25 June 2017

Qatar Saudi Arabia Rift: Will MBS and Trump Escalate it to a Regional War?

As you probably know, on 5 June 2017, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain severed all economic and diplomatic ties with Qatar.

Saudi Arabia closed its borders with its tiny neighbor, yanked flight permits for Qatar Airways and banned Qatari ships from navigating in Saudi waters. Food trucks were stopped at the border and Qatari nationals were given two weeks to leave Saudi Arabia and all the other Gulf countries.


Because Saudi Arabia accuses Qatar of being a major sponsor of extremist forms of Islam and funding Islamist terrorists.

Coming from Salman the Senile, a man who spent most of his adult life raising money for all the recent Jihads, this is supremely rich.

This is like Nazi Germany taking punitive action against the Vichy government because of its anti-Semitism.

The question then, if the official justification is too stupid to warrant any discussion, what could be the reasons behind these drastic measures?

The main problem is Qatar's need to have good relations with Iran is incompatible with the need of its Sunni neighbors which are convinced that Iran is the Great Satan.

It is a complicated balancing act and it might even be an impossible proposition.

Qatar: Appeasing Saudi Arabia and Hedging its Bets

Qatar is a tiny country (less than 300,000 citizens) that share a land border and a religious identity (Wahhabism) with its much more powerful neighbor.

Qatar always assumed that Saudi Arabia wanted to turn it into a vassal state. And for good reason.

Consequently, Qatar's ruling family has always looked beyond their borders and hedged their bets and strategized to have more power and more protection.

Hedging their bets involve funding or befriending both sides of any regional rivalry.

Qatar provided troops to Saudi Arabia in its foolish war with Yemen's Houthis but they also propped up Houthis behind the scenes.

They are Sunni Wahhabis but they maintain good relations with Shia Iran.

They give a lot of money to Hamas and hosted Khaled Meshal for years but they favor friendly relations with Israel.

When Wahhabi Saudi Arabia asked the US to close its military bases and withdraw its troops on religious grounds, Wahhabi Qatar built the largest US military base in the region (Al Udeid) to host them.
In 1999, the then Emir of QatarSheikh Hamad told U.S. officials that he would like to see as many as 10,000 U.S. servicemen permanently stationed at Al Udeid. [currently there are 11,000 troops]
The House of Wahhab is like the medieval Papacy in their relations with the House of Saud. Whereas Muslim Brotherhood rejects that separation of Church and State. Yet Qatar, the world's only other Wahhabi state, had been sponsoring the Brotherhood and harboring its most important preacher Yousef Qaradawi.

In fact, despite their Wahhabi roots, early on they turned to Muslim Brotherhood to take over education, which was an interesting choice given the bitter rivalry between Wahhabis and the Brotherhood.

The other insurance policy of Qatar's ruling family was to help dissidents to keep its neighbors on their toes.

From Hamas to Muslim Brotherhood to Al-Nusra Front to Taliban any group could find safe haven in Qatar and maintain their activities freely and often with Qatari funds.

This was why Al Jazeera was created and maintained even though it never made any money. The TV outlet gave a voice to all dissident groups in the region and made their respective governments nervous and insecure.

The only rule for these groups was to refrain from extending their activities to Qatar. So Hamas, Taliban, Muslim Brotherhood and others never undertook any actions in Qatar and Al Jazeera never criticized the Emir and the ruling family.

If this was the extent of the problem it would have been manageable. But these complex relations are overdetermined by the mother of all religious schisms.

Shia Sunni Rivalry

Saudis and other Gulf countries see Iran as an existential threat for two reasons.

One, they each have sizeable Shia minorities and they had been persecuting them gleefully for centuries. 75 percent of Bahrain's population are Shia. In Lebanon, they represent half of the Muslims.

In Iraq, they are roughly 60 percent.

In Saudi Arabia the government claims about 20 percent but some estimates go as high as 45 percent. And they are largely concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province.

So Gulf Sunnis are worried that a wealthy Iran could ignite civil wars in these Sunni dominated Emirates. To them the situation in Yemen is an incontrovertible evidence that their fears are well founded.

The second reason for their fears is the rise of the so-called Shia Crescent. Besides Iran, Shia Muslims came to power in Iraq after Saddam's fall. As I noted above, Iraq has always had a Shia majority but they were kept in check just like in other Arab countries. Now they are ruling the country and the Sunnis are pushed to the sidelines.

If Al-Assad (who is Alawite, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam) remains in power then the Shia Crescent will be in place ready to destroy the Sunnis. Or so they believe.

If you wonder why the Sunni Muslims are so convinced that Shia Muslims want to wipe them off the map, it goes back to the beginning of Islam.

The profound hatred  between the two main branches of Islam are not well know in the West.
Ever since Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law and the last of the Rashidun caliphs Ali was assassinated and the Caliphate was grabbed by Muawiyah, there has been a deep divide between these two denominations of Islam. 
In fact, contrary to what you might have heard, before modern times, Muslims had no real animosity towards Christians and Jews, as they are People of the Book. But almost since the beginning, Sunnis considered Shias kuffar and Shias, because of what they did to Ali and his two sons Hassan and Hussein, viewed Sunnis as usurpers of Allah's will and cheaters and murderers.
This historical animosity is not the cause of the current situation but it makes it impossible to solve it because both sides are convinced that the other side want them destroyed.

Given this background, Saudi Arabia and most of the Sunni governments in the region are livid that Qatar, instead of blocking Iran's path, is helping the Islamic Republic gain more power.

The problem is that Qatar has no choice in the matter as it had already tried to screw Iran once and it cannot afford to try it again.

Qatar and Iran: North Dome and South Pars  

If you are one of my regular readers, you already know that Iran and Qatar share the world's largest natural gas field.

Iran's side is known as South Pars and Qatar's is North Dome.

Because of crippling sanctions, Iran was unable to develop South Pars and Qatar was pumping off furiously and liquefying and selling them everywhere.

They became the biggest exporter of natural gas in no time. But they wanted to sell more.

So they proposed a gigantic pipeline project through Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey to carry their natural gas to Europe. Saudis were happy, as Iran would be the loser. And Turkey was happy, as it would, at long last, become an energy hub.

But, on Russia's urging, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said no.

Even worse, he signed off on the so-called Shia pipeline to move Iran's gas from the same shared field to Europe bypassing Turkey.

You can see the two competing pipeline projects on the right.

Since Iran was unable to do much because of the sanctions and the stakes were enormous, Qatar's Emir decided to go all in and to remove Syria from the pipeline's path.

Which marks the launch of the Syrian civil war and the birth of Al-Nusra Front and then of course ISIS.

To create ISIS, Qatar put up the money, Turkey offered the supply route, Saddam's intelligence officers created the organizational structure, the Naqshbandi Army provided the military muscle and Pipelineistan, also known as Islamic State, was born.

Without Qatar's need for a pipeline, ISIS would never have established a state: for a terrorist organization it is an open invitation to be bombed incessantly.

The problem with Qatar's solution was the unpredictability of ISIS. Instead of claiming statehood and running the place, they continued to commit and publicize atrocities, attracting unwanted attention to themselves.

They also didn't take into account that Putin would not take this lying down. He had no intention of allowing a competing pipeline into Europe. He intervened and Al-Assad recovered and ISIS got into trouble. Plus the Syrian Kurds occupied the northern Pipelineistan blocking the passage to Turkey.

The final development that shattered Qatar's pipe dreams was the US rapprochement with Iran. When Kerry and Zarif got together to lift the sanctions, Qatar knew that the jig was up and that it could no longer safely work against Iran.

In fact, I believe that this was the main reason why Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani abdicated at the tender age of 61 when all Gulf rulers stay on until they are ready to visit with 72 virgins on the other side.

And that is also why the new Emir did not keep his father's consigliere, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, known as HBJ, which, at the time, raised a few eyebrows.

The old Emir realized that the setup he and HBJ devised was in deep trouble and, with the thaw in US-Iran relations, he knew that a Fresh Prince of Qatar was needed to assuage Iran.

The new Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani promptly went back to Qatar's policy of hedging its bets and made two significant decisions.

One was to establish very close relations with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan and to sign a military cooperation agreement. As part of that deal Turkey was given a military base in Qatar. The Emir also generously injected billions in short term capital whenever Erdogan got into economic trouble.

Secondly, he announced his country's support for the lifting of Iranian sanctions and in 2014 he signed an agreement with Iran to help them to develop their South Pars field.

Indeed, Qatar actually went to help its direct competitor, the world's second largest exporter of natural gas to produce and sell more. It was an effort to fix their Pipelineistan adventure and to establish good relations with Iran.

This is how Saudi Arabia responded.
Saudi Arabia was considering closing the Qatari-Saudi land border, Saudi airspace to Qatar, and scuppering the imminent Qatar Airways deal to operate flights in the kingdom. Scurrilous social media exchanges also indicated the possible excommunication of Qatar from the GCC.
Ostensibly, the Saudi reaction was for centered around Muslim Brotherhood and support for Houthis but the real reason was Qatar's deal with Iran.

In other words, ever since Pipelineistan flopped, Saudi Arabia has been desperate to stop Qatar from helping Iran.

Why Now?

Two reasons or actually two guys. MBS and The Donald.

Muhammad bin Salman who goes by MBS is King Salman's son and his Minister of Defense. He is the architect of the disastrous civil war in Yemen.

Until a few days ago he was the Deputy Crown Prince. But he was also the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia as Salman suffers from dementia. Right after the embargo was announced, Salman demoted the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and replaced him with MBS.

MBS is an arrogant and dangerous man who likes to play with fire.
At the end of last year the BND, the German intelligence agency, published a remarkable one-and-a-half-page memo saying that Saudi Arabia had adopted “an impulsive policy of intervention”. It portrayed Saudi defence minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the powerful 29-year-old favourite son of the ageing King Salman, who is suffering from dementia – as a political gambler who is destabilising the Arab world through proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.
Iran is his bĂȘte noire. And he has been itching to start a conflict that could engulf the Islamic Republic.

Before he launched the embargo against Qatar, he cleverly engineered a rapprochement with Israel to cooperate against Iran. Tellingly, Israel backed Saudi Arabia in its confrontation with Qatar.

Israel is as fearful of the Shia Crescent as the Sunni countries in the region. And it is no coincidence that one of the Saudi demands was for Qatar to stop funding Hamas.

Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia was the turning point for MBS. He then announced a $110 billion arms sale which will be worth over $350 billion in ten years fully knowing that this would please immensely the author of the Art of the Deal.

That deal also ensured that Trump would denounce Tehran as the biggest supporter of Islamist terrorism and take Saudi side when they pushed Qatar to reduce its ties with Iran.

Predictably, when the embargo was announced Trump tweeted that Qatar was the biggest sponsor of terrorism and took credit for the move against the tiny emirate.

As a side note, Naomi Klein believes that US oil companies might be egging him on in an effort to push oil prices up. I am not sure but the muted response of the former CEO of Exxonmobil Rex Tillerson makes her claim somewhat plausible.

What's Next?

Saudi demands are designed to be humiliating and there is no way for Qatar to comply with them without becoming a vassal state.

In fact, besides reducing ties with Iran, shuttering Al Jazeera and closing the Turkish military base, one of the demands is to "align itself politically, economically and otherwise with the Gulf Co-operation Council."

Qatar's response was to reject them and to go to the Sunni regional power for protection.

The Turkish military base in Qatar was designed to house 5,000 troops but before the spat, there were only 200 soldiers there. Erdogan convened an extraordinary session of Parliament to get authorization to deploy a greater number of troops in Qatar.

The first batch of Turkish troops arrived five days ago.

Now, a few thousand troops would not be able to stop a Saudi invasion. But their presence is a serious deterrent and this is why closing the Turkish base was one of the main Saudi demands.

As for Iran, while they offered to send food and supplies they maintained a low key approach for fear of provoking Sunni hotheads. They are fully aware that the whole crisis was designed to get them involved.

If MBS decides to escalate this conflict it has the potential of turning into something catastrophic.

That is because this whole situation is not just a Sunni-Shia rivalry, Russia, Israel, Turkey and the US are in it as well. Their leaders are as unpredictable and mercurial as MBS himself.
In the last month, for the first time since the civil war in Syria began in 2011, the United States has directly attacked Syrian government forces or proxies — not just once, but at least four times. The urgent question now is less about Syria than Russia, which in response to the latest of these incidents, in which a U.S. fighter plane shot down a Syrian jet, threatened to target any U.S.-led coalition aircraft flying over Syria.
Something tells me that this is not going to end well.

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