Spats between Persian Gulf nations are commonplace: they’re similar countries with a shared language, religion, and culture. All walk the tightrope between conservative Islam and modern openness to various degrees. Conflicts are often in the differences of how each pursues modernity versus Islam.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a loose affiliation of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the Emirates, dominated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was established in 1981 partly to counter Iran, whom its members mainly hate, but also to provide a mechanism for fixing these dust-ups. That this latest one has gotten so horribly and dangerously out of hand is due to unannounced background factors. These factors are different to those we see in various media.
Further, gasoline has been poured on the flames by our reckless leader. A frequent dynamic these days sees our State Department and President going in opposite directions. There’s conflict between “T-Rex” Tillerson’s diplomatic attempt to lower the temperature and the President’s ill-informed, twittering adventurism. All this isn’t helped by Trump’s de-funding of the Department of State by a third, the implications of which will probably be disastrous for America’s place in the world, but a boon for Russia and China.
Nasty editorials, horrible words muttered in Arabic at summits, and the recalling/re-instating of ambassadors are how these differences have always been expressed. Later they’re quietly patched up with face saved all around. The recent blockade, deportation of formerly welcome citizens, and denial of overflight rights is unprecedented and serious. Most of Qatar’s food is trucked in from Saudi Arabia so with the border closed all hell broke loose there last week. In any other context such a blockade would legally be an act of war, which all this could, in the worst case, lead to. Additionally, after Al Jazeera, Qatar Airways is the international face of the country and a revenue earner. They’ve been forced to fly bizarre aerial calisthenics to stay aloft while avoiding the GCC’s countries’ airspace.
What’s not the problem?
It’s not a matter of the Qatari government “funding terrorism” any more than the US does by surreptitiously backing our respective friends in the Syrian disaster, often the same players. Some Qatari individuals do donate to extremists which a problem it seems the Emir is taking seriously.
The allegation Qatar supports terror is rich coming from the Saudis, with Trump piling on, who for decades have been promoting and subsidizing Wahhabism, the sharp end of fundamentalism which is intellectual architecture for ISIS, Al Qaida, and most of the 9/11 hijackers’ ideology. ISIS’s schools use Saudi textbooks. But… they let Trump grab their orb, put his posters up around Riyadh and projected his face onto the Ritz Hotel 3 stories high. And they made noise, but not deals, about a $100Bn defense buy.
Another phony pretext is Qataris paying Iranian-backed militias millions in ransom for the safe return of royal family members who’d been kidnapped while falconing in Iraq: all the Gulf countries pay ransoms. Also all of them hunt with falcons, very popular in the social set there and one may bring one’s falcon into the cabin on Qatar Airways: large uncaged carnivorous birds being a rare sight inside planes of other airlines.
The real reasons for the problem
Iran. Being compromisers and dealmakers, Qatar’s relationship with Iran is conciliatory. Racially a third of the population was once descended from Iran, and tellingly, unlike all their neighbors, a friendly co-existence between Sunni and Shite exist in Qatar. Finally, the bulk of their wealth derives from the “North Field” marine gas reserves which are split with Iran. Sharing a geological bank account is great motivation for friendly relations.
The Saudis hate this. They prefer a time decades ago when quiet little Qatar was the kind of vassal state Bahrain still is, before the Qatari ruling al-Thani family became a local irritant. Saudi Arabia has never been comfortable with Qatar as a Player punching above its weight, or as a regional negotiator (Sudanese, Lebanese and Libyan conflicts).
Tiny countries like Qatar need to find a space to operate and as a deal broker they are efficient. Their hosting of some of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood exiles and even being the only country on earth these days to host a Taliban Embassy are all pursuant to Qatar’s dealmaker role the Saudi’s can’t stand.
Thusly the Saudis and GCC have recast Qatar’s policy of “talking to all players” in numerous conflicts as palling around with terrorists, a fiction our president seems to have fallen for despite the facts.
A perennial but little reported sore point is also Qatar’s state owned Al Jazeera network. Until it left the US TV dial a year ago it provided one of the most intellectual global new services available here and around the world. It is an open, critical, and pretty evenhanded liberal network which is reviled in the palaces of the autocratic Arab world. In backing the rest of the Gulf against Qatar, Trump is taking the side of autocracy again against freedom of speech and real journalism.
Perhaps Trump’s strategy by joining the Gulf pile-on against our closest ally there, Qatar, is his idea of “Divide and rule?” Perhaps it is just blundering and ignorant? It’s been suggested he didn’t know we had a large base in Qatar. Whichever, it’s fundamentally damaging American prestige and our place as a sober, just arbiter, and making our real allies jittery everywhere. The president’s needless fueling of the Sunni-Arab vs Iran split, future location of a very serious coming war, is particularly reckless.
An educational aside in this crisis: it’s impolite for us to mispronounce the names of the countries we’re wrecking. Think ee-RAH-q, not Eye-rack. In this case the closest is k’tar (equal emphasis on both syllables), not “Cutter” (NBC) and not Fox’s intentional mispronunciation: “Gutter.” It makes us look like idiots. Ironically one person who can at least pronounce the country’s name: President Trump.