Mon Jun 5, 2017 1:51PM
Crisis hits relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  (AFP Photo of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani)
Crisis hits relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. (AFP Photo of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani)

By Borna Javid* 

The Persian Gulf Cooperation Council has plunged into a diplomatic crisis it had never seen in its history. An alliance of Arab countries of the Persian Gulf region is now in clear disarray in what appears to be a result of a deteriorating diplomatic row between Riyadh and Doha. Many are already pondering about what actually brought about a crisis which is already worsening. Still, a look at the circumstances around it may provide a hint as to how this started, who it could affect most and where it could lead.  

Qatar drew the ire of the royals in Riyadh late last month when its Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, reportedly described Iran a force for stability. Sheikh Tamim – as reported by the media – went as far as accusing the Saudis of promoting extremism. Officials in Doha were quick to reject the reported quotations of Qatar’s Emir as “fake news.” The Saudis, nonetheless, could not hide their anger. What promised the start of a crisis between Doha and Riyadh soon triggered speculations that a crack was already opening up inside the regional Arab bloc that Saudi Arabia has created against Iran. And the early signs to the same effect emerged accordingly. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Doha.   

The timing of Sheikh Tamim’s remarks is also worth attention. It came shortly after the visit to the Persian Gulf by US President Donald Trump. The US president held a lengthy series of talks in his tour of the region. Still, it was his outlandish arms deal with the Saudis that caught everybody’s attention. A promise to receive $110 billion worth of weapons from the Americans was enough to embolden the Saudis to adopt a more hawkish regional diplomacy. But surprisingly, Riyadh appears to have chosen to suppress what looks like a nearby rival.  And for that, Qatar was the immediate target.

US President Donald Trump (2nd R) joins a ceremonial sword dance with Saudi King Salman (3rd L) during his visit to Riyadh last month.

Qatar – today a regional economic powerhouse – has tried to introduce itself as a key player in Middle East politics over the past few years. It has even attempted to act as a peace broker in several crisis points like Palestine, Afghanistan and Syria. A country which is already a crucial player in world natural gas market wants to portray itself as the champion of moderation in the Arab world. However, the Saudis have not been able to create the image of a moderate force in the eyes of the Arab world. That could help explain why they are unhappy with the more acceptable image of a regional player that Qatar is trying to present. It is in fact here where the rivalry between the two started in the first place. 

Sheikh Tamim’s pro-Iran remarks provided fuel for the Saudis to turn up the heat on Doha. But they had another excuse – that had been in the offing for a while – to act against the Qataris: the country’s support for the Palestinian resistance movement, Hamas. Over the past week, reports emerged that Qatar had asked certain Hamas officials to leave the country. This followed other reports that Saudi Arabia had been pressing Doha to eject Hamas from Qatar. On the other hand, Doha was reported to have handed over a Saudi rights activist to Riyadh – again over the past week. 

Both moves are believed to have been meant to appease the Saudis. However, it appears that they have not been enough for Riyadh. The outcome: the Saudis took a tough line, which was seen to have been meant to teach a lesson to the Qataris. The kingdom announced a break in all diplomatic ties with Qatar on Monday. This provoked several Saudi allies to follow suit. And with that, the economic and geopolitical costs for Qatar are already going up.

US President Donald Trump (1st R), Saudi King Salman (2nd L) and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (1st L) inaugurate the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh.

Economically, Qatar has become an isolated island after most of its marine borders and its sole land border (with Saudi Arabia) were shut down by neighbors. Saudi Arabia supplies over 90 percent of Qatar’s food requirements. It was therefore no wonder that the crisis in relations between the two countries promoted a public rush to shops to buy food and groceries. The souring of relations with the neighbors also resulted in a drop in aviation services to and from the country. And eventually, the collective economic cost for Qatar manifested itself when the country’s key stock market plunged by around six percent in the early hours of Monday’s trading.     

One here needs to take a look at the recent political positions of both the Saudis and the Qataris to better understand what led to a crisis in relations between the two countries. It is internationally known today that Saudi Arabia is supporting the terrorists in Syria and Iraq one way or another. The same holds true with Qatar. The reason these two countries are confronting each other may be a result of the fact that their rivalry in other crisis points has led to failure.  This could explain why they are trying to take a crisis that they were unable to push ahead in Iraq and Syria in the Persian Gulf now.

The spat between Saudi Arabia and Qatar would sooner or later also affect US policies in the Persian Gulf region. To better understand this, remember these facts. Saudi Arabia is America’s biggest ally in the region. And Qatar, on the other hand, hosts the largest US overseas military base in the world. That may explain why Washington should be worried about the rift between these two countries. It is because the implementation of US policies in the Persian Gulf region requires the perfect coordination between Doha and Riyadh.

US President Donald Trump (C) talks with Saudi King Salman (2nd R) as they pose for photos with leaders at the Arab Islamic American Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by AP)

The current diplomatic crisis between Riyadh and Doha is also indicative of the fact that Saudi Arabia and its regional allies are still stuck in the colonial mindset. They pay huge amounts of money via draining the Middle East region of oil and gas resources to purchase weapons from foreign superpowers and use them against the people of other countries like Yemen. That is the way the despotic Arab rulers envision regional stability, which they think can be invoked through propping up dictators and suppressing voice of dissent in other countries.

By doing so, they attempt to stave off any wind of change in their own countries. However, the latest diplomatic spat revealed how hazardous this strategy could turn in the Middle East, a highly volatile region already militarized due to US and its allies’ massive arms sales.

It seems that Israel is the only pleased party under the current circumstances. The Israeli media are already celebrating over the diplomatic rift between the Saudis and the Qataris with some outlets already calling on officials in Tel Aviv to make the best of what they are portraying of Qatar’s isolation and its lost ties with Hamas.     

Israel has desperately attempted to normalize ties with Arab states and has already started covert talks to the same effect. Some in Tel Aviv are now saying the rift between Riyadh and Doha could be a perfect opportunity to approach the Saudis and their allies. This could give an impression to anyone that the Israelis are trying to fish in trouble waters. It would then be no surprise to see Israel sooner or later jump into the wagon pulled by Saudi Arabia, a staunch ally of Israel's biggest supporter, the United States of America. A former foe – now a friend of my friend – is indeed my friend!

Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those by Press TV.