Deciphering Gulf diplomatic crisis
The diplomatic crisis that engulfed the Arab world last week, with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and a few other Saudi minions severing diplomatic ties as well as land and air connectivity with Qatar, is the culmination of several proxy wars being fought together. Its abruptness, however, may have surprised everyone, including the Qataris.
At the outset, it is a proxy war between Trump's the United States and President Rouhani's Iran. It is no coincidence that the concerted punitive action led by Saudi Arabia, which considers itself as the geopolitical power centre of the Arabian Gulf around which it expects other GCC states to revolve, has come barely weeks after President Trump completed a highly successful visit to the oil kingdom, where he launched a frontal attack on Iran and has had the satisfaction of signing a $110 billion defence deal.
Calling the battle against terrorism as a 'fight between good and evil', Trump accused Teheran of 'fuelling the fires of sectarian conflict and terror by funding, arming and training militias that spread destruction and chaos'. He held the Iranian government responsible for all the instability in the region. Throwing typical American concerns about human rights issues in Saudi Arabia to the wind, Trump made it clear that the US had no problems in warming up to the Saudis, overturning the approach of his predecessor Barack Obama, which has by now become a hallmark of Trump Presidency. Obama's nuclear deal with Iran had somewhat soured Saudi Arabia's disposition towards the Obama administration. Obviously, the Saudis have all the reasons to be thrilled with Trump and therefore are only too happy to fight his proxy war against Iran.
By fighting Trump's proxy war, the Saudi's are, however, waging their battle to establish their regional domination, which they know can be challenged only by Iran, a country that they hate for its Shia composition as opposed to their own Wahabi Sunni faith. With Iran acquiring nuclear capability, it is a mortifying thought for the Saudis that Teheran is increasing its influence over the region through groups that appeared to be fringe players in the beginning but are now becoming mainstream in several countries. So when Qatar apparently began easing up towards Iran, it was like all hell breaking loose for the Saudis. This perhaps explains the swiftness with which the diplomatic offensive was put into action.
The Saudi camp, including the UAE and Bahrain, has accused Qatar of funding terrorist groups, obviously for its sympathetic disposition towards the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Palestinian Hamas, now branded terrorists by the West and its Gulf allies. But the fact remains that they have themselves been guilty of the crime they are now taking Qatar to task for. Qatar's proximity to Islamic Brotherhood and Hamas has been quite controversial and has raised eyebrows in all interested quarters, including Israel. But then countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait are among the known sources of terrorist funding and their role in this regard is well documented. It is a different matter that Trump, in his eagerness to overturn anything that is 'Obama-ist' and make America great again has chosen to ignore it.
A lawsuit representing the families of about 800 of the 2,996 people killed in the September 11 attack by Al-Qaeda, alleging Saudi government funding for the attackers, is now before a US court. The suit claims that the money and support for the attack were channelled through Saudi government-supported charities, including the Saudi Red Crescent. Organisations based in the UAE and Kuwait have also been allegedly involved in funding terrorist activities in various parts of the world, including India. In fact, in the wake of the World Trade Centre attack, it was revealed that one of the terrorists had transferred money to a US account through a money exchange in the UAE, which has incidentally downed the shutters on a few exchange houses for money laundering under pressure from Washington. All these countries, curiously except Kuwait, have now come together to accuse Qatar of terror links.
There are even other reasons for the Saudi ire against Doha. Qatar, which resents being described as 'the tiny Gulf state', a prefix that is used by the western media without fail while referring to the country, which claims the world's highest per capita income and has been quite brazen about flaunting it in front of its Gulf neighbours. This emboldened the 'tiny Gulf state' to take on the Saudis, Kuwaitis and the Emiratis of the UAE, including the high-profile sheikhs of Dubai, in the international investment arena and take potshots at them. Much to the discomfort of the Saudis, Qatar also gave itself a self-assigned role in influencing the course of Gulf and Middle East politics, which posed a challenge to what Saudis considered as a God-ordained mandate to be the spiritual and political mentor of the Arabian Gulf. To further complicate the issue, Qatar's Al Jazeera television, which apparently enjoys a level of freedom that is rare by Gulf standards, has been spearheading campaigns that often embarrassed the Saudi and other royalties of the region. This had become a real thorn in the flesh for them, and they have been waiting for their turn to strike back.
President Trump has since claimed credit for Qatar's isolation, which is the result of yet another proxy war—this time by the US against Qatar, although it is an ally and hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East, built mostly with Qatari money. Of late, Qatar has been demanding that the US close down the base, which has caused irritation between the two allies. So, the new diplomatic imbroglio is seen as Trump's own way of telling the Qataris to shut up.
The snapping of ties and air and land connectivity has thrown Qatari life into disarray, with food supplies hit and outbound travel becoming nearly impossible. But this might soon pass. The Saudis would probably want to teach Qatar a lesson, but not anything beyond that. They would certainly not like to break the back of a state ruled by their own clan. In fact, the Saudis have left a door open, by leaving out their staunchest supporter Kuwait from the embargo. And Kuwait's emissaries have already started a command performance. Just a day after the announcement of the blockade, the Kuwaiti emir was in the Saudi capital for talks with King Salman for mediating an end to the gravest crisis that has fallen on GCC diplomatic relations. Similarly, Oman's Foreign Minister was in Doha following what is believed to be frantic efforts by Qatari officials to have a mediation process initiated.
Oman ruler Sultan Qaboos, who is seen to represent the sanest voice in the Arabian politics, might well be holding the key to resolving the issue. Sultan Qaboos, in fact, has a credible track record in mediating between countries that are raring to go at each other. He had played a crucial role in negotiating the release of Iranian and American nationals from the custody of either country. The Sultan also facilitated the resolution of the nuclear deal between Iran and the US during Obama's term. It is believed that in the present instance also the ball may have already landed in the sultan's court.
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