The Weapons of Saudi’s Siege on Qatar

Tilt-shift perspective of Doha, Qatar, May 21, 2010
Tilt-shift perspective of Doha, Qatar, May 21, 2010 (Joey Gannon)

Anyone who’s ever worked in the Gulf isn’t shocked that Qatar missed a deadline. Badiin, badiin, “later, later,” in the local parlance, as yet another meeting fails to happen.

In light of that, we shouldn’t be so surprised that the Qatar’s been given something of an extension. Reuters reports:

Four Arab states refrained on Wednesday from slapping further sanctions on Qatar but voiced disappointment at its “negative” response to their demands and said their boycott of the tiny Gulf nation would continue.

Qatar earlier in the day accused Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt of “clear aggression” and said the accusations cited when they severed ties a month ago “were clearly designed to create anti-Qatar sentiment in the West”.

Western media is conflict-driven and narrative-obsessed: the advent of 24/7 cable news in the 1980s transformed news from the highlights-heavy, factually-driven 5 o’clock stories to the ever-in-crisis outrage industrial complex.

That’s the result of a free market, free speech and cultural shifts that value action over substance.

Very little of that translates to the Arabian Gulf, where markets are only free in designated zones and where free speech applies only to those at the very, very top.

Thus the notion that missing the deadline was a disaster for Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi is hype. Anti-Saudi conspiracy theorists are grasping at what straws they can if they add up to a haystack of Saudi humiliation.

Alas, all of that misreads the situation and the Gulf in general. This is a soft-power war: Saudi Arabia and its UAE allies will not risk a military invasion of a country with a United States base inside it. They don’t have to either. For the kingdom and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) lackeys to call it a victory, they need only to wait. Read more

Trump Sells Qatar Warplanes After Accusing It of Funding Terrorists

Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015
Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

The American Defense Department has announced it selling $12 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets to Qatar, the same Persian Gulf country President Donald Trump recently accused of sponsoring terrorists. Read more

France Likely to Dial Down Relations with Qatar After Election

French president François Hollande greets Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, then the emir of Qatar, in Paris, August 22, 2012
French president François Hollande greets Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, then the emir of Qatar, in Paris, August 22, 2012 (Elysée/Christelle Alix)

The cozy relationship enjoyed between France and Qatar may come to an end after the election on Sunday. Both Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have bashed the Persian Gulf state on the campaign trail.

“I will put an end to the agreements that favor Qatar in France,” Macron, the frontrunner, said last month. “I think there was a lot of complacencies, during Nicolas Sarkozy’s five-year term in particular.” Read more

Arab Gulf States Will Have to Let in Syrian Refugees

Morning in Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, January 1, 2010
Morning in Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, January 1, 2010 (WomEOS)

As the European migrant crisis is giving way to unprecedented humanitarian efforts from first Germany and now the Vatican, more than a few analysts have noted that for all Europe’s generosity, only a few Arab states have opened their doors to the masses fleeing war in Iraq and Syria.

That’s curious when one considers that the ultra-rich Gulf Cooperation Council states are far closer than Europe and the journey there involves no dangerous seafaring. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all have considerable oil and gas reserves and their citizens are much richer than those of other Arab states. Yet GCC governments have stayed mum even as the #ArabConscience has begun trending regionally. Why?

A history of demographic inferiority

For all their wealth, the Gulf states have a major demographic disadvantage. When independence was conferred on most of them by Britain, with Kuwait leading the way in 1963 and the rest following in 1971, most were sparsely inhabited deserts. Even more established Saudi Arabia, with its larger and older population, didn’t have the human capital to fully utilize its oil wealth.

The solution was to import millions of foreigners. Their labor built the region’s cities, highways and economic infrastructure, allowing local, or mahali, citizens to avoid involving themselves in anything but cushy government jobs.

While that pleased the citizens, it also created a deep imbalance. Today, the Emirates and Qatar have populations made up of nearly 90 percent foreigners and they have no clear system to nationalize even long-term residents. Saudi Arabia’s population has nine million expats, nearly a third of the total. No GCC state has more than 70 percent local citizens.

A shaky relationship between the GCC and the rest of the Arab world

GCC states have similar cultural and political characteristics and are ruled by increasingly paranoid leaders. They are the last absolute monarchies in the world and pin their power to native citizens who demand cradle-to-grave welfare systems. Tribal loyalties are decided by gross handouts: Saudi Arabia’s response to the “Arab Spring” protests was to spend $130 billion on assorted projects and bribes to forestall unrest.

Other Arab states have evolved beyond monarchy and tension between them and the GCC has ebbed and flowed. Syria, a former Soviet client, has never had a good relationship with the American allies in the Gulf.

A fragile political environment

Only Kuwait offers functional elections and a modicum of free speech. The rest of the region is rigidly authoritarian. The system is held together by a blindly loyal citizenry and an increasingly professional security service. Citizens are loyal owing to the state’s generous welfare system while the security services enjoy bribes in the form of newer and better equipment, generous retirement packages and lax work environments.

There is a great deal of overlap between the two. Welfare can often mean an easy job: many GCC police are high-school graduates offered easy gigs to soak up youth unemployment.

But to interject thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of fellow Arabs into such a system could throw off the social equilibrium. This is what GCC citizens fear most: competition with others for the subsidies. This fear trickles upwards to GCC rulers. In and of itself, allowing refugees into their countries would not necessarily threaten them. Upsetting their loyal citizens would.

Leading quietly

GCC governments rarely allow public debate on major policy shifts. In August, for example, the Emirate suddenly announced they would pin gas prices to an international index, swiftly ending expensive fuel subsidies. For domestic consumers, this was drastic and unprecedented.

GCC governments find it much more manageable to allow rumor and speculation to circulate before making major policy decisions, ascertaining the scope of backlash should they embark on an action that might upset their citizens’ lifestyles.

This is what GCC governments are doing now. Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, a prominent Emirati commentator, has been allowed to publish articles favoring refugee resettlement in the UAE. He could never do so without official permission but should his articles produce a firestorm, the idea can be pinned to him rather than the government.

Saving face

GCC governments are all finding themselves strategically and economically strapped after sinking oil prices and American disengagement. In the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, they can no longer count on American support to fight their proxy wars with Iran. GCC governments would prefer to preserve their cash reserves for other projects and priorities but are finding themselves on the wrong side of international opinion when nominally Christian countries like Germany are opening their gates to Muslim refugees.

It’s therefore quite likely the GCC will carry out high-profile, low-risk resettlement plans in order to minimize such backlash. The danger for many refugees is that they’ll be left much as the Palestinians have throughout the region: pariahs and objects of pity, unable to obtain citizenship and the object of political machinations.

Still, such a situation would be better than facing the guns of the Islamic State or the barrel bombs of Bashar al-Assad. When the GCC’s doors invariably open, they will be flooded. It will be a fine line for the region’s governments to walk but walk it they must.

Arabs, Turkey Coordinate Syrian War Efforts

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks with Saudi leaders in Riyadh, January 23
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks with Saudi leaders in Riyadh, January 23 (SPA)

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey appear to have mended a rift that kept them from coordinating their efforts in support of the Syrian opposition.

The Washington Post reported last week that the three countries had ended a long estrangement to address their shared concern over the lagging fight against Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

The initiative comes amid a growing sense in the region that the United States is preoccupied with its nuclear negotiations with Iran and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq.

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has publicly said that toppling Assad remains the priority for him. In an interview last year, he blamed the Syrian dictator for effectively creating the Islamic State insurgency which the United States now see as the greater threat in the Middle East.

Forces loyal to Assad, including fighters from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, have mostly left the Sunni radicals of the Islamic State — who operate in both Iraq and Syria — alone while concentrating their firepower on less radical opposition groups. A Syrian military intelligence defector told Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper that the regime had released “extremists” from detention while keeping political prisoners and protest leaders locked up.

From the start of the rebellion against him more than four years ago, Assad insisted his opponents were terrorists. He seems to have worked hard to make that characterization come true. In the meantime, tens of thousands of civilians are estimated to have died in the conflict.

While Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States supported relatively moderate opposition forces in Syria, initially with only nonlethal aid, Qatar and Turkey were less discriminate, backing Islamists as well whom they believed were more capable of defeating Assad.

For the Arabs, removing Assad would be a victory in their struggle for hegemony with Iran, the Syrian’s only ally.

Turkey interpreted the Syrian uprising as another front in the “Arab Spring,” a regional protest movement that was quickly hijacked in most places by Islamists and one that Turkey, keen on reclaiming its leadership in the Middle East, saw as an opportunity to expand its influence.

Qatar and Turkey betted specifically on the Muslim Brotherhood — and lost. The group was marginalized in Syria and defeated in Egypt where a Saudi-backed military coup removed the Islamists from power in 2013.

Saudi Arabia is apprehensive about the Muslim Brotherhood. The group’s brand of political Islam is at odds with the kingdom’s own puritanical strain of the religion, Wahhabism. The Muslim Brotherhood also favors republicanism and is populist. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is a monarchy and authoritarian.

The Saudis previously allowed Qatar and Turkey a sphere of influence in the north of Syria while they concentrated their efforts on opposition groups in the south, near the Jordanian border.

Qatar and Turkey now seem willing to accept Saudi leadership in the campaign while the Muslim Brotherhood may be sufficiently weakened to no longer worry the kingdom.

Kyle W. Orton writes at The Eastern Project that Saudi Arabia has “called off its anti-Muslim Brotherhood campaign” while Erdoğan, in March, publicly agreed to work with the Saudis in Syria. The two still don’t see eye to eye when it comes to Egypt or Libya — where they support opposing sides in another civil war. “But a modus vivendi has been reached,” according to Orton.

The Washington Post reports that the influx of additional weapons and financial aid from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey has facilitated recent advances against the loyalists in Syria. Islamist groups, including those linked to the international terrorist organization Al Qaeda, are fighting with supposedly moderate rebels under a new umbrella group called the Army of Conquest.

Regional officials insist that the aid, including US-made TOW missiles, is not going to the Islamists. Instead, they said, it is enabling moderates to enhance their stature among opposition fighters after years of being outgunned and outfinanced by more militant groups.

Beyond exasperation in the region about the United States’ unwillingness to expand its own support for the Syrian opposition — for fear of inadvertently aiding fanatics that are also anti-American — the prospect of successful nuclear negotiations with Iran may have compelled the Arabs and Turks to set aside their differences.

America’s Middle East allies worry that it will acquiesce in Iran’s recent strategic gains in the Levant in order to get a long-term agreement to halt its nuclear program or even pursue broader rapprochement with a country that severed its ties with the West in 1979.

The Arab states and Iran also back opposing sides in Yemen where Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Sunni states to intervene in March on the side of the internationally-recognized government. Iran supports Yemen’s Houthi rebels who share its Shia faith.

Gulf States Withdraw Diplomats in Rift with Qatar

American secretary of state John Kerry speaks with foreign ministers Ahmet Davutoğlu of Turkey, Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah of Qatar and Saud bin Faisal Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in Paris, France, January 12
American secretary of state John Kerry speaks with foreign ministers Ahmet Davutoğlu of Turkey, Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah of Qatar and Saud bin Faisal Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in Paris, France, January 12 (State Department)

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said on Wednesday they were withdrawing their ambassadors from nearby Qatar in what was the first public admission of major differences between the Gulf Cooperation Council states.

In a statement, the three monarchies said Qatar had failed to honor an agreement not to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors. But the real reason for the diplomatic pullout seems to be Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that Saudi Arabia and its allies abhor.

Since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” uprisings in late 2010, Qatar has supported Islamist revolutionary causes in Egypt and Syria and provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian affiliate, Hamas. It also hosts the movement’s spiritual leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

Saudi Arabia’s own puritanical strain of Islam, Wahhabism, is at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood’s advocacy of political Islam. The organization also favors republicanism and is populist, unlike Saudi Arabia, a monarchy and authoritarian.

Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt suffered a blow last July when President Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the army. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates rushed in with billions of dollars in aid for the interim government that succeeded his.

Around that time, Saudi Arabia also assumed a leadership role in coordinating Arab support for the uprising against Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Whereas Saudi Arabia had concentrated its efforts in the south of the country, near the border with Jordan, and allowed a Qatari sphere of influence in the north, near Turkey, the growing prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the opposition worried the kingdom which preferred to back less political Salafist.

Both Arab states have sectarian and strategic imperatives for supporting the Syrian uprising. Because Assad is the only Arab ally of their nemesis Iran, replacing his government with a majority Sunni regime would weaken the Shia axis in the Middle East and limit Iran’s retaliatory options in case there is an American or Israeli attack on its nuclear sites which Arab and Western nations suspect are part of a weapons program.

Despite reluctance on the part of Saudi Arabia’s ally the United States, which worries that religious fanatics in Syria might be no better than Assad, the kingdom has stepped up its support for more radical insurgents

The rift between Qatar and the other oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf further calls into question regional integration schemes which have made little progress in recent years.

The alliance, which also includes Kuwait and Oman, failed to agree to plans for a joint missile defense system, despite American support. A Saudi proposal for deeper economic and political union stalled in 2012. Earlier, the United Arab Emirates had pulled out of a planned monetary union.

Domestic Interests Color Region’s Reaction to Egypt Coup

Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in London, England, March 7
Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in London, England, March 7 (FCO)

The Arab Gulf states and Syria’s Bashar Assad may be on opposite sides in a proxy war that pits the region’s majority Sunni Muslims against Shia Iran yet both welcomed the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government on Thursday.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were all quick to congratulate Egypt’s new president, Adli Mansour, the former chief justice who was installed by the army to lead a transitional government until elections can be held.

Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who was elected with a 51.7 percent majority last year, was removed from office after millions of Egyptians had poured into the streets of Alexandria, Cairo and other major cities to demand his resignation.

Especially Saudi Arabia abhors the Muslim Brotherhood which questions the monarchy’s legitimacy at home. In Syria’s civil war, where the monarchies of the Persian Gulf support Sunni groups that are battling the secular regime of President Assad, the Saudis prefer the more fanatical Salafists whose views are similar to their own Wahhabism. Qatar is believed to have send arms to Muslim Brotherhood fighters in Syria but recently had to take a backseat to its bigger neighbor in coordinating Arab support for the Syrian opposition.

Saudi Arabia, locked in a struggle for regional hegemony with Iran, was alarmed by the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, seeing the veteran president’s demise as yet another Sunni strongman collapsing after Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was deposed by the Americans in 2003. Hussein and Mubarak had helped the Saudis check Iran’s ambitions.

The kingdom has enthusiastically backed Syria’s uprising because its president is Iran’s only Arab ally. His downfall would stunt the rise of a “Shia Crescent” spanning Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Yet Syria’s Assad is also glad to see the Muslim Brotherhood go from Egypt when the group is part of the rebellion against his own government.

Assad hailed Morsi’s ouster as proof that Egyptians had discovered the “lies” of the Muslim Brotherhood. “What is happening in Egypt is the fall of so-called political Islam,” he said in an interview that was published on Thursday. “This is the fate of anyone in the world who tries to use religion for political or factional interests.”

The only Middle Eastern countries to signal concern were Iran and Turkey. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tehran cautioned against “foreign and enemy opportunism” in Egypt. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told reporters, “It is unacceptable for a government, which has come to power through democratic elections, to be toppled through illicit means and even more, a military coup.”

Davutoğlu’s apprehension may stem from large demonstrations that took place against his own Islamist party in Turkey last month. Like their Egyptian counterparts, liberal and secular Turks are wary of what they perceive as an increasingly authoritarian government that, backed by a slim majority of the population, imposes its religious values on the whole of Turkish society.