Qatar vs Saudi Arabia is a symptom of a changing world

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(Cartoon by @AntonPulvirenti)

Recent events relating to Qatar are just the latest in a long list the media have only partially reported upon. James O'Neill fills in the gaps.

There have been a series of recent events in the Middle East that have only been partially reported. And even when they are reported, there is a marked unwillingness from our mainstream media to see them as connected in any way. Instead, they are regarded as discrete events rather than as manifestations of wider geopolitical changes that are changing the world from the way it has been for many decades.

One such event was the visit to Saudi Arabia by U.S. President Donald Trump. The major focus of the reporting of that trip was on Trump’s salesmanship in selling the Saudis U.S. arms, variously reported as being between $110 bilion and $350 billion. Also reported was Trump’s allegation that Iran was the major source of state-sponsored terrorism in the world.

The solemn reporting of this ludicrous allegation was evidence that it is not only the Americans who lack a sense of irony. The wider significance of these allegations, however, was that it was undoubtedly music to the ears of Trump’s Saudi hosts, who see Iran as the chief threat to their ambitions to be the dominant power in the region.

At the same conference that Trump was making his speech, the Emir of Qatar, al Thani, also spoke. His speech went almost entirely unreported but it was in many respects even more important than Trump’s predictable nonsense. In his speech, the Emir reiterated Qatar’s determination to have an independent foreign policy and, even more significantly, spoke of the need for a better relationship with Iran.

Qatar also happens to be a major sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood, a designated terrorist group, one of whose major objectives is the overthrow of despotic regimes such as Saudi Arabia. The Muslim Brotherhood briefly held the presidency of Egypt until it was overthrown in a military coup. It is not surprising that Egypt has joined with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in threatening Qatar and imposing sanctions.

Qatar also has the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas, a major part of which is sourced in a gas field that it shares with Iran. This is an asset that is eyed covetously by Saudi Arabia, whose own oil reserves are rapidly depleting.

Al Thani’s speech in Riyadh sufficiently outraged the Saudis that they broke diplomatic relations (as did others in the Gulf Cooperation Council) with Qatar, closed their mutual border, thereby creating a potential humanitarian crisis and issued a ten-point list of demands, with a 24-hour deadline for compliance.

One of those demands was that Qatar “control” Al Jazeera, its Doha based television station whose reporters are widely quoted in Australia, particularly by the SBS network. This attack upon press freedom has been met with a studied silence by the Australian Government, for whom it would seem such issues are only selectively supported. Thus far, al Thani has refused to buckle to the Saudi demands.

Whether the Saudis will follow up their threats with direct military action is unclear. The Saudis are not noted for their military prowess, notwithstanding military expenditure vastly in excess of their objective needs. They prefer to fight with proxies, as with their support for terrorist groups in Syria (missing from Trump’s speech) and elsewhere — including, most recently, Indonesia.  The Saudis also rely heavily on foreign mercenaries to do their fighting for them, as with their current disastrous war on Yemen. That Australians are among those mercenaries has failed to attract criticism from the Australian Government, as indeed is the case with Saudi’s war on Yemen generally.

Immediately upon the closure of the Saudi-Qatar border, the Iranians immediately offered civilian assistance with supplies of food and the use of their ports for Qatari trade and over flight rights for Qatari Airways. It is no coincidence that these offers of help were immediately followed by terrorist attacks upon the Iranian parliament in Teheran and the mausoleum of the leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Responsibility for those attacks was claimed by ISIS whose main sponsors are the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday, 7 June, the Turkish Parliament voted in favour of sending Turkish troops to assist Qatar in the event of a Saudi attack. The Saudis would be no match for the fighting capability of the Turks. Also missing from mainstream accounts is the fact that Turkey and Qatar signed a security pact in December 2015. Turkey is a major member of NATO.

A further complicating factor is that Qatar currently hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East. The Americans do not seem to appreciate the risk to their position of actively encouraging a Saudi assault upon the nation that hosts their base. Again, it is not without significance that the Qatari foreign minister will be travelling to Moscow this weekend.

For Trump to now offer to mediate the dispute may reflect a belated recognition of the consequences of his country’s foreign policies causing infinite harm as it pursues its own self-interested objectives. More likely, it is an illustration of the incredibly muddled thinking that has characterised this administration.

A further potential complication is that Bahrain, which currently hosts a huge American naval base, will not remain quiescent. Bahrain has a 70% Shi’ite population, ruled by a repressive Sunni minority. When the Shi’ite majority demanded political rights, a Saudi invasion in March 2011 ruthlessly repressed it. Iran is a natural ally of the Bahrain majority and is unlikely to ignore further attempts at Saudi repression in the event of a wider war.

The Americans have long played a divide and rule game in the Middle East, with devastating consequences in Iraq, Libya and Syria among other places. Its capacity to continue wreaking havoc is dwindling as a new multipolar world emerges. Foremost among those challenges in the Middle East are the increasing role played by China as it develops its Belt and Road Initiative and the re-emergence of Russia as a regional power. Both countries have a strong interest in preventing the further development of Islamic terrorism. This is a major driver of Russia’s involvement in Syria and the increasingly strong strategic links between China, Russia and Iran.

The United States will continue to flail about, causing enormous damage in the process and, as in the present Qatari crisis, blame everyone but themselves for the ensuing chaos and disruption. The destabilisation in the region is best understood, as with Ukraine and the South China Sea, as a vain attempt to prolong what has been their unipolar moment.

Both China and Russia, past and present victims of U.S. hybrid warfare, with Iran, also a victim, offer the best chance of a peaceful resolution of the dispute. It is unlikely, however, that the U.S. will permit a rational resolution of the dispute. They are still a long way from recognising that the world is changing — not because of, but despite their best endeavours to the contrary.

James O'Neill is a former academic and has practiced as a barrister since 1984. He writes on geopolitical issues, with a special emphasis on international law and human rights. He may be contacted at joneill@qldbar.asn.au.

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