Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a full-court press against the government of Qatar, leading a coalition of countries as varied as Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, Yemen and the Maldives. All these states and more have severed diplomatic relations, in addition to barring all land, air and maritime transport to and from the tiny Persian Gulf country.
So what’s up?
Think of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Qatar like the relationship between the United States and France during the Cold War. It was obvious to everyone who was stronger, and France didn’t appreciate playing second fiddle. So, in order to balance relations and maintain some independent standing, France would cut side deals with the Soviets. Little that Paris did was purposefully hostile to Washington, but France was certainly the gap in the Western wall.
Qatar is a Sunni Arab country, just like Saudi Arabia; in fact, Qatar is the only other country claiming Wahhabi Islam as its official state religion. But that doesn’t mean Qatar — with a citizen population less than one-twentieth that of Saudi Arabia — wants Riyadh to be the boss of it. Qatar’s independent streak is borne out of a perception of its options. Qatar is the only Persian Gulf state not utterly dependent upon oil. Instead it exports natural gas in liquid form, making the Qatari economy resistant to any minor Saudi meddling. Doha has weaponized news media in the form of Al Jazeera, routinely blasting out stories critical of its neighbors (read: the Saudi royal family) throughout the Arab speaking world.
Most importantly, Qatar has worked to bring other powers into its side of the Persian Gulf. The most obvious of these powers is Iran — Saudi Arabia’s arch-nemesis (shameless plug: for lots of information on the coming war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, see Chapter 7 of my new book, The Absent Superpower.
But Qatar has hardly stopped there. Qatar has also pursued an aggressive foreign policy that seeks to back Islamist groups — oftentimes militant Islamist groups — throughout the Middle East. Based on your politics, many would agree with the Saudis and classify some of these Qatari-backed groups as being in the terrorism business.
A few things come from this:
First, this points to how emboldened the Saudis must feel after Trump’s visit and sword-dancing bonanza. Riyadh is desperate to position itself in the region before Iran can get back on its feet, however wobbly. An early step is to ensure that all regional states fall in line, and fast. Qatar has long been the most defiant Gulf Arab state. Any concessions Doha grants in upcoming days will be an important message to Oman and Kuwait, who have yet to side with the Saudis in halting trade with Qatar. Also important is the reaction of Turkey — the only other Sunni state in the region that might butt heads with Riyadh over who is really in charge.
Second, the Saudi strategy seems expressly designed to bring about a rupture in Qatari-American relations. One of the balancing powers the Qatari brought in to offset the Saudis is the United States. CENTCOM established a forward headquarters in Qatar to coordinate the Afghan and Iraqi Wars, and now CENTCOM plays a leading role in anti-ISIS operations. So long as the Americans have CENTCOM in Qatar, there is only so much the Saudis can do to counter Qatari ambitions. But should the Trump administration conclude the Qataris are Iranian-loving terrorist-sponsors, CENTCOM would relocate back to the American mainland in a heartbeat. That wouldn’t just leave tiny Qatar utterly alone, it would probably result in its de facto annexation by Saudi Arabia within a few years.
Third, welcome to the new normal. From 1945 until … last month, the world was more or less American-managed. The United States used its control of global markets, global security and the global ocean to build a series of alliances and institutions to hold everything together. In this system, the participants gained global market access, global resource access and physical security in exchange for deference to Washington on defense matters. They also agreed to not do certain things. Near the top of the no-no list was economic warfare: embargoes, for example, were to be relegated to history. The United States would arbitrate disputes to prevent them from spinning out of control, particularly between countries that were on the ally list. Countries like, say, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The United States has been backing away from such active management since the Clinton administration and I’ve long maintained that whoever was elected president in 2016 would be the leader to preside over the formal abandonment of that system. (Lots on that in my first book: The Accidental Superpower.) Trump won. Trump is on deck. Trump is trashing the American-built, -maintained and -brokered global Order. Bereft of American overwatch, regional powers are taking matters into their own hands. The Saudi-led actions against Qatar are a (very small) taste of the Disorder to come.
Fourth, do not allow yourself to get caught up in the Saudi propaganda. While the groups that Qatar (and Iran) back are not nice people, it isn’t as if the Saudis are paragons of pacifism. Saudi foreign and security policy going back to the 1980s is to export Saudi malcontents to conflict zones, as well as to supply fighters within and beyond their region with weapons, intelligence and money so they can bloody Riyadh’s foes. By the very definition that the Saudis are using to condemn Qatari actions, the Saudis are the industry leaders in the terrorism business.
You can easily make a strong case that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait are all complicit with militant groups of all sorts — and have been for decades. Sometimes they control these groups, sometimes they simply assist them, sometimes they lose control and the groups rebrand, sometimes factions within the sponsoring countries keep supporting the militants even after control is lost. This last is certainly what happened with mujahedeen-turned-al Qaeda 20 years ago and is happening with al Qaeda in Iraq-turned-ISIS today. No one in the Persian Gulf has clean hands.
Fifth, a key characteristic of the emerging Disorder is that while the United States will not feel that it is nailed down to express security guarantees or global structures, it still will intervene from time to time and will still play favorites. While I believe it is high time for the United States to bring CENTCOM home, I also read Saudi actions as an attempt to shape American behavior. Is there room for Saudi-American cooperation on a great many issues? Sure. But as the U.S. lets the global order break down, there will be constant risks of being coopted, bribed, tricked and otherwise manipulated into subconsciously adopting the goals of other countries as America’s own.
Qatar is just test #1.