THE Middle East was plunged into the biggest diplomatic crisis in years yesterday after Saudi Arabia and six other countries cut relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting extremism.
The crisis was likely to have wideranging consequences for Qatar and its citizens as well as the Middle East and Western interests.
Qatar hosts the largest US air base in the region, which is crucial in the fight against Islamic State group jihadists, and the country is set to host the 2022 football World Cup.
The dispute comes less than a month after US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia and called for a united Muslim front against extremism.
It also followed weeks of rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, including Qatari accusations of a concerted media campaign against it and the alleged hacking of its official news agency.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Libya and the Maldives have all severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, which has been accused of supporting Islamic groups, including some backed by Iran, “that aim to destabilise the region”.
But the conflict is not as clear cut as the statements suggest, with many other factors at play.
QATAR ACCUSED OF SUPPORTING EXTREMISM
Gulf states have long accused Qatar of supporting extremist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State and al-Qaeda, something Qatar has denied.
Professor James Piscatori, deputy director of the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, said the allegations were actually nothing new and Qatari sheiks had always been funding groups like the Al-Nusra Front, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“But of course, other Gulf-y sheiks are also funding Islamist groups,” he said.
Saudi Arabia itself has been identified as the most prolific sponsor of international Islamic terrorism, allegedly supporting groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Al-Nusra Front.
In a secret 2009 paper released as part of WikiLeaks cables, then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the country was the largest source of funds to terror groups. “More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups,” the memo said.
Prof Piscatori said the decision to cut ties probably had more to do with irritation over Qatar’s rising influence.
SAUDI ARABIA IS NOT HAPPY
While Qatar is a small country it is extremely wealthy and is the world’s biggest producer of liquefied natural gas. It boasts the highest per capita income in the world.
“It is a little country that is fabulously wealthy,” Prof Piscatori said. “It has huge amounts of money and is going to host the World Cup.”
Influential news organisation Al Jazeera is also based in Qatar, another source of power that concerns the rest of the Gulf states.
Qatar also manages to annoy its neighbours by conducting its own foreign policy agenda, which plays off both sides.
“It’s soft on Iran where the others are not, but it also has the largest American military base in the region,” Prof Piscatori said.
In recent years Saudi Arabia has been coming on very strong in terms of foreign policy, which can be seen in its involvement in Yemen.
“They are flexing their muscles and it is even more irritating to them that Qatar is not falling in line,” he said.
He said the decision of Saudi Arabia and other nations to cut ties with Qatar was probably motivated largely by the desire to reaffirm Saudi hegemony and keep Qatar in line.
“It’s not been playing along with others,” he said.
“Saudi Arabia expects to be a major power in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and for others to fall in line behind the Saudi position.” he said. “Qatar doesn’t do that.”
“So it comes down to clipping the wings of Qatar, but this is a very heavy handed way of doing it.”
The extreme action to cut ties may have been prompted by improved relations with the US since President Donald Trump took office.
Relations were less cosy when Barack Obama was leader due to differences of opinion on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the administration’s concerns about the civilian toll of the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
But Mr Trump has reset the relationship with Saudi Arabia, moving away from pressing them on human rights issues and providing a warm welcome to Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a visit to Washington earlier this year.
Mr Trump followed this with a trip to Saudi Arabia where he struck a $147 billion deal to sell military equipment to the kingdom.
“This was a huge financial boost and both countries are now locked together, even more than in the past,” Prof Piscatori said.
The Trump administration’s seemingly anti-Iran stance also pleases the Gulf states.
“This all speaks to the fact that they feel emboldened to act,” Prof Piscatori said.
While Saudi Arabia has taken action in the past, recalling its ambassadors in 2014, it has never closed the border and expelled diplomats.
“This is why it’s got everyone’s attention, where it goes now I don’t know but it’s definitely something to watch.”
MIDDLE EAST IS CHANGING
Prof Piscatori said there had clearly been something brewing for at least the last month.
The severing of ties with Qatar comes after countries were angered by comments attributed to Qatar’s ruler in which he praised Iran.
Last month, the Qatari news agency quoted Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani as saying that Iran is “a regional, Islamic power that cannot be ignored” and it would not be wise to fight against it.
Shortly after, the Qatar news agency said its website and Twitter account had been hacked by an “unknown entity,” which was responsible for publishing a false statement attributed to the emir.
The statements prompted Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo to block the Qatari news agency, Al Jazeera and several other Qatari websites.
“Whether it was true or not, that’s not really the point,” Prof Piscatori said. “It’s all part of this fake news, disinformation campaign. Clearly there has been something going on for about a month now with other Gulfies criticising Qatar more and more.
“It didn’t come completely out of the blue but what did surprise me was how strong the actions were.”
Prof Piscatori said relations in the Middle East were changing, partly because of what was happening in Syria and with Islamic State.
Recent leaked emails provided to US media show that other Gulf states were becoming increasingly irritated with Qatar.
“There was a campaign to downgrade Qatar and its regional and global power,” Prof Piscatori said.
THE IRAN CONNECTION: SUNNI VERSUS SHI’ITE
One of the factors contributing to the conflict is Qatar’s apparently friendly relationship with Iran, which is especially abhorrent to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis see Iran as their arch rival.
“Iran is the dominant power in the region, even in the old days it was. It has the largest population and it’s powerful in various ways,” Prof Piscatori said.
He said Saudi Arabia resented the geopolitical power of Iran and historically there’s also been conflict. In the past Iran has tried to claim some parts of the Gulf states including at one stage, the entire country of Bahrain.
Suspicion that Iran is trying to “export revolution” to other countries has also stoked conflict.
While Iran is located in the Persian Gulf it is not an Arab state like many of its neighbours. It is dominated by Shiite Muslims, while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have Sunni rulers.
“The Shia are generally a minority in Arab Gulf states and are not well integrated,” Prof Piscatori said. “Saudis for example, think Iran manipulates Shiite populations in their own countries to be oppositional to the regime, interfering with domestic politics in Arab Gulf states.”
When it comes to the influence of religion in the diplomatic row, there’s another “weird point” to be aware of.
Qatar is actually the only other Sunni Islam dominated country, other than Saudi Arabia, to be adherents of the ultra conservative Wahhabi religious movement.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, the regime is quite liberal in Qatar despite the country’s religious establishment being quite conservative, but the shared religion still creates a link between the two countries.
“Saudi Arabia considers Qatar its junior brother and has a proprietary sense of influence over Qatar,” Prof Piscatori said. “The fact that it’s doing what it wants to do, against the interests of Saudi Arabia, is quite irritating to them.”
Another interesting development has seen Iran offering to provide food to Qatar after Saudi Arabia closed its border.
Prof Piscatori said 40 per cent of Qatar’s food is delivered through Saudi Arabia and closing the border has immediately jeopardised the country’s food supply. Iran’s move to offer Qatar food was a “clever diplomatic move”.
“Once again Iran is standing back and watching the Arabs fall apart,” he said.
“The trouble with this stuff, it’s not so black and white.”