It’s not exactly a shocking revelation that the Middle East is in a sorry state. Between the legacy of habitual western interventions (invasions to those with a penchant for honesty) and ongoing conflict in Syria, it isn’t news to point out this is a very troubled region indeed.
What is surprising is the abruptness of this latest escalation. Saudi Arabia has led multiple other regional allies in a series of sudden and distinctly aggressive diplomatic manoeuvres against Qatar. The official explanation from Riyadh is that Doha’s relationship with Iran has become morally and politically untenable, given the latter’s affiliation and support for “terrorist” groups in part operating in support of Saudi Arabia’s adversary in Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
It makes some sense that ongoing tensions between local rivals would be behind this snap decision. Syria is a flashpoint for such antagonisms and it’s again hardly a secret that the country has become a battleground for myriad powers looking to influence the still-distant outcome for their own benefit. The suffering of the Syrian people is a minor point of concern in such calculations. Politics is often a cold affair. Yet it’s also a complex one, and this latest episode warrants further scrutiny.
The Trump Effect.
As part of his first major foray in hands-on foreign policy, US President Trump has recently made a show of visiting Saudi Arabia in the tried and tested tradition of American statesmen looking to cement a lucrative alliance. Trump’s arms deal with Riyadh is a case in point, something that carries over from his “progressive” predecessor’s commitment to a “business as usual” approach to both US aggression overseas and the propping up of regional allies. A question is what else was agreed to between Washington and Riyadh, especially in light of Trump’s earlier (and frequent) denouncement of their mutual adversary, Iran?
I’d say a lot. Much of Trump’s well publicised diplomatic shenanigans have fixated on the question of terrorism. Rather than taking the logical step and equating violent fundamentalism with the oft mentioned Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia itself, however, Trump took aim at Iran, presumably hoping to score diplomatic points with Riyadh by pouring fire on a shared enemy.
This makes sense in that to query Saudi Arabia’s role in the proliferation of authoritarianism at home and violence abroad would only serve to alienate a stalwart US ally. For US foreign policy to suddenly base itself on ethical parameters rather than economic/strategic priories is wishful thinking. What is interesting (and realistic) is how Trump’s targeting of Iran may have tied in to Riyadh’s decision to take action again Doha, itself presumably the “weakest link” in an assortment of powers more at ease with the Islamic Republic than some might like.
Indeed, according to pro-US, pro-Saudi coverage, Qatar has allegedly been attempting to “have it both ways” in regional politics, dishonestly posing as a power friendly to the Washington/Riyadh alliance whilst also maintaining unacceptably close ties to Iran and the Palestinian resistance. What’s more, the “Islamist regime” in Ankara has enjoyed too much support from a Qatar clearly unappreciative of the redoubled threat Turkey now allegedly poses to regional security. Taking a closer look at the needs and aspirations of “allies” (presumably Washington and Riyadh) is the only solution. This is no doubt a position endorsed by the American President and one very much welcomed elsewhere.
Yet this one sided narrative omits a few choice facts. For one, Doha has proven itself more than willing to co-operate with Riyadh when it comes to shared foreign policy goals, having contributed sizeable military assets to the latter’s much deplored bombardment of Yemen. To maintain that Qatar is attempting to sit tight and play Iran and the Saudi’s off against the other makes little sense, if only due to the fact that Qatari soldiers were until very recently participating in Riyadh’s own foreign policy (mis)adventures.
This is clearly not the conduct of a power committed to a hands-off or wait and see approach to foreign affairs, nor one looking to antagonise neighbouring powers for the pure sake of it. Claims that Doha is just too close to Iran and too intransigent in the face of good wishes and benevolence elsewhere are thus ill-founded, especially in relation to their hosting of abundant US military forces and regional status as an economic powerhouse.
This has already been suggested by others. The Middle East Eye has claimed that Riyadh is attempting to utilise the confidence accrued from Trump’s recent visit to “finish the job” of re-establishing the status quo so unsettled by the “Arab Spring” of 2010. What this means in the concrete is a further capitalisation on the gains made in 2013 with the overthrow of Egypt’s democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi and his replacement with a suitably pliable (or at least preferential) military strong man, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
Whilst this has hardly set a healthy precedent for Egypt’s vestigial democracy, it has put the two best friends of the US/Saudi alliance more at ease following their evident upset at the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The sabre rattling aimed at Qatar may thus be the latest episode in Riyadh’s ongoing attempts to regain lost influence and finally bury the much maligned legacy of the Arab Spring.
This is without doubt something they have previously taken very seriously, most emphatically in the form of military interventions against “Iranian conspiracies” elsewhere. Nobody is forgetting the deployment of Saudi troops into Bahrain in 2011. We can’t ever forget what is being done to Yemen now. If anything, the presence of Doha-based news networks such as Al Jazeera won’t let us forget, something that’s no doubt a sore point for Saudi Arabia, one they may indeed be looking to finally resolve. Attempts to isolate Qatar are thus the thin end of the wedge in an as yet still unfurling process.
Syria is another obvious focal point. Following the intervention of both Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the high-tech and distinctly capable Russian military, President Assad has enjoyed something of a revival of his military and political fortunes. He’s also enjoyed Iran’s long-term backing, something that won’t have gone down well with Saudi Arabia or the US.
It goes without saying that Riyadh have a vested interest in seeing Iranian influence curtailed and the Syrian quagmire brought to a conclusion favourable to their own policy goals. Yet their hands may have been tied, at least in the context of the risk involved in any overt and direct attempts at intervention, especially in light of the indecision of Trump’s predecessor following the British parliament’s shock refusal to join the US in proposed attacks on Damascus in 2013.
If caution was the order of the day for Washington and London then the Saudi’s were unlikely to openly go in guns blazing as they have with Bahrain and Yemen. Frustration may have been the end result. This changed with Trump’s sudden decision to attack Syrian government forces last April. Whilst American cruise missiles don’t seem to have turned the tide, they have sent a clear message that the US is prepared to take a more forceful role in Syrian affairs.
Couple this with Trump’s previously bellicose rhetoric in relation to Obama’s diplomatic overtures towards Iran and it’s easy to speculate that Riyadh may have sensed some upcoming opportunities. Further compound this with Trump’s recent visit, a vast and revamped weapons deal and even more ill-advised comments towards Tehran and you’ve most likely got a Saudi leadership all the more confident in pushing it’s agenda elsewhere. The Qatar drama is symptomatic of such a change of course.