What is behind the Qatar crisis?

For the last month the Gulf state of Qatar has been blockaded by its neighbours Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, who along with Egypt have severed all diplomatic ties with the country. These events have opened up a crisis situation in the Gulf region, which is being viewed with trepidation by the major powers on the world stage.

[Note: it appears, as we predicted, that pushed by the US administration, a deal with Qatar seems to be in the making, but this doesn't change anything fundamental in the present article, which was written a few days ago]

Over a third of food supplies and consumer goods in Qatar are imported from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. What is more, most of the investment projects within Qatar are tied up with investors from these countries. Consequently, the sanctions have led to an economic crisis inside Qatar, whose stocks slumped 8% at the beginning of June blowing a $13bn black hole in its economy. Residents have been panic-buying food and household supplies, hastening longer-term shortages if the blockades continue. The two million foreign nationals who make up the majority of the population (many of them working in semi-slave conditions) have been stranded in the country without an obvious route out.

The diplomatic row which led to the present situation supposedly began when a report emerged on the Qatar News Agency’s website in May of the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani saying, “There is no wisdom in harbouring hostility towards Iran.” Qatar has since shut down the website, claiming that the report was fake and that it had been hacked. US officials threw in their two cents, taking up the convenient “Russian hackers did it” excuse. But the whole affair is very suspicious when one considers how Saudi news outlets were spitting out dozens of articles of reports and long articles attacking Qatar almost immediately after the leak, which happened in the middle of the night! The Al-Thanis, they claimed, had proven their treacherous allegiance to Iran and to “terrorism” - severe measures had to be taken.

On the 23rd June the Saudis issued a list of demands which Qatar would have to meet within ten days for the blockades to be lifted. These include distancing itself from Iran, cutting all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah (and Islamic State and al-Qaeda for good measure), shutting down its Al-Jazeera Media Network and handing over the political dissidents of its fellow Gulf States. Qatar is being told in no uncertain terms that it must get back into line with the interests of its more powerful neighbour. It has not been made clear, however, how the situation would be escalated further if the demands were not agreed to.

The demands in full

  1. Curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close its diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade and commerce with Iran that complies with US and international sanctions will be permitted.
  2. Sever all ties to “terrorist organisations”, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaida and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Formally declare those entities as terrorist groups.
  3. Shut down al-Jazeera and its affiliate stations.
  4. Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.
  5. Immediately terminate the Turkish military presence in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside Qatar.
  6. Stop all means of funding for individuals, groups or organisations that have been designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, the US and other countries.
  7. Hand over “terrorist figures” and wanted individuals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain to their countries of origin. Freeze their assets, and provide any desired information about their residency, movements and finances.
  8. End interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Stop granting citizenship to wanted nationals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Revoke Qatari citizenship for existing nationals where such citizenship violates those countries’ laws.
  9. Stop all contacts with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Hand over all files detailing Qatar’s prior contacts with and support for those opposition groups.
  10.  Pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other, financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies in recent years. The sum will be determined in coordination with Qatar.
  11.  Consent to monthly audits for the first year after agreeing to the demands, then once per quarter during the second year. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.
  12.  Align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially and economically, as well as on economic matters, in line with an agreement reached with Saudi Arabia in 2014.
  13.  Agree to all the demands within 10 days of it being submitted to Qatar, or the list becomes invalid. [Source: The Guardian]

So far Qatar has refused to budge. Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani stated on Saturday that they do not fear military action from the blockading nations. The Qatari regime claims that the demands which have been raised are so far-fetched that they were designed not to be met. They have baulked at the ten-day deadline, which was first passed, was then extended by forty-eight hours and finally swept under the carpet by the Saudis.

German Foreign Minister Sigmund Gabriel, who took part in talks with the countries involved, attempting to defuse tensions, echoed the fears of some bourgeois commentators when he said, “There is a danger that this dispute could lead to war.” This conclusion is somewhat drastic, nonetheless the United States and other imperialist powers are viewing these events with serious concern, not least because Qatar hosts the largest US base in the Middle East, the al-Udeid Air Base.

Given the severity of this crisis, it is important that we should understand why it is happening. It is also important to counter the misinformation of various bourgeois media outlets, which – along with US President Donald Trump – seem especially taken with Saudi Arabia’s sudden commitment to fighting terrorism.

Saudi Arabia and ‘counter-terrorism’

saudi princes

Saudi Arabia is the principal source of Islamist terrorism the world over. Since its inception, the Saudi regime has openly aided and abetted the spread of Wahhabi fundamentalism throughout the Middle East. The Saudi royal family has always considered that the main threat to its power within Saudi Arabia would come from either Sunni radical Islamism which, although it forms the ideological basis of its regime, prefers a Caliphate as opposed to a monarchy. In order to kill two birds with one stone the regime has allied itself with the most extreme brand of Sunni Islamism to oppress revolutionary movements, the country’s Shia minority and other groups of people which the two see as their enemies.

The Saudis have accordingly poured more than $100bn into the coffers of Wahhabi mullahs and the organisers of mass terror attacks from Western Europe to Indonesia. Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the 9/11 plotters, confessed to US authorities that members of the Saudi royal family had been giving money to al-Qaeda before the attacks. More recently, Saudi Arabia has been the main source of funding for Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda which has itself funnelled weapons and finance to the Islamic State.

It is laughable that the Saudis are now calling on another nation to “sever all ties with ‘terrorist organisations’”. That Donald Trump has taken credit for the move, only further condemns him as a supporter of the most barbaric regime on the face of the planet. This is not to say that the Qatari regime isn’t also funding many of the same terrorist groups as Saudi Arabia and shouldn’t be reviled for its actions. Apart from keeping many of its inhabitants in conditions that would not have been out of place in Ancient Greece or Rome, Qatar is more than happy to sponsor whatever reactionary or terrorist organisation serves its interests internationally. But to go along with the Saudi line and believe that ‘counter-terrorism’ has anything to do with the current sanctions against Qatar is to enter the realm of fantasy.

It is true that Qatar has formally backed several key organisations which the other Gulf States oppose. Many observers have focused on the Muslim Brotherhood connection, given that Egypt has joined in the sanctions against Qatar. But although Saudi Arabia historically is mistrustful of the Muslim Brotherhood neither it nor Hamas or Hezbollah pose any immediate threat to the interests of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain or any of their respective allies in the region.

When the Muslim Brotherhood was a threat – while in power in Egypt – Saudi Arabia was silent about Qatar’s support for it. And when the Brotherhood was overthrown and Sisi took power, Qatar actually supported him, proving the general point that in the Middle East as anywhere else there are no permanent allies, only permanent interests. Egypt’s role in the current crisis is actually as a lackey of Saudi Arabia, a role it is developing rather well as it becomes more and more desperate for the Gulf Power’s financial support.

The real causes

To find the real reasons for the current Qatari crisis we need only to look at the first and final (12th) demands on Saudi Arabia’s list. Qatar has begun to reach too far above its station for Saudi Arabia’s liking. Compared to the dominant power in the Gulf, it is a tiny state seemingly with little political sway and a very small army. Yet its access to disproportionately large natural-gas reserves have allowed it to accumulate an investment portfolio around the world to rival its much larger neighbours.

Qatar has also traditionally been an outpost for Western imperialism in the Gulf. Since the 1920s, first Britain and then America have used the country as a base for military campaigns. Since the time of the Ottoman Empire in fact, Qatar has been supported by one or another imperialist power to counter the weight of other clans and fiefdoms on the Arab Peninsula.

The Qatari government spent $1bn building the al-Udeid base after joint military operations with the US during the Gulf War. When the US invaded Iraq, they moved their air operation headquarters from Saudi Arabia to al-Udeid and it has remained there throughout the US intervention in Syria. Although closely interlinked with its neighbours, both its enormous gas profits and its strategic importance to the United States have enabled Qatar to throw its own political weight around and to act independently of the Saudis.

As long as Saudi Arabia was the predominant power amongst the Arab nations and the world economy was growing this was tolerated by the Al-Sauds. But after the Iraq war and the 2011 Arab revolution, Saudi Arabia emerged weakened both internally and in the region where Iran’s power was expanding. Qatar’s independent role in the region became a bigger threat to Saudi interests, as was the case when Qatar supported the Morsi regime in Egypt after the revolution, when Saudi Arabia was fiercely opposed. As the previous order in the Middle East has been breaking up, Qatar has increasingly gone its own way posing a danger to the fragile Al-Saud regime. The Al Jazeera news network and Middle East Eye web magazine for instance, have become key propaganda weapons throughout the region and represent a direct threat to the totalitarian nature of Saudi rule.

The pivotal divergence from Saudi interests which has provoked this crisis is Qatar’s increasingly close alliance with Iran. Iran and Qatar share control over the world’s largest natural gas field, South Pars/North Field in the Persian Gulf. Earlier this year, almost simultaneously, first Iran and then Qatar each decided to develop their extraction of their own part of the field, in Qatar’s case for the first time since 2005.

When asked if this involved collaboration between the two, Qatar Petroleum’s chief executive Saad al-Kaabi said: “What we are doing today is something completely new and we will in future of course... share information on this with them [Iran].” This comes three years after Qatar openly offered help to Iran to advance their own gas extraction, with one official stating: “We have many studies on the field that I’m sure can benefit Iran.” In return for these benefits Qatar expects a far larger share of the field than Iran.

But at a time when Saudi Arabia is becoming dangerously unsettled by the growing prominence of Iran as a power in the region, Qatar working so closely with this rival power has created tensions among the Gulf States.Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud talk together May 2017 wikipedia commonsDonald Trump with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud- wikipedia commons

Central to the shifting dynamic in the entire region is the sudden turnaround in Iran’s fortunes. The country has emerged from the bloody civil war in Syria with its military authority in the region strengthened and with new trade opportunities with the West opening up. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards have played a vital role in smashing Qatar- and Saudi-backed al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Syria, as well as in shoring up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The victory in Syria further strengthened Iran’s position and it is clear that Qatar is in talks with Iran and Turkey to cut a deal in Syria possibly even stepping in with investments in the rebuilding of Syria. Such a deal, would leave the Saudis to take the biggest losses, financially, politically and geo-strategically.

The rise of Iran represents an existential threat to Saudi Arabia, not only to its imperialist ambitions in the region, but also militarily and internally as a potential patron of a rising Shia movement in the oil rich eastern regions of the Kingdom. To up the ante, the Saudis responded by starting a war in Yemen which has proved foolish and irresponsible even on their own terms; to claim two Red Sea islands from Egypt in return for a small bailout package; to cut an arms deal of historic proportions with the United States; and now to sanction their junior neighbouring power, threatening them with a stern ultimatum.

The other Qatari allegiance which is now making Saudi Arabia uneasy is with Turkey. Diplomatic ties between the two countries have been strengthening lately. In December 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the establishment of a Turkish military base in Qatar, following the Turkish and Qatari armies’ joint training exercises. While Saudi Arabia is a declining power, Turkey has been on the rise becoming by far the strongest economy and military of the Middle East. Erdogan’s Anatolian backers have always had neo-Ottoman ambitions and the Arab Peninsula, home of Mecca and Medina, is no small part of this plan. Erdogan is determined in the long run to conquer Saudi Arabia’s position as the “leader of the Islamic world”. The relationship with Qatar and the building of a military base there has given Turkey its first foothold on the Arab Peninsula since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

The previous Obama administration acknowledged the weakness of Saudi Arabia, which is why it cut a deal with Iran. The 2015 agreement on nuclear power with the UN Security Council was a result that reflected Iran’s newfound position of strength and ended the sanctions which had weakened their position in the region for decades – and which in turn strengthened its position vis a vis Saudi Arabia.

But Donald Trump, backed up by religiously anti-Iranian layers within the US state bureaucracy, such as Secretary of Defence James Mattis, has pledged to roll back Iranian influence. That was the basis of Trump’s Middle East trip in April and May where he signed a supposed $350 billion deal with Saudi Arabia and supported the setting up of “an Arab NATO” essentially aimed at Iran. With the full support of the US, the Al-Sauds decided to work towards re-establishing the previous balance of power.

Firstly the King’s son, Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), in an unprecedented move settled the score internally, crushing opposing factions within the rotten ruling family and established himself as the crown prince. Having been Minister of Defence since his father came to power, bin Salman has been the driving force behind the war in Yemen and was no doubt heavily involved in the arms deal with the US. In return for selling shares from its own companies - including Aramco, the state oil company - MBS plans for Saudi Arabia to establish a $2trn sovereign wealth fund through which to export Saudi capital. MBS is now the real ruler of the Kingdom and has concentrated all power in his hands. The direction in which the country is heading on both counts is expressed in the person of this hot-headed young prince.

How will the crisis end?

Secondly, feeling the false comfort of the support of the Trump administration, MBS thought that he could draw a line in the sand, “Either you are with us, or you are against us!” Thus, the illusion of Sunni Arab unity and “an Arab NATO” collapsed before the ink was dry.

The Trump administration which arrogantly strutted around in the Middle East - showing Obama “how it’s done” has since been frantically running around to stop a clash between these two key allies. The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been negotiating day and night to bring the sides back together and to minimise the damage. The Americans are very worried about the crisis, having sizeable financial and military interests tied up in both sides of the stalemate. The whole manoeuvre which was aimed at isolating Iran and propping up Saudi Arabia has only led to strengthening ties with this key GCC country and Turkey gaining a serious military foothold on the Arab Peninsula.

The UAE has suggested that if Qatar fails to meet the demands set, then the next step would be an indefinite continuation of the current sanctions. But Qatar has withstood the blockades for a month – they have not had the effect that Saudi Arabia would have desired. The longer the issue is left hanging, however, and the more matters will escalate.

The point is, how will Saudi Arabia enforce any of its demands. This goes to the root of the question. The Kingdom has suggested a potential invasion of many occasions. But this is a pipe dream. The first problem is the al-Udeid Air Base, which houses both USAF and RAF forces. Saudi Arabia cannot invade a country which houses a US military base without the full cooperation of the US army - which is not interested in invading a new country in the Middle East anytime soon. Secondly, it would be facing a Turkish force which would not accept a Saudi invasion and possibly an Iranian force as well.

If anything, this crisis has pushed Qatar further into the arms of Iran, who have come out strongly against the blockades. They have been alleviating food shortages by sending 1,100 tonnes of fruit and vegetables and sixty-six tonnes of beef to Qatar on a daily basis. Moreover, the Turkish government has opposed the blockades and deployed two extra divisions of their army to Qatar since the crisis began. It is also worth bearing in mind that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been working with the Qatari army since 2010, when an officer of the IRGC announced: “IRGC and Qatar's navy can have close cooperation in intelligence, security and training fields.” The Qatari Defence Minister went on to state that Qatar is ready to have joint military training exercises with Iran.

The Saudi army would not stand a chance against any of these forces. In fact the Saudi Army has never been in real war. Even in Yemen it is relying on Emirati organised mercenaries and local reactionary clans rather than its own armed forces. The reason is Saudi Arabia’s historical weakness as a regime. The regime commands little to no legitimacy amongst the population which is made up of Wahhabi anti-royal extremists, oppressed Shias, democratic youth, semi-enslaved migrant labour and tribal elements, all of whom are opposed to the regime for their own reasons. It is this fundamental weakness of Saudi Arabia which in the conditions of the crisis of capitalism is emerging as an existential threat to the Al-Sauds. A Saudi war against Qatar is inconceivable. This whole affair will only serve to highlight this fact and add to the Saudi crisis.

Of course this won’t mean that Qatar will not budge at all. The entire Qatari economy fundamentally relies on GCC agreements, mainly with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The most likely scenario is that a deal is struck and a gradual normalisation of ties is achieved over time. Qatar may give some minor concessions, but the real loser will be Saudi Arabia which will have exposed its own weakness. However, a patch-up deal would only delay the tensions developing in the region from boiling to the surface – particularly in relation to the mutually antagonistic aims of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Qatar’s relationships with Iran and Turkey only reflect the real situation in the region, one where Saudi Arabia is in decline while Iran and Turkey are rising to become the main powers in the region. This new balance of forces is based on the real economic and military situation in the region. While Iran and Turkey (along with Egypt) are the only real nation states in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is an artificial state which could only survive due to a particular position it had, in particular as the main source of oil for US imperialism. But today the regime has completely rotted from the inside, as is evident from the shortsightedness of its representatives, while its international position has been weakened by the newly found oil-selfreliance of the US.

Meanwhile Turkey and Iran are expanding their influence and for the world powers there is no way around this. The Trump promoted idea of “rolling back” Iranian influence, as witnessed here, will only accelerate the ongoing process.

The economic crisis, the Arab revolution and the crisis of US imperialism, which all emerge from the crisis of Capitalism, have thrown the Al-Sauds into a violent struggle for their own existence. Like a cornered and wounded animal it is lashing out on all sides. The Qatar-crisis has only moved this struggle closer to the heart of the Kingdom.

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