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The Persian Gulf: implications of the Saudi-Qatari dispute

The Saudi strategy of offering military support to the US while exporting Muslim militancy and portraying itself as the protector of the two holiest sites in the Islamic world has backfired for both Saudi Arabia and the US. 

Tensions are increasing in the Persian Gulf, with Qatar on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the other. On March 5, the three states recalled their ambassadors from Qatar, demanding that it honour a previous agreement to end its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and interference in their internal affairs.

Saudi Arabia might also impose blockades and sanctions, and close off its airspace to Qatari planes. It has further demanded that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera and two prominent research centres in Doha. The disagreement comes in the wake of other serious crises in the GCC that have the potential to significantly realign geo-strategic alliances within the region.

Saudi Arabia and the future of GCC

There is a growing rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), not only between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but also between Saudi Arabia and the countries of Kuwait and Oman. The disagreement with Oman surfaced last November when it disagreed with Saudi Arabia over creating a union out of the GCC alliance. Oman’s stance on the issue was a clear message that it regards the formation of a union as a threat to its sovereignty. Also, leading up to the Geneva agreement, since 2011, Oman has played host to secret negotiations between the US and Iran. Saudi Arabia’s animosity towards Iran is no secret, so, from its perspective, Oman – by declining to form a union with Saudi Arabia, keeping warm relations with Iran and playing an active part in its rehabilitation – is not only thwarting Saudi Arabia’s desire for regional hegemony but also presenting it with a security risk.

With regards to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia has had to contend with some serious opposition mounted by its parliamentarians and civil society groups against a security pact that it wants approved. The pact will unite the member states against any external threat and allow for better coordination over issues of internal security.

Kuwait's non-ratification of the pact not only keeps Saudi Arabia from using the GCC to manage regional dissent, but also resonates with Qatar. One Kuwaiti concern is that the agreement requires member states to extradite their citizens upon the request of other member states. This aspect of the agreement has direct bearing on the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia accuses the Qatari government of meddling in its internal security affairs and giving refuge to members of the Muslim Brotherhood – officially regarded as terrorists by Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar: a history of disputation

Tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia must, therefore, be seen alongside other regional disagreements. What must also be remembered, is the long history of disputes between these neighbours. In 1913, Saudi King Abdul Aziz decided to annex Qatar, and it was only two years later, under British pressure, that the Saudi state recognized Qatar's borders. Recent comments by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the head of the Saudi intelligence agency, display that Saudi disregard for Qatar's sovereignty is still active. According to him, Qatar is ‘nothing but 300 people and a TV channel’. In 1992 Saudi Arabia sent its forces into Qatar, and a few years later, in 1995, the Qatari government alleged that Saudi Arabia was fomenting a coup in Qatar.

Qatar, in turn, apparently harbours plans to split Saudi Arabia. In a leaked phone conversation, from January 2011, Qatar's then prime minister, Hammad bin Jassim, claimed that Saudi Arabia could unravel at his hands, and that after its king's death, it would be partitioned and Qatar will seize the Qatif province.

Qatar between three poles of power

Hence, with the existence of the GCC under threat, and Saudi Arabia bullying Qatar with its ultimatums, the Persian Gulf is likely to see a significant shift in alliances. Since the region has three principal power poles; Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US, the fallout between Saudi Arabia and Qatar will not only force Qatar to find further reasons to side with Iran, but it could also encourage the US to favour Qatar over Saudi Arabia, as a more stable military partner.

Qatar’s recent disagreement with Iran over Syria notwithstanding, the countries have maintained good diplomatic relations, leading to the recent idea of developing a free zone. They already share the world's largest gas field, the South Pars/North Dome gas field. Qatar has also kept its Shia population significantly happier than Saudi Arabia. While not partners in the highest echelons of power, Qatari Shias are sufficiently integrated, economically and culturally, to not view their Qatari identity as a misfortune.

This removes the thorny issue of sectarian differences that might have deterred them from becoming friendlier. Also, Iran has been keen on finding a way of dissociating Muslim Brotherhood type of Islamic republicanism from the anti-Shia brand of Wahhabi Islam that Saudi Arabia promotes, and in Qatar it is likely to find an able partner in achieving this end.

As for Qatar-US relations, with US-Saudi ties likely to witness a downturn due to future shale gas production in the US, and Qatar housing the US Central Command at its al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar will grow in importance to the US as a regional ally.

Saudi kudos as a US ally is already suffering and is complicated by its own policies. The Saudi strategy of offering military support to the US while exporting Muslim militancy and portraying itself as the protector of the two holiest sites in the Islamic world has backfired for both Saudi Arabia and the US. For the US, it led to the 9/11 catastrophe and the expensive wars thereafter, while for Saudi Arabia, it gave rise to massive security threats, both internally and regionally.

Qatar, on the other hand, with its smaller size/population and no pretensions to religious leadership, represents a safer bet. Qatar has also managed Muslim Brotherhood's republicanism much better than Saudi Arabia. By supporting it in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia (instead of treating it as a threat), not only has Qatar minimized the chances of a republican critique of its own monarchical Islam, but it has also made itself an indispensable supporter of Islamic populism.

Whether the Muslim Brotherhood is in power or out of power, it knows that it can count on Qatari support, and this goes a long way toward constructing a people-friendly image for the Qatari regime. This is not to suggest that the US will necessarily make a choice between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However, in a context where Saudi Arabia is increasingly indicating that it will take a path independent of the US, the lattter might see Qatar as a more reliable ally.

Conclusion

The deterioration in Saudi-Qatari relations threatens the viability of the GCC and implies a realignment of alliances in the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia is giving reasons to Qatar for siding with the Iranian and US poles of power in the region, without presenting itself as a committed or useful ally to the US. This will decrease its regional dominance by a significant measure. Can Saudi Arabia reverse this trend? Most observers of the region wait with bated breath to see its next course of action.

About the author

Omar Ali is a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. He specializes in Middle Eastern politics, with a specific focus on the Gulf Cooperative Council.


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