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Gulf Crisis: On Fast Track to War

1 trump-riyadh-visitBillboard in Saudi Arabia advertizing the 2017 Riyadh Summit (Image Source: Terror-Alert.com)

Marwa Osman
21st Century Wire 

In less than one week, what began as a simple disagreement in politics turned into a siege that could easily develop into a war. On June 5th of last week, Saudi Arabia and four of its regional allies decided to sever diplomatic, economic, and transportation ties with Qatar and its ruler Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. However, it was May 24th which saw the initial fracture occur in this latest watermark in the long history of the inter-Gulf conflict.

After two and a half years of a coercive accord achieved under what was referred to as the the “reconciliation” that followed the Gulf crisis of the withdrawal of ambassadors in March 2014, the night of May 24 brought the Qatar relations from a “sister” of the GCC coalition to an unprecedented stage of deadlock, triggering a dangerous new wave of instability in the Gulf region.

The situation seemed like some a sort of an unannounced war on Qatar after being labeled “rogue” state by Saudi Arabia. It reopened once shut windows of the past, like old statements attributed to the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad, who once stated that Doha was “a thorn in the side of the Arabs,” and like the threats that followed such a statement from Saudi press saying Qatar will pay the price for “her betrayal.”

Tensions escalated dramatically just after US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which he believed was a great success, yet the actions by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to isolate and punish Qatar last week was the first outcome of his Administration’s new “policy” in the Middle East.

The Trump “Festival” is Over

This new episode of the long show of feud between the two Gulf states does not seem to be isolated from the “festival”, as some Qatari newspapers put it, held for President Trump. The new row of hostility that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) pushed against Qatar quickly shifted into what appeared to be an Islamist Arab consensus orchestrated by Riyadh to “fight” Iran under the patronages of Washington and -not so surprisingly – Tel Aviv. However, this fierce Gulf attack on Doha also appears to be the tip of the iceberg of the expected changes in the region after the Trump visit.

The new close ties with KSA and Trump which opened up the way for the current gulf crisis is not a surprise given the $150 billion arms deal effective immediately that was signed in Riyadh as part of a $450 billion arms deal package to be delivered over the course of 10 years. As for that photo of the leaders touching a glowing orb as they opened the “Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology”, I think the internet pretty much speaks for itself; the mass reaction calling out the irony and the brazen hypocrisy which represents the inverse of such a proposed center. As a direct result, Gulf countries threw their weight around in order in an attempt to create a fabricated contrast with Qatar, as President Trump has already clearly shown which side he’s chosen to favor with his constant tweeting.

Surprise: Qatar Funds Terrorism

This all being evident and clear, the GCC countries seem to be advertizing different reasons for this recent row against Qatar. Saudi, Egyptian and Emirati officials say that at the core of their actions was the belief that for years, Qatar has been fueling the flames of radicalism and extremism, providing financial and moral support to terrorist organizations operating in the Middle East, including most recently the Muslim Brotherhood and al Nusra Front in Syria. Is that true? Well, in truth such a revelation is more than a bit overdue.

For over a decade now, Qatar has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars in support radical extremists. Numerous reports filed over the years link the Gulf country to Al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Lebanon. Qatar is for instance a main source of funding for the terrorist Nusra Front operating inside Syria. Reports indicate that large amounts of money have been passing since 2011 to intermediaries in Turkey, and this money was in turn used for the purchase of weapons from other countries like the US. The weapons were then transferred to the terrorist groups in Syria.

Nusra Front, which has since changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, began as an offshoot of Al Qaeda and it had been fighting the Syrian Arab Army in the Syrian war in an effort to establish an Islamic caliphate.

Qatar is not Alone

However, and also not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia can easily be accused of the exact same thing but with a larger twist. Saudi Arabia has also lent its lucrative support not only to the Nusra Front, but also to ISIS itself. Most significantly, the entire ideological lineage of the so called “Islamic State” can be traced directly back to Wahhabism, an extremely conservative cult based in Saudi Arabia that justifies violence in the name of a radical ideology – one which Saudi Arabia has been vigorously promoting as part of Islam. Most reports concerning the ISIS ideology leads straight back to the KSA. For decades, Riyadh has created an environment in which extremism can flourish, and that it’s entirely to blame for the rise of jihadi groups as a result of its strong anti-Shia, anti-Assad and anti-Iranian narratives all across the region. It is even the second largest source of foreign fighters for ISIS terrorist group and it shouldn’t be forgotten that 15 of the 19 alleged hijackers involved in 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia.

Qatar: A Gas Giant Aiming for Independence

Now another very important reason and most probably the primary reason for this Gulf feud which has been brewing since 1995 is Qatar’s liquid natural gas reservoir, the largest on the world. In 1995, the father of the current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, toppled his own pro-Saudi father at the same exact time when the tiny desert peninsula was about to make its first shipment of liquid natural gas. The offshore North Field, which provides virtually all of Qatar’s gas, is shared with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s much hated rival.

According to Bloomberg, the wealth that followed turned the gas giant Qatar into not just the world’s richest nation, with an annual per-capita income of $130,000, but also the world’s largest LNG exporter. The focus on gas set it apart from its oil producing neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council and allowed it to break from the regional domination of Saudi Arabia. As a result of the tiny nation’s growing financial and political independence, its gulf neighbors grew increasingly frustrated and concerned.

Qatar then used it gas wealth to develop foreign policies independent form that of the GCC which came to irritate its Gulf neighbors – like backing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and related armed factions opposed by the UAE or Saudi Arabia in Libya and Syria. Gas also paid for a global television network, Al Jazeera, which at various times has embarrassed or angered most Middle Eastern governments.

Qatar’s Off-course Foreign Policy

Qatar is also seen by the Saudi government and its Emirati and Bahraini counterparts as a spoiler of efforts to forge a unified Arab–Muslim position, under the patronage of the US, and now under the Trump administration, against Iran’s so-called (but as yet unproven) “terrorist agenda” in Arab countries. A week before U.S. President Donald Trump visited Riyadh to consolidate the anti-Iran alliance, the Saudi Arabic-language daily newspaper Okaz reported a secret meeting between the Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad Bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, who was officially visiting Baghdad at the time, and the Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasim Sulaimani.

The newspaper accused Qatar of exiting “early from the Arab-Islamic consensus” on Iran, adding “its defense of the Iranian terrorist regime shows the secret Doha-Tehran alliance intends to strike at Arab and Islamic solidarity.” However, as odd as it may seem, all of this paranoia occurred while Qatar actually signed the anti-Iran Riyadh Declaration issued after the Arab-Islamic-America summit on May 21, 2017 after Trump’s visit.

Yet Qatar, a country that hosts the largest U.S. air force base in the Middle East (Al-Udeid) as well as US Central Command for the region (CENTCOM), somehow deviated from the Saudi-led GCC military and diplomatic track, but for an entirely different reason. It seems that Qatar’s constant push for a bigger foreign policy and diplomatic profile in the region was meant to reposition it – out of the claws of KSA.

There are other contributing factors. On the diplomatic front, Doha had successfully mediated a series of conflicts all throughout the past 10 years. It broke the political impasse in Lebanon by persuading the Sunni-led Lebanese government and the opposition at that time, Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement, to sign the May 2008 Doha Agreement; it mediated the conflict between the Yemeni government and Ansarullah in February 2008 (though it failed subsequently to find a permanent solution to the conflict); and in February 2010 it facilitated a ceasefire agreement between the Sudanese government and the opposition Justice and Equality Movement. After the spark of the so called Arab Spring in 2011, Qatar directly participated in the NATO-led intervention to illegally oust the Gaddafi government in Libya. Undoubtedly, it wanted to achieve a similar goal in Syria by trying to topple President Bashar Assad’s government, but did not succeed due to a number of reasons, not least of all the direct support of Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah for the current government in Syria.

Hence, Qatar presented itself as a leading Arab state for politically transforming the Arab world with one objective: to project its influence and strengthen Qatari national security and foreign policy autonomy in the Gulf region, a neighborhood dominated by the giant Saudi Arabia.

Qatar simply wants to break free from the GCC umbrella and it wants an independent foreign policy free from any Saudi influence. This move has proved this past week to harness the backing of both Russia and Iran.

Regional and International Support for Qatar

However, to the surprise of many regional and international powers, Iran has sent five planes of vegetables to Qatar days after Gulf countries cut off air and other transport links to the emirate. Three ships loaded with 350 tons of fruit and vegetables were also set to leave an Iranian port for Qatar. This happened while Iran ironically urged Qatar and neighboring Gulf countries to engage in dialogue to resolve their dispute.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey met with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in Moscow late last week and expressed Russia’s readiness “to try to do everything in its power” to help resolve the crisis and fight “terrorism”.

Russia, which urged talks to resolve the confrontation, seems to be trying to maintain a delicate balance as it has close ties with Qatar and is cooperating with Saudi Arabia to stabilize oil markets and resolve the war in Syria, where it’s also working closely with Iran.

The confluence of recent events suggests that a US-Saudi-Tel Aviv effort is underway to isolate Iran, and that means the danger for a wider war in the region has never been more imminent.

Thus in the face of repeatedly failed mediations to ease the tension between the Gulf countries, it appears that Qatar is launching a retaliatory counter-initiative aimed first at knowing the opinion of a number of regional capitals like Tehran, Moscow and also Ankara, should things escalate for the worse, and secondly to explore the possibility of multilateral diplomatic relations with other potential international allies – all evidenced by that fact of Qatari diplomats making consecutive trips to their counterpart diplomats in the surrounding regional countries and inquiring about their positions, in the event of Saudi Arabia decides to temp fate by venturing into a Gulf explosion.

Marwa Osman. PhD Candidate located in Beirut, Lebanon. University Lecturer at the Lebanese International University and Maaref University. Political writer/commentator on Middle East issues with many international and regional media outlets.

READ MORE IRAN NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Iran Files

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