M. K. Bhadrakumar |
The move by a group of countries led by Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt – with Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Maldives toeing the line – to severe ties with Qatar and to isolate that tiny country in the Persian Gulf region comes as a surprise. It is happening hardly a fortnight after the US President Donald Trump’s high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia with an agenda, amongst other things, to resurrect the old pragmatic Sunni alliance against Iran comprised of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, Morocco – with Israel discreetly behind.
Things become a little more complicated when we also factor in Qatar’s dalliance with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archetypal rival.
Possibly, Saudis estimated that with the relations with the US almost back to the halcyon days of the era of the Bush family, this is an opportune moment to discipline Qatar, the only other Wahhabi state in the region. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had uneasy relations all along, the latter harboring the fear that someday Riyadh might do a “Bahrain” on it too.
Two years back, Qatar invited Turkey to establish a military base in Doha. Both Qatar and Turkey patronize the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis and the UAE, on the other hand, view the Brothers as having a secret agenda to overthrow their regimes. Things become a little more complicated when we also factor in Qatar’s dalliance with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archetypal rival.
Qatar is an utterly fascinating country which has made a fine art of punching far above its weight – and getting away with it most of the time. Of course, it suffered a severe setback in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi, which it supported, was deposed in a military coup in July 2013, backed by Saudi Arabia and UAE. The military dictator General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (presently Egypt’s president) sent the Qataris packing. Qatar has been in the dog house in Cairo ever since. Of course, Qatar is a smart investor in western capitals and was credited with having much clout with the French elite. The US Central Command is headquartered in Doha, too.
This rift between the Sheikhs in the Arab world virtually means that the Saudi progeny known as the Islamic Military Alliance is not going to take off.
What brings together Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt to devise a containment strategy against Qatar is their common interest in getting the Brothers evicted from their safe haven in Qatar. Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Maldives have simply complied with Saudi diktat. Interestingly, amongst the GCC states, Kuwait and Oman have taken a neutral stance.
Will Qatar kneel in such circumstances?
Qatar is unlikely to be cowed down, but it is a pragmatic regime which is always open to compromise. Turkey and Iran have counseled restraint, dialogue, and reconciliation by the two sides. In 2014 when a similar showdown took place between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it lasted for 8 months.
The good thing is that this rift between the Sheikhs in the Arab world virtually means that the Saudi progeny known as the Islamic Military Alliance is not going to take off. Although projected originally as an anti-terrorism alliance, it has since emerged that the Saudis intend to deploy the IMA against Shi’ite Iran. Trump also fancies an “Arab NATO” to counter Iran’s regional influence. But, precisely because of this sectarian overtone, most Muslim countries will develop cold feet apropos the IMA. Some rethink is going on even in Pakistan as regards its association with the IMA.
The “Arab NATO” is a pernicious idea because it can only end up as an instrument of US regional strategy. It means, quintessentially, the perpetuation of the US hegemony without direct military interventions by pitting the countries in the Muslim Middle East against each other. The US would ensure that “Arab NATO” remains a big buyer of American weaponry too.
For Trump’s vision to be implemented, all places of higher learning in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, including Al-Azhar in Egypt, would have to thoroughly change the teachings of the Sharia and oral traditions.
Unfortunately, Trump is fuelling Saudi belligerence. Yet, he knows fully well that it was Saudi Wahhabism, which laid the theological foundation for modern radical Islam. Wahhabism is directly responsible for the creation of Taliban and Al Qaeda and the propagation of Islam in the West. In a devastating critique of Trump’s Middle East policy, a former Israeli ambassador wrote in Jerusalem Post:
For Trump’s vision to be implemented, all places of higher learning in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, including Al-Azhar in Egypt, would have to thoroughly change the teachings of the Sharia and oral traditions (including the Hadith and the Life of Mohammad) which are the theological basis of the creation and operations of Jihadi Islamic organizations… It must be noted that the Egyptian president has already urged Al-Azhar to do away with extremist trends in Islam, so far to no avail. Can Trump be more successful? It does not seem likely. Arab countries will fight terror organizations more forcefully but will be reluctant to touch the tenets of their religion.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.