Saudi fears challenge

Behind the perplexity, confusion and the smokescreen of speculation over the Saudi-led all-round isolation of neighbouring Qatar, one clear reason stands out: the temerity of the tiny Sunni Gulf state to align with Shia Iran. Qatar’s friendliness in recent times with Iran challenges Saudi hegemony among West Asia’s Sunni nations, particularly among its “little” siblings, including Qatar, in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

In Saudi Arabia’s reckoning, if Qatar is allowed to cross the Lakshman Rekha, or the invisible line, in etching an independent path, it could have long-term repercussions for Riyadh’s political monopoly and undermine its standing among the Sunni-dominant Arab nations.

Ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution that saw the rise of the Shia Muslim community led by Ayatollah Khomeini to power, Saudi Arabia has been openly hostile to Tehran and the interests the government there represents. Hardcore Sunnis have harboured a historical animosity towards the Shia sect. Saudi’s Wahabbi sect is among these. Saudi Arabia has challenged Khomeini’s Iran in many different ways, including backing Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. More recently, Saudi Arabia even aligned with arch-enemy Israel against Iran on the nuclear issue. The Riyadh regime openly opposed the agreement between the previous Obama administration and Tehran. The Saudi monarchy did not think twice before siding with Israel on the issue of lifting sanctions against Iran. The latest was an anti-Iran front floated by Saudi Arabia. Qatar expressed opposition to the move, much to Riyadh’s chagrin. 

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – neighbours of Iran – have always been dominated by Saudi Arabia. The situation changed in the mid-1990s when Western-educated moderniser Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, decided to experiment with limited openness. The founding of the Al Jazeera news channel was among the first steps in this direction. Once Qatar started off on an independent path, there was no turning back. Al Jazeera, the first news outlet in the region to enjoy autonomy, ran amuck covering issues in the region that were traditionally kept at arm’s length.

In the process, the Doha-headquartered news channel threatened the comfortable authoritarian status quo that various governments in the region had got used to. Saudi Arabia never kept its thoughts on Al Jazeera a secret, banning it on several occasions. In a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, Qatar upstaged the dominance of Saudi Arabia. The regime in Riyadh, smug in the belief that it controlled the narrative in the region, has been shocked out of its complacency.

This was by a politically active Qatar which has sought to intervene decisively to mediate in several ongoing conflicts, including the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the turmoil in Afghanistan and the various uprisings in the Arab world – popularly called the Arab Spring.

That Egypt, too, decided to back Saudi Arabia in sequestering Qatar is a clear consequence of Doha’s backing for the Muslim Brotherhood whose government was overthrown in a military coup by Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In the post-9/11 era where governments led by Washington resort to calling any opposition as “terrorist” entities, the Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the occupied Palestinian areas fall under this bracket. The Israeli government and regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which feel threatened by one or the other of these groups, have joined the US in this name-calling. That each of these groups are political formations that have been elected to their respective Assemblies by the vast majority of people, and/or have been in government, has quietly been ignored. Worse, these legitimate groups have been equated with al Qaeda or the Islamic State just to score a political point which, incidentally, has few takers on the Arab street.

Amplified criticism

The Qatari rulers, starting with Emir Hamad and now his son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, have executed a well thought out strategy. If their pet project Al Jazeera amplified criticism of US foreign policy in the region, the military base offered by Doha to Washington has tried to balance the consequences of that criticism. In other words, the Qatari strategy has made it a slippery customer for the US and Saudi Arabia. Not a surprise then that US President Donald Trump first claimed credit for isolating Qatar and then quickly backtracked, calling for a reconciliation.

In the midst of its political gamesmanship, Qatar has gone on to become an economic powerhouse. Using its physical location as a peninsula, Qatar has wriggled out of the clutches of Saudi Arabia with which its shares a long land border.

What brings Qatar closer to Iran, among other things, is that both share massive amounts of undersea natural gas that has transformed the tiny peninsular country into what it is today. Unlike its large Saudi neighbour, Qatar’s foreign policy has always displayed political pragmatism and therefore its alliance with Iran is not a surprise.

Further, the Qatari perspective reflects the sentiments of a large section of the Arab population which see the need for greater Arab-Muslim unity in the face of serious challenges and turmoil that West Asia is currently going through. The Saudi-led move is self-defeating and plays into the hands of vested interests which would like to see West Asia fragmented and perpetually involved in fratricidal wars that will eventually weaken, if not destroy it.

As for Qatar, it has hedged all bets and can afford to cock a snook at its detractors. Moreover, it has the economic power and political stability to weather the current isolation. It will not be easy for the dog (Saudi Arabia) to even flick its tail (Qatar), let alone wag it.

(The writer is a former Editor of Al Jazeera and was based in Doha, Qatar)

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