in the region (with the exception of Qatar, whose emir is able to maintain his role as ruler with the Brotherhood’s ideology). No wonder then that the UAE’s leaders have also been apoplectic about the Brotherhood.
Second, Qatar has over the course of the past several decades developed closer ties to Iran. The two countries share the world’s largest natural gas field of 9,700 sq. kms. ‘Geography cannot be changed,’ said Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif in reference to the new tension in the Gulf. He understands that the proximity of Qatar with Iran, and the shared natural gas field, means that Qatar cannot afford to fully break with Iran, as Saudi Arabia would like. Evidence of the closeness of Qatar and Iran came last year when the two countries collaborated to bring about town and city level ceasefires across Syria. This move disturbed the Saudis who, despite the hopelessness of their case, would like to see the Syrian war continue so as to overthrow Assad. Further evidence came when Morsi was the president of Egypt. He was the first Egyptian head of government to travel to Iran since 1979. Do not underestimate the role of the Saudis, alongside the Egyptian military, in bringing down Morsi.
Close ties between Iran and Qatar have long been an irritant to the Saudis. They have now decided to increase the pressure on their small neighbor in order to break those ties.
When Trump was in Saudi Arabia, he joined with General Sisi and King Salman to place his hands on a glowing orb at the newly created counterterrorism center. These men seemed obsessed with Iranian power. It was, bizarrely, seen as the main ‘terrorist’ threat in the region. ISIS was demoted from the post of the main enemy. The Egyptians and the Saudis suggested in the margins of this meeting that Qatar was a funder of the terrorists.
What was amusing at that time about these statements is that Saudi Arabia has been implicated, alongside Qatar, for its role in the financing of terrorists. Some of these terrorist groups, such as Jaish al-Islam and ISIS, are far more diabolical in the region than Iran. But Trump, carrying the Israeli agenda on his shoulders, seemed entranced by the Saudi-Egyptian-Israeli axis. Isolation of Iran ran along the grain of the agenda of his own team. If this meant that Qatar had to be drawn in, well, so be it despite the fact that Qatar hosts one of the largest U.S. military bases in the world.
No easy solution is possible for this standoff. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia sees ‘Qatar as a brother state, as a partner.’ As members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, these two states are part of a defensive pact. The current attack on Qatar threatens the Council’s existence and pushes Qatar away from the Gulf States toward closer ties with Iran. Iran has reached out to Qatar with promises of food aid and of opening its airspace freely to Qatari aircraft. ‘We are not prepared to enter the Iranian camp.’ said the Qatari diplomat, ‘but we are being pushed into it.’
The ISIS attack on Tehran’s parliament certainly complicates a complicated picture. The implications of that attack are as yet unclear. It might be just another terrorist attack by a non-state group or it could be a message to Iran that more such attacks might follow. A muted Qatar and Iran would be an adequate outcome for Saudi Arabia if the kingdom is unable to overthrow the governments in both.
The detritus of the Iraq and Syrian wars has now spread further south. It has already produced great problems in Turkey. Now those problems have traveled into the Gulf itself.
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.