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“Political Islam”: Why Saudi Arabia has fallen out with Qatar?

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Photo: aa.com.tr

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and later, Libya and Yemen cut their diplomatic ties with Qatar. The Saudis accused the Qataris of sponsoring various terrorist groups and sects, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, ISIL and Iran-oriented forces. Three years ago, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE recalled their ambassadors from Doha for several months amid suspicions of Qatar’s patronizing the Muslim Brotherhood. This time, they have recalled not only ambassadors but also citizens and have added certain economic restrictions.

As a result, instead of Donald Trump’s promised combat against Iran, we are witnessing a quarrel among his allies – a story about one rich and big Wahhabi oppressing a rich but smaller Wahhabi. No sooner had Trump left Riyadh than the Saudis provoked a diplomatic split in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

According to Trump’s opponents, his “saber dance” in Riyadh added fuel to the smoldering conflict among the GCC states. Some experts even claim that the U.S. President is the author of this whole story.

But what was his point if the only real beneficiary of this conflict is Iran? For the United States and its anti-ISIL coalition, it may become a big problem: Qatar hosts the Americans’ largest military base in the Middle East, so, now it will be a closed zone for Saudi and UAE troops.

In this light, we would like to underline three key points.

The first point is Saudi Arabia’s wish to be the leader of the GCC and the commander of an anti-Iranian bloc. Their first conflict occurred in 2011, when they turned out to have different visions of the Arab world’s future. Today, the Saudis want the Qataris to set aside their regional ambitions and to accept their leadership in the Middle East. And one of the ways to achieve this goal is to accuse them of supporting “international terrorism” and Shia fundamentalism.

The second point is the presence of Egypt and Libya in the anti-Qatari coalition. This means that one of the key causes of the conflict is the Qataris’ support for the Muslim Brotherhood and their political and financial interference in Libya’s internal affairs.

And the third and the most important point is the split of the GCC. Only the UAE and Bahrain have joined Saudi Arabia’s initiative. Kuwait and Oman have dismissed it. If the Saudis wish, they may accuse the latter of having contacts with Iran but they have not done this so far. And this proves that Qatar’s contacts with Iran were not the main cause of the conflict. Some sources expect Kuwait to act as a peacemaker in this dispute.

Although seemingly neutral, the UK and Israel are attentively following the events. The Israelis welcome any conflicts in the Arab world. But what happen in Egypt in 2011-2012 was an exception as in future the Qatar-sponsored Muslim Brotherhood might have restored the anti-Israeli front. Besides, Qatar supports the Hamas movement in Gaza Strip and has even given shelter to its leader Khaled Mashaal. During his last visit to the Middle East, Trump mentioned Hamas in the same list with Al-Qaeda and ISIL (a terrorist organization banned in Russia). On the other hand, Qatar is Israel’s big trade partner.

As far the UK is concerned, British mass media were critical of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic attack on Qatar and blamed Trump for his awkward policy in the Middle East. For the British, Qatar is a foothold in the Gulf region, while Saudi Arabia is believed to be the organizer of the last series of executed and prevented terrorist attacks in the UK.

No coincidence that recently the leader of the opposition Labor Party Jeremy Corbyn appeared with a call for stopping any contacts with Saudi Arabia. That party sees the Saudis as sponsors of terrorism and will certainly break the UK’s ties with them should they win the next elections.

The UK’s national interests in the Gulf regions are different from those of the United States. The British prefer the Qataris, who, in their opinion, have a much more reasonable approach towards the strategic, demographic and cultural changes that are taking place in the Arab world. To them, the Qataris are progressive, while the Saudis are retrogressive.

Qatar’s “special” contacts with Iran were the key official motive for the Saudi attack. In May, some Qatari TV channel allegedly quoted the Qatari Emir as saying that Qatar was against escalating the conflict with Iran and that Iran was a regional Islamic power that could not be ignored and unreasonably opposed. The Emir added that if such a thing happened, Trump would not be able to stay in power for long. The Qatari authorities say that that report was a provocation and that the Emir did not say such a thing. They say that some hacker broke the Qatar News’ website and edited the article.

Later, Financial Times reported that the Qatari authorities had paid $700mn to Iranian military men and Shia fighters and $200mn-300mn more to Al Qaeda-related forces in Syria. Allegedly it was a ransom for the members of the Qatari royal family who were taken hostage when hunting in Iraq and for the 50 Qatari military men captured by fighters in Syria (but what did they do there?). It was a ransom than was more like a donation and that allegedly was one of the motives for the diplomatic attack on Qatar.

Besides the abovementioned instances, Saudi Arabia has no serious grounds for suspecting Qatar of having special ties with Iran. The only thing those countries have in common is one of the world’s biggest gas fields in the Gulf. On all other issues, the Qataris have always been neutral: on the one hand, they have supported the efforts to restrict Iran’s regional ambitions but on the other hand, they have advocated the need for a dialogue with that country. They have been part to all international anti-Iranian sanctions and have never opposed or broken any of them.

For the Americans Qatar has been a mediator in regional conflicts – a role the Qataris have so far played with pleasure. And it was due often to that status that their position in the GCC was mostly contrary to the Saudis’ stance.

On the one hand, the Americans wish to restrict Iran but on the other hand, they want to know what is going on there and Qatar was a venue for their backstage diplomatic contacts with the Iranians. For example, Qatar’s grants and promises played a decisive role in the peace process in Lebanon and benefited both the United States and Israel. One more example is Afghanistan, where the Qataris were not part of the military operation but a mediator between the Americans and the Taliban.

In June 2013, the latter opened its representation in Qatar. Later, it was closed on the Americans’ request. But the Taliban stayed in Qatar and continued backstage talks with the Americans.

Qatar is involved in several regional conflicts, including those in Syria and Libya, and is trying to influence forces like Hamas of Palestine and Taliban of Afghanistan. During the first two years of the civil war in Syria, the Qataris spent as much as $3bn on supporting rebels, including groups related to Al Qaeda and later Al-Nusra Front. In late Nov 2016, the Qatari foreign minister said that Qatar would continue arming Syrian rebels even if the United States decided to stop supporting them. Here the Qataris are closely cooperating with the Turks and have even provided territory for the first Turkish military base in the Gulf region.

Qatar’s love for intermediation has made it Russia’s partner on Syria. The Qataris have even bought a stake in Rosneft.

The United States has lately made no official statements about Qatar’s sponsoring Al Qaeda, but according to the U.S. Department of State, some legal and physical entities in Qatar continue financing terrorist and extremist groups, particularly, Al-Nusra Front. In any case, the Americans have not confirmed the Saudis’ charges that Qatar sponsors fighters, which means that the Saudis have their goals in mind.

Since the Arab world was decolonized, there have always been forces offering opposite ways to consolidate the Arab nations. One of the projects was “Arab Socialism.” The Islamic Revolution in Iran was an alternative to it. It basis was not ethnic but religious-civilizational consolidation. The Afghani war inspired Islamic revolutions in the Sunni world, while the Americans’ campaign in Iraq turned “Political Islam” projects into practical policies.

As a result, “Political Islam” began destroying the last authoritarian secular regimes of the Middle East – the rudiments of the “Arab Socialism” era. Secular Turkey might have become one more victim of “Political Islam” were it not for Erdogan and his policy to turn his country into an integrator of the Islamic world. For the army of “Political Islam” – the Islamic revolutionaries of Iran, Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and now ISIL (de facto a state of former Arab Socialists) - the “conservative monarchies” of the Gulf region have no place in the modernized Arab world.

The Qataris attempted to keep pace with the trend of the Islamic revolution and began promoting a moderately radical project of political Islam. More specifically, they began supporting Islamic parties that were ready to act as democratic institutions. To them the Muslim Brotherhood is an example of “Political Islam.”

And this is their key difference from the Saudis, who are against “Political Islam” and the achievements of the Islamic revolution in Iran. The Saudis prefer conservative traditions and are even ready to restore authoritarian militarized regimes in Egypt and Libya. In fact, they wanted the Qataris to stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood but one can’t put squeezed toothpaste back into the tube, can one?

The genie of the Islamic revolution does no longer want to stay in the bottle of traditional Islam. The current demographic situation in the Islamic world is quite explosive. Even if Qatar stops supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter will still remain the most influential underground force in Egypt. And since the Islamic world cannot be modernized in a conservative way, the Americans’ policy of first full speed ahead and then full speed astern is adding turbulence to the general turmoil in the region.

Qatar’s military status is not as weighty as that of Saudi Arabia. Its key asset is Al Jazeera – a counterpoise to conservative state-owned Middle East news agencies and a chance for British-American mass media to provide a global coverage of processes developing in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Naturally, Qatar’s first response to Saudi Arabia’s attack was exposure of its shadow contacts. By doing this, the Qataris showed that they were not going to give in.

This new conflict has created a new spot of instability in the Middle East, one of the key sources of energy in the world. But Saudi Arabia and Qatar have quite different priorities in the energy sector: Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest oil exporter, while Qatar specializes in LNG. Its oil production accounts for just 1% of all oil in the world. The sanctions have not disrupted its sea LNG exports but even if they did, that would hardly cause a rush on the gas market.

There are a number of other LNG suppliers, particularly, in Australia. But some Russian analysts see this attack as the Americans’ attempt to force the Qataris out of the LNG market. But the problem is that the Qataris have money in most of the Americans’ LNG projects, with Qatar Petroleum being one of the biggest investors on the United States’ LNG market. That company owns a 70% stake in an LNG terminal in Texas, a terminal that can supply over 15 million tons of LNG a year. And one more point is that Qatar’s key sales markets are not in Europe but in Japan, South Korea, India, China and Singapore. So, its exports have no dependence on the Egypt-controlled Suez Canal.

For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the motive might also be the wish to curb Qatar’s plans to become the financial, transportation and cultural center of the region, particularly, to turn its capital, Doha, into new Singapore or Hong Kong.

Abu Dhabi is Doha’s rival for this status. Both cities host lots of transnational headquarters but the Gulf region is too small a territory for two global centers. The cities are also fighting for the right to be the air hub of the region.

Saudi Arabia has already urged transnational companies to go away from Qatar. But this will be a big problem for them as Qatar is preparing for 2022 FIFA World Cup and they have lots of long-term contracts there. On the other hand, as much as 40% of all of Qatar’s food and a big part of construction materials come via Saudi Arabia. Now that the Saudis have closed their roads, the Qataris will face big difficulties.

Their economy is not diversified and is fully dependent on fuel imports. Oil and gas account for 92% of Qatar’s exports and 56% of its budget revenues. Low oil and gas prices have caused a $13bn budget deficit in that country. The key priorities of Qatar’s current national strategy is housing and transportation. The Qataris are building a subway in Doha and are going to spend as much as $200bn on the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Now these plans may be stalled. The Sovereign Wealth Fund of the Qatar Investment Authority is estimated at $250bn but the Qataris have so far refrained from using this money for its budgetary projects as the greater part of these funds are invested in real estate abroad and, particularly, in the United States and cannot be withdrawn without losses. This is why, in May 2016, Qatar issued government bonds worth $9bn. The Saudis’ sanctions will make things even worse. The only way-out is to open a sovereign fund.

This situation has taken Qatar aback but is not fatal for it. The Qataris are not going to capitulate and will seek ways towards a compromise. For this purpose, they may even stop (for some time) their “Political Islam” project. But reconciliation may take as long as a year.

As regards the Americans, this is one more chance for them to do what they like the most – to reconcile their allies to own geopolitical benefit. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has urged the GCC states to settle their dispute. He does not think that the problems with Qatar will curb the campaign against terrorism, which means that the Americans ignore Qatar’s sponsorship of that terrorism.

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