A Royal Arab spring

In Middle East on 8. June 2017 at 21:26

THERE USED TO be a common border between Qatar and Emirates, but that would not have helped as latter is aligned with Riyadh when it comes to recent showdown. Current crisis has Qatar cut-off by land, air and sea by the band of three: Saudi Arabia, UAE and the client state Bahrain.

This is what the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has come to be – a forced alliance with center of gravity in the hands of Mohammad ibn Salman (deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia), and his likeminded friend Mohammad ibn Zayed of UAE/Abu Dhabi.

There are several theories of recent thaw between this alliance within an alliance, against a peninsula-country based on the Arab peninsula – but what is this indicating? What kind of threat is Saudi-led GCC trying to prevent when Riyadh’s prime aim is Tehran? Why did such a daring stunt even unfold, and who is lurking to gain from this once the dust is settled?

Unity by fear

For a sectarian rivalry to be effective, an ideal situation would demand a closing of ranks, loyalty to the objective and determination on every level. Iran has that, simply because it is the only functional part of its own alliance, the rest are bankrolled. The resistance certain Iraqi and Lebanese clerics give to it is not enough as Iran has manpower and guns.

Saudi Arabia and UAE on the other hand have dogs that bite back. While Hezbollah jumps when told to, the mujahedeen evolved into Taliban, and others evolved into the many global and regional networks we now know as Al-Qaida. These organizations predecessors, ideologues and founders were once on Saudi payroll to fight Soviet Union – those days are bygone, and so is loyalty.

In came Arab spring and the main fundamental challenge erupted. Saudis and other Gulf countries were quick to know what their interest was – namely to quash popular unrest, promise some reforms, spread out the candy, but for whatever the price, stay in power and don’t let the toppling of dusty ol’ dictators spread to their home-ground.

That is what’s frustrates Saudi Arabia deep at heart. It controls Mecca and Medina (despite bulldozing them beyond recognition), it builds and finances charities, mosques and madrassahs world over, and it has acquired, through petro-dollars, vast levels of sympathy and support among the average Muslim. Yet still its ranks are not disciplined enough – still countries like Qatar tend to play their own fiddle.

Saudi Arabia has steered the GCC since its inception, but it has been cautious when handling defiance – right until King Abdullah died and his younger brother Salman took power. But that was for the screen – behind the scenes deputy crown prince Mohammad ibn Salman, aligned with Prince Mohammad ibn Nahyan of UAE, started a path to consolidate and uphold power in his hands only.

People fall for such. Vision 2030 and the apparent sale of Saudi Aramco were big news – and occasionally a long-form interview of his personal capability and energy did their rounds in western press. Tenfold of them off course at home front, making crown prince Mohammad ibn Nayef uneasy yet shackled. The deputy crown prince, or MBS, as he is known has vast recourses to play this game.

Now the strongman is not as his predecessors, even though Saudi chess games have backfired before – his next step requires popular support, and thus he has to deliver himself as a leader ready to steer a nation. In addition, while predecessors knew what a prolonged conflict meant, MBS rather thinks swiftly and gets stuck. Yemen is a fiasco when it comes to its goals and aims.

The siege of this poor country, the hundreds of thousands of cholera cases, the hunger epidemic is of little tension. Off-course had it been Israel the tone would be different among large chunks of Muslims, but Saudi Arabia has an advantage due to its earlier mentioned petro-dollar sympathy. It can, as Iran, support calls for freedoms in certain countries, while encourage and support crackdown on civilians demanding rights in others.

That was the reason why the tiny-island of Bahrain became the scene of a GCC-led invasion, crackdown on dissidents and activists and till date regular organized state backed mercenaries who quell demonstrations. Bahrain has seen such before, back then with the backing of British weaponry and personnel, this time with personnel from the new masters in town. The country is reduced to a marionette where the head of state does Riyadh’s bidding.

Safe haven

Qatar will do anything to avoid becoming the new Bahrain. It wants several cards in its hands in order to have a voice when Riyadh and Abu Dhabi meets in GCC, it does pursue a policy that is multi-layered and portrays itself as a diplomatic channel to pursue contact with warring parts – those are of no scarcity in Middle East.

Doha hosts several Ikhwan/Brotherhood members of the Egyptian and other countries branches. Qatar tried to resist the Egyptian coup itself, but knew its own limits – but it could not accept it totally – therefore it hosted, alongside Turkey, many senior cadres and allowed channels and papers linked to the Muslim Brotherhood to operate.

Al-Jazeera is worth a separate analysis in itself, but it is of those relatively few news channels available for the populace of the wider Arab world. Other channels as Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye have made their remark, and are together forming what will be the new realities of free press. This is not convenient for countries like Saudi Arabia – especially when they themselves come under fire.

But that is only part of the issue. Channels can be restricted, as they have been several times before. And Qatar can always fill up a plane with Brotherhood members and airlift them to Istanbul – but Qatar is demanding its part in the GCC deal- and policymaking, and Riyadh don’t want to acknowledge that this demand will not change by time.

Qatar is flush on gas-dollars, it has increased its worth in the alliance, and it has done its duties manifold times, when it comes to suppression and crackdown on human rights, it’s on line – but Qatar knows it does not receive its share of decision making. The hosting of Brotherhood members, cozying up to different rivals in the region and even be active on opposite sides in proxy wars (Libya) are all means of both its independent foreign policy, but also a leverage meeting Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Sabers drawn

Allies as Oman and Kuwait although have flexible foreign relations and often act as intermediates or back channels. Qatar cannot be blamed for doing the same, but there is a new boy in town that eyes the same influence the Saudis have till date enjoyed.

Turkey is a resurgent strongman in the region that drives a completely independent policy, it has done more than Qatar to support popular demands for reform among Sunni Muslim populaces in the Arab world. Erdogan’s propaganda is populist and hits the street be it Cairo, Riyadh or Doha.

Two things that scare the Arab-monarchs the most: Popular demands for reforms and countries that support them – Turkey fulfills that goal, and the country is trying to establish an influence that crosses Saudi ambitions. Former is in no way a domestic democratic star, but it knows what horse to bet. Qatar has found safe haven and support in Ankara, and thus the blockade that was supposed to rein in Doha’s defiance, has failed.

The Saudi reaction to Turkey has been ad hoc and hints of panic policies. Immediately after announcing military action in Yemen, a so-called Islamic Alliance was declared, one that included countries like Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey – without even notifying them. Countries protested, and the whole alliance became just a piece of paper.

These ad-hoc policies are what marks Saudis and Emiratis these days, and they are lucky to have a listening ear in Donald Trump. The President was lured by a 110 million dollar arms deal that turned out to be a collection of intentions summarized from Obama era wish lists. Trump exchanged total loyalty to the official Saudi propaganda – one that made its rounds on twitter.

Though he had to retract his statement as Trump later suggested being a dialogue partner, the aim and intent was complete: Saudis and Emiratis had planned it to happen, and needed a reckless US. Administration before they could pull the trigger – whether or not a Russian hacking occurred did not matter. Qatar paying 0,7 billion to Iranian linked militias and 0,3 bill to Al-Qaida linked Syrian branch was just peanuts.

However, the crisis will be over, it will have an official concession from Qatar, if the cost is symbolic or not remains to see – but Saudi/Emirati action will not fulfill its objectives. Qatar will not end pursuing its own policy.

Turkey on the other hand will have upped its leverage. Having cordial relations with Qatar, Turkey now can boast of the possibilities of having its troops on ground – and as that happens, a major turning point will have set in Persian Gulf. The trucial states were under British protection, which left it to the hands of Americans. With latter’s withdrawal from an active engagement in the area Turkey eyes a possibility to become an influential part.

If more trouble looms, it is not unthinkable that Kuwait and Oman will be louder against Riyadh and that Saudis will lose the leverage they until now enjoyed.

Another part of the balance is the populous Egypt where a new round of unrest can trigger out regime change. Cairo’s main interest is to keep its populace cowed. If Egypt once again gets into a frenzy – and an outcome again becomes a popularly elected Government, Ankara and Doha will be on the beneficial side, while Saudi/Emirati nexus will have to lick their wounds. We are already witnessing these two parts at loggerheads on each side in Libya.

Saudi bet may backfire, and if not, the time is not on its side, what irks it now, will continue to be there, and there is always this wild card of a youngster putting himself to fire and launching a new wave of popular unrest – a kind of unrest that scares both the Ayatollah and the Sheikh.

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