In any other week, the twin suicide attacks in Iran on Wednesday would have been headline news in the Middle East. Although the Islamic State claimed responsibility, Iran immediately blamed Saudi Arabia, its rival in a regional power contest that is already playing itself out in two proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.
But not this week. The news agenda was dominated instead by Saudi Arabia’s audacious diplomatic offensive against its neighbour Qatar, supported by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, the Maldives, Senegal and Mauritania.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have accused Qatar of supporting terrorist groups, including some backed by Iran. They have expelled Qatari diplomats, shut down border crossings and closed airspace to Qatar-owned planes.
Na’eem Jeenah, director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, said Qatar is being punished for not toeing the Saudi line on Iran.
He warned, however, that it’s not only about Iran. For the Emirates and Egypt especially, “it’s a little about Iran and more about the Muslim Brotherhood — including Hamas”. Qatar has provided financial support to the Muslim Brotherhood and hosts Hamas officials in Doha.
It’s also about the Unites States. Given the US’s substantial military base in Qatar, it seems unlikely that Saudi Arabia would have acted against Qatar without American support.
Michael Stephens, a researcher in London at the Royal United Services Institute, says US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the region served as implicit approval for the Saudis and the Emiratis to force Qatar into submission.
“Trump showed that he is not interested in working with Islamists and is actively positioning an anti-Iran foreign policy,” Stephens said.
Trump himself supported this theory when he weighed in on the crisis via his favourite medium — Twitter. “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”
Another immediate trigger for the diplomatic crisis, as reported by the Financial Times, is the $1‑billion ransom paid by Qatar to release members of its royal family who were kidnapped while on a hunting trip in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and its allies believe the money went partly to an al-Qaeda affiliate and partly to Iran.
Doha denies that it backs terrorist groups and has dismissed the blockade by its neighbours as being “founded on allegations that have no basis in fact”. Qatar is, however, a known supporter of armed groups in Syria, often funding groups fighting against Saudi proxies.
It is precisely this “hyperactivity” of the Qataris that has angered the Saudis and its allies, says Stephens. But Saudi itself is hardly an innocent party. “While the Saudis and Emiratis have been trying to show themselves as the good guys here, there are no good guys,” he says.
In the same week that it sought to position itself as the US’s best friend in the region, the Saudi government also detained Loujain al-Hathloul, a 27-year-old Saudi activist who has openly criticised and challenged the country’s ban on women drivers. The exact reason for her arrest is
Saudi Arabia has its own history of providing financial support to various extremist organisations.
Although it has suddenly burst into the public eye, this week’s standoff has not come out of nowhere. It is the culmination of months of tension and mutual suspicion among the Western-allied Gulf states. Broadly, it is an effort to reset the region’s power dynamics, leaving Saudi Arabia in the driving seat.
But there are also more specific goals: the closing of Qatar-backed Al Jazeera’s Saudi offices and those of other media organisations perceived as hostile to the Saudis, the starving of support to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and the re-evaluation of the US’s relationship with Doha.
Qatar invested more than $1‑billion to construct the Al Udeid Air Base southwest of Doha during the 1990s and currently hosts an estimated 10 000 US military personnel there. Qatar, despite the current bluster against it, is a key ally for the US — which does not sit well with Saudi Arabia. “This is also an attempt at getting the US to downgrade relations with Qatar,” said Stephens.
Qatar is not without friends. Germany has expressed support. Turkey has intervened, flying fresh food into Doha after the usual supply lines were disrupted, leading to panic buying in supermarkets. And Iran has offered to send supplies, although Qatar’s rulers have — probably wisely — yet to take up that offer.
But its options for emerging unscathed from this crisis are not good. “As a first-world country, it cannot imperil the lifestyles of its people,” Stephens says. Qatar needs the use of its border with Saudi Arabia, from which it imports nearly 80% of its food. Already, the UAE has threatened to impose an economic embargo against Qatar, and Bahrain said “any options” were on the table — moves that would cripple the country’s economy.
That leaves it with one unpalatable solution. “The way out of this for Qatar is to expel the Muslim Brotherhood, close down Al Jazeera Arabic and end its support for the Muslim Brotherhood,” Stephens says. In the process, and with Trump’s support, Saudi Arabia may just succeed in altering the Gulf’s status quo forever.