Saudi Arabia and Qatar: A crisis with major consequences

American Herald Tribune | Saurav Dutt: What makes Qatar distinctive other than its relatively small size within the Persian Gulf, is that it floats on large reserves of natural gas. The small peninsular nation now finds itself ostracised in a concerted move by its Middle East neighbours, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen rounding up on it in order to sever ties. This has been conducted on the pretext of alleged support of terror networks and involves the cutting of transport links which entails disastrous economic consequences. There is the real potential of a destabilising effect on the energy industry and in a larger context has opened up a calamitous rift between these players which marks an escalation in tensions that we have not seen for many years between them.

Saudi Arabia of course considers itself the biggest player in the region and has zoned in on Qatar and its stance towards militant groups in the Middle East, all apparently backed by the evil Iran, using its propaganda mouth piece Al Jazeera in order to broadcast the ideology of such groups. This is crisis mark two, with the first signals of worsening relations coming back in 2014 when the same players called back their diplomats from Doha. Despite a cooling of relations, the simmering resentment of Qatar’s support for Iran’s agenda remained.

What has changed this time around? Late last month, news emerged that the Qatari Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, criticised America in a speech whilst offering support for Iran, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and even said that Qatar was becoming ever closer to Israel and that relations between the two were “good”.

Despite saying that his comments were doctored, the Qatari Emir decided to go one step further after calling Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on his re-election, a certain lighting of the fire under Riyadh.

What is Qatar’s role in the region in a wider context? Within the Persian Gulf, Qatar has been seen as somewhat of an irritant, with often bizarre foreign policy choices. Sure, it houses a US airbase on its soil and yet also allows its citizens to privately fund ISIS. Qatar claims to have good relations with Israel yet simultaneously supports Hamas. To further add to the contradictions, it boasts a majority Sunni population within its Wahhabi kingdom and still holds strong relations with Iran and despite being a monarchy, it stills holds a candle for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The tacit support for these terror groups rankles Saudi Arabia because it (at least on the surface) claims to lead a ‘counter-terrorist’ alliance of Sunni-majority countries and so is somewhat disconcerted by Qatar’s support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, an indicator of its wider support for Islamists.

Under the surface, Saudi Arabia is not really interested in destabilising Islamist forces in the region, other than those linked by proxy (so it claims) to Iran. Riyadh and its alliance has an objective-prima facie-to fight terror outfits seeking to destabilise the ME but really wants to limit Iran’s influence therein and unite the Sunni-majority Muslim world against the Shiite Iran which it believes wants to dominate the region. The fact that Qatar is de facto part of the alliance is a fly in the ointment that has to be dealt with.

This is so because Saudi Arabia and Iran are currently fighting a proxy war in Yemen and are always at loggerheads when it comes to any conflict in the ME.

Iran is clear about what it thinks is going on, accusing the US of giving succour and support to Riyadh in its quest to delegitimise it and is offering medical supplies and transport food to Qatar which may now be hit with a food crisis as its only land border with another country has been sealed as part of a travel embargo and that land border just happens to be Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh is happy to spread its wings at the current time, it is confident of its impact in Yemen at the current time and feels jubilant that Donald Trump supports it (at least in essence given his tough words against Iran). If Qatar feels the weight of all these countries against it (including the US) it may well now send Hamas leadership out of Doha and cut back on funding Islamist groups; this would slap it into line as it has been waging its own highly individualistic foreign policy, particularly ignoring the Persian Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).

Qatar now finds itself isolated economically and regionally, its only option would be to fight fire with fire and this will threaten to bring Iran into a direct showdown with Riyadh which has untold potential for human and economic bloodshed. It is the first that will lead into the second. Qatar’s main share index fell by 7% cent earlier this week amid worries about the investment climate. Oil prices finished lower on Monday as the crisis has raised uncertainty about oil production in the Middle East.

It’s not about oil, stupid (as Dubya might say). It’s about gas. Qatar doesn’t produce all that much oil in the Persian Gulf but it does export huge amounts of liquefied natural gas. If this is hit, the economy will suffer a shattering dent.

Qatar also functions on its workers, many of whom come from the Arab Nations who seek to vilify it. Given that these numbers go well into the millions and have been given 14 days to get out, this loss of a workforce will directly impact industry and local and international firms operating in Qatar.

Qatar is no angel in this equation but this move has potentially catastrophic ramifications in the region.