What’s behind the Saudi blockade of Qatar?
Qatar, unlike the other Gulf states, is tied to Saudi Arabia by its adherence to the form of Sunni Islam described by everyone else (but not themselves) as Wahhabism. The family of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab in Saudi Arabia, known as the Al ash-Shaikh, has been the partner of the House of Saud and guarantor of religious orthodoxy since the state was founded. The Qatari royal family, too, claims descent from bin Abd al-Wahhab. But it has declined to join the Saudi-led anti-Iranian and anti-Shia crusade. Like Kuwait and Oman it has important shared interests with Iran and has kept the door open to diplomacy.
Last month the amir was quoted by the Qatar News Agency speaking admiringly of Iran, questioning Donald Trump’s hostility towards Iran as expressed at the Riyadh summit, and praising Hamas, which runs Gaza, as ‘the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people’. Qatar said that the amir had not spoken as he was reported to have done and that the news agency’s website had been hacked, in a ‘shameful cybercrime … instigated and perpetrated with malicious intent’. The denial was not accepted by the Saudis. Most analysts tend to the view that the report was fake, but in any case the amir spoke to the re-elected Iranian president on 27 May about developing better relations and solving the region’s problems with talks.
On 28 May, in a bizarre development, the Al ash-Shaikh issued a statement denying that the amir of Qatar was descended from bin Abd al-Wahhab (the ancestry claim has always been regarded as dubious in Abu Dhabi and probably elsewhere). Such a public attack was certain to raise the temperature.
On 5 June, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain not only cut diplomatic relations with Qatar (as they did briefly three years ago) but closed all land, sea and air links. They were followed by others including Yemen, Mauritania, the Maldives and the Tobruk-based ‘government’ of Libya. Qatar’s only land border, with Saudi Arabia, across which most of its imports including food come, is closed.
The Saudi state news agency said that Qatar embraces a number of terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at making the region less stable, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State and al-Qaida, and broadcasts their ideology – an apparent reference to al-Jazeera. It accused Qatar of supporting Iranian-backed militants in the largely Shia eastern Saudi region of Qatif and in Bahrain. Qatar was also expelled from the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen (Qatar had about a thousand troops there and has taken casualties).
Coming so soon after Trump’s visit to Riyadh, the Saudi action is assumed by most commentators to have been sparked by it. ‘What is happening,’ an official in the Iranian president’s office tweeted, ‘is the preliminary result of the sword dance.’ On 6 June, Trump tweeted:
So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!
‘Qatar's isolation only makes sense in Trump's world,’ CNN said. ‘Apparently, Qatar is to be isolated more or less completely and hit existentially,’ the German foreign minister said. ‘Such a Trumpisation of treatment is particularly dangerous in a region already plagued by crisis.’
As so often, Trump’s tweets are not the whole story. According to Reuters, the Pentagon praised Qatar on 6 June for hosting the US al-Udaid air base and for its ‘enduring commitment to regional security’, and the US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, telephoned his Qatari counterpart (no details given). Trump himself telephoned King Salman of Saudi Arabia; a White House official said that ‘his message was that we need unity in the region to fight extremist ideology and terrorist financing. It's important that the Gulf be united for peace and security in the region.’
Saudi and UAE differences with Qatar are long-standing, and relate particularly to Qatar’s willingness to shelter a variety of Islamic activists who are in bad odour elsewhere, most of all the Muslim Brotherhood. Like Saudi Arabia itself, Qatar is also accused of lending support to terrorists including al-Qaida. But already by 2 June the accusations had become hysterical: Qatar funded all the terrorists; Qatar could not be allowed to ‘sabotage the region’; Qatar must choose sides over Iran. A senior Saudi spokesman tweeted:
To the Amir of Qatar, regarding your alignment with the extremist government of Iran and your abuse of the Custodian of the two sacred mosques [i.e. King Salman], I would like to remind you that Muhammed Mursi did exactly the same and was then toppled and imprisoned.
If it wasn’t Trump, it isn’t clear just what brought the disagreement to the boil. One story is the alleged payment of $1 billion ‘to Iranian and al-Qaida-linked forces’ to ransom a party of 26 hunters including members of the Qatari royal family kidnapped in Iraq in 2015. According to the anonymous Saudi blogger Mujtahidd, the spark was the leak of documents about UAE interference in US policy including the bribery of a former US defence secretary. The wildest stories are circulating, for example that the amir is protected inside his own palace by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard. On 7 June, the UAE threatened anyone publishing expressions of sympathy with Qatar with up to 15 years in prison.
Kuwait has been mentioned as a possible mediator; the amir paid a ‘brotherly visit’ to Riyadh but there is no word of the outcome.
The practical consequences are gradually becoming clear. Qatar Airways flights to Kuwait and other destinations outside the four countries directly involved are said to be normal, though they have had to reroute dozens of flights through Iranian airspace. Oman Air is organising additional flights to Qatar.
There are ample stocks of food and other supplies in Qatar for a period of weeks. If an embargo is maintained and not extended to include other suppliers, it will be a relatively simple matter for Qatar to import from elsewhere, including Iran and Turkey; the main losers would be merchants in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. The impact on shipping isn’t clear; Platts has reported both that ‘Oil shipping bears brunt of Qatar diplomatic crisis’ and that ‘Qatar diplomatic crisis not seen impacting oil, LNG shipping’. If Qatari gas and oil tankers are banned from southern Gulf ports and from Fujairah the main winner will be Oman.
This is a row the Arabs could do without, and it isn’t over yet. Trump has offered to mediate. Turkey is sending troops – it already had a base in Qatar but only 200 soldiers. There is a story that the hack was carried out by freelance Russians; the Russian government has laughed it off. The Daesh bombing in Tehran has raised the temperature further.