Qatar versus Saudi Arabia: David and Goliath
Qatar’s real crime? Having led a foreign policy at complete odds with that of the other Gulf nations. Things had been seriously flaring up between these different emirates (and Saudi Arabia) under the reign of the last Prince Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who came to power in 1995. Then, the (unfounded) hopes that Hamad Al Thani, the prince reigning since 2013, would be more malleable – manipulable even? – were quickly washed away. During their reigns, these two emirs tried meticulously to separate themselves from the growing hegemony of Saudi Arabia which has been predominant since the First Gulf War. Aware of the vulnerability of another small emirate – Kuwait – and stifled by its larger neighbours, Qatar never stopped toiling away at simply existing in the face of Saudi Arabia’s (often ungainly) tentacle-like appetite and barely disguised diktats.
Now, due to the extreme rise of tensions within the region, the West still seems not to have understood that Saudi intransigence is in truth just a new attempt to put Qatar in its place. The latter has understood, however, that its vulnerability can only be mitigated if it manages to prove itself to be a worthy partner – indeed an ally – to powerful and influential nations. The creation of Al Jazeera was in this light a major benchmark of Qatar’s growing regional influence, owing to this first ever Arab satellite media outlet’s phenomenal success in every Arabic-speaking country, to the great displeasure of the neighbouring kings and emirates, just like successive Egyptian presidents, all of whom have been destabilised by a tenacious media agency that is not under the thumb of the regime.
Forever aiming to run on its own two feet and to brush shoulders with the big boys, the reigning Al Thani family was quick to welcome an American military base in the west of the capital Doha, following a sudden decision in 2003 by Saudi Arabia to no longer house the US airbase. It has ended up with Qatar today welcoming the largest American military base in the Middle East – the only one able to take in the enormous B-52 bombers – as well as the CENTCOM operational centre which can make interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and of course against ISIS. These 11,000 American soldiers residing in Qatar are themselves a formidable affront to the Saudis and greatly moderates the impact of their aggressive posturing. But actually, nothing has gone as planned so far for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates. Meant to quickly find itself on its knees, Qatar is bending but still far from breaking in this veritable David versus Goliath battle.
It must be said that the gross errors in calculation and lamentable strategic failings by the bloc led by the Saudis have been obvious in this affair. Having gambled on the lack of experience of the new US administration, the Saudis thus made the most of Trump’s trip to their country – who is barely familiar with the tricks of the trade of the region’s politics – in order to gain his backing and to therefore inflame this fratricidal fight against Qatar. In doing so, intent on selling Trump down the river, the Saudi clan got it massively wrong since it is in no way in America’s interests to let Qatar be treated as a pariah or sink under the weight of embargo. Under fire from critics and warnings from the Senate and Departments of the State and of Defense, all preoccupied with the consequences of such extreme measures against a fundamental ally, Trump quickly revised his copy to align with the defence of vital US national interests.
What an error in judgement by the Saudis to overlook Qatar’s proximity to two key members of Trump’s government! ExxonMobil – the most important American investor in Qatar – was directed by Rex Tillerson, who only stood down to be appointed Secretary of State, and who maintains a personal relationship with the current reigning prince, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and his father. Furthermore, CENTCOM was directed until not long ago by the current US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. How have the Saudis been able to overlook the reactions of these two eminent members of the Trump administration who are among the architects of the special US-Qatar relationship?
A nimble navigator, Qatar isn’t reacting with aggression but – a champion of public of relations – has played the victim of an expedition of unjust punishment by calling on the international community in the face of measures taken against it that have been labelled illegal. It has even chosen to continue the supply of gas via pipelines which pass through the United Arab Emirates in order to demonstrate its good faith. Convinced that Qatar would capitulate – which will obviously not happen! – in the blink of an eye under measures aimed at devastating this emirate, the Saudi bloc now finds itself confronted with its own incompetence because it obviously did not prepare a plan B. Having found a way – after a moment of panic – to procure food supplies from Turkey following the unilateral closure of its common borders with Saudi Arabia, Qatar is still generating enough revenue in foreign currencies to keep its economy and its residents afloat. This dogged fight between Sunnis has, moreover, come at the worst time for the countries of the region, already weakened by plummeting petrol prices, forcing upon them drastic budgetary economics. And this is without even a mention of the entrenchment of Saudi power in an insane war in the Yemen that it was convinced it would win quickly and with flying colours.
Here too, there is no exit strategy prepared by this Saudi Arabia which has very recently appointed its former Minister of Defense, Mohammed bin Salman, as the heir to the throne, who is an ardent promoter of this war which is decimating the Yemeni people. Reputed to be immature and a shady character, this future sovereign – now 32 years old – is taking a large part in the delicate posturing in which Arabia and the Emirates find themselves now brought to bear their failures in judgement. They can no longer back-pedal on Qatar without humiliating themselves and admitting defeat. But it is also difficult to adopt an even more intransigent attitude without alienating international public opinion and the support of their allies at a time of totally unprecedented economic difficulty for them. In short, it would appear that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have fallen into the trap they thought they had planted for Qatar.