Qatar & Saudi Arabia: a cold peace
According to statements made by the then President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, “Qatar has too much money”. In fact, only the insiders were familiar with this Emirate prior to the 1990s, even though the little State has distinguished itself as the richest in the world per capita thanks to the proliferation of its oil and gas reserves. The situation nevertheless rapidly developed over the course of the 1990s since the Gulf monarchies were terrorised by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. It’s from this moment that Qatar’s path started to diverge from the other Emirates since the Saudis’ powerlessness in the face of the invasion of Iraq made it realise that its survival would be solely in its own hands.
The Qatari leaders then kicked into gear with gusto in order for their country’s influence and standing to be ensured well beyond the Arabic Peninsula. In this regard, the launch of Al-Jazeera in 1996 was a decisive milestone for establishing Qatar’s “soft power”, making itself known and granting it status across the world via its satellite news chain. In 2003, the transfer of the US airbase from Saudi Arabia to Al Udeid in Qatar was an extra, crucial step that unequivocally bestowed Qatar with a regional power status. It could then compete with its great Wahhabi neighbour that had kicked out 10,000 American military personnel from its territory to create a new connection point for their planes. Establishing the airbase for the American superpower within its territory henceforth freed Qatar from all dependence on its Emirati and Saudi neighbours for defence and protection.
It goes without saying that Qatar’s rise in power was proportional to its neighbours’ distrust – and even jealousy – who had in the meantime signed Egypt up to their cause. These neighbours were, however, not at the end of their ills, nor their surprise. The final blow to their relationship with the ambitious Qatar was the payment, in April 2017, of a ransom in the order of a billion dollars, paid by this Emirate to groups of jihadists, disguised as a ransom to free certain high-level dignitaries who had been kidnapped during a hunting game in southern Iraq. The Arabs accused Qatar of paying 700 million directly to Iran, their sworn enemy, and the rest to terrorist and Salafist groups located in Iraq and Syria. The ingredients were all there for an explosion that was inconveniently encouraged by Donald Trump who, following his first official trip in May 2017 that interestingly enough took place in Saudi Arabia, tweeted out only a few hours after leaving the country that “all the evidence points to Qatar” with regards to the funding of terrorism.
Such lunacy was interpreted as a blank cheque for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and even the Maldives, who endeavoured to give Qatar a brutal, spectacular hiding. However, now, with the Gulf Cooperation Council tearing their hair out, and the regional monarchies going through their worst crisis, Qatar seems to be soldiering on well, fighting on several fronts as per usual. With a rich reserve of 40 billion dollars in its central bank and 300 billion in its sovereign wealth fund, Qatar has nothing to fear on the financial playing field. It has, moreover, joyously overcome the multiple flight restrictions unilaterally imposed on its airline by its neighbours, quickly concluding a deal with Iran – so happy to foil the Saudis’ plan – that generously opened its airspace to Qatar, and made the controllers of its Shiraz base available to it. Qatar Airways then initiated new routes through Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, that are now assets for it. Its neighbourly relationship with Iran is indeed excellent, with Qatar making use of a gas deposit in Iranian territorial waters, the “South Pars field”, for itself. As for Turkey, on 5 June 2017 it showed unwavering support for Qatar, with Erdogan stigmatising the “very grave error committed against Qatar”, and describing its isolation as “inhuman and contrary to Islamic values”.
Qatar is therefore in the process of winning this showdown, and on the way there is attracting favours from the “adults” still in place in the Trump administration, even if this severe crisis has a lot to say about the loss of American leadership. The US is now incapable of weighing in on and pacifying the region and the States that have traditionally been an asset, even subjugated, to it. At the same time, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are well aware of the rut they have entrenched themselves in, and are starting to get shown up by Qatar’s resilience. The United Arab Emirates have even loosened up the embargo a bit by allowing a branch of Al-Jazeera to broadcast the football World Cup over its territory, which will be held in Qatar. However, in a climate where the Saudis – in search of victory – are sinking their teeth into the punitive mission in Yemen, and while – contrary to previous episodes – their personal relationships with the Prince of Qatar are heinous, the heir to the Saudi throne, Bin Salman, seems determined to force Qatar to cave in and has planned for the embargo to drag on and on, going as far as comparing it to the one imposed by the US on Cuba for 60 years.
This extreme behaviour is therefore the order of business, like the canal planned by Saudi Arabia along its borders with Qatar that aims to turn it into an island! Planned to be built by the Egyptians who gained the necessary experience through the enlargement of the Suez Canal, the “Salwa Canal” will add the finishing touches to the bloc that is scheming against Qatar and could even, if you believe the Saudi paper Al-Riyadh, serve as a dumping ground for nuclear waste from future Saudi and Emirati plants. “There are big States with small minds and narrow horizons” is what the Qatar Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, retorted recently, well aware that a Saudi victory would mean Qatari submission, would turn the country into a vassal state, and would engender a total loss of control over its foreign policy planning, just like Bahrain.
Barack Obama – who recognised his trouble in the ambiguity of America’s relationships with the Gulf States – was convinced that Saudi Arabia should learn to share the region with Iran, its secular, age-old enemy. He pleaded for a “cold peace”, for a kind of equilibrium where everyone pulled their weight. Wouldn’t Saudi Arabia have everything to gain from offering a hand to Qatar? It would prove its undeniable leadership and demonstrate its leaders’ maturity who would gain in credibility and prestige. Saudi Arabia – the guardian of Islam’s holy sites – would thus reaffirm that middle path and moderation are consubstantial with Islam.