Middle East and North Africa

Defusing a fight among neighbours

Nadim Shehadi on why the Gulf states need to end the crisis with Qatar

Foreign ministers from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain express disappointment at Qatar’s response to their demands

The keeper of the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, one of Christianity’s holiest places, is always a member one of the city’s prominent Muslim families. This is in order to maintain peace between the Christian sects that have squabbled for centuries over minute details of ritual and protocol.

The conflict is greater within one single church: at the Pan-Orthodox Council held in Crete last year even more intense rivalries surfaced with Bulgarians, Greeks, Russians, Georgians and Antiochians storming in and out of the meetings. In fact the closer people are the deeper the conflict between them when it occurs; what Freud called the ‘narcissism of small differences’.

This is an excellent framework in which to understand relations among the six Arab states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Their fights are the more intense precisely because of their similarities and common interests. What the current crisis illustrates is how facile it is to lump them all under one label of Sunni Gulf states v Shia Iran.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia, between whom the conflict is most bitter, are also the closest: they share the same Wahhabi beliefs, and Qatar’s ruling family, the Al-Thani, claim direct descent from Imam Abdul Wahhab himself.

While Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, together with Egypt, are leading the charge against Qatar this time, they also have their own differences. A conference in Chechnya last year, in which the UAE played a prominent part, brought together about 100 Islamic scholars including ones sponsored by the Egyptian government, who declared that Salafi and Wahhabi doctrines are not part of mainstream Sunni Islam, effectively excluding both Saudi Arabia and Qatar from the definition. This is equivalent to delegitimizing the Al-Saud’s claim to their rule, much worse than any sin that Qatar has committed.

Their disagreements are serious. At the root of the dispute is a policy debate on how to deal with issues such as the various forms of radical Islam. Their similarity lies in that they all firmly believe that they are the main target of Islamist radicalism whether Sunni or Shia. Where they differ is in how to deal with the phenomenon, with approaches ranging from appeasement to co-option and suppression. They have different policies wherever the Muslim Brotherhood is involved, so they support opposing sides in Egypt, Libya, Turkey, Syria and Palestine. Qatar acts much like marginal states in Europe, such as Norway or Switzerland, maintaining relations with all sides while trying to play a mediating role.

Their common animosity to Iran exists, of course, but it is also inaccurate to describe the Gulf states as simply anti-Iranian on sectarian grounds. In fact most of these states have very complex relations with Iran, not least because some prominent trading families have Persian origins, but also because of existing economic ties.

The lifting of sanctions against Iran would benefit most of the Gulf economies at a time when the trend is to diversify away from dependency on oil. Even when it comes to that, relations with Iran vary. Qatar shares a major gas well; the UAE acts like a Hong Kong to Iran’s China, where Iranians conduct business they can’t do at home; Oman stands out for its good relations with Iran, which enabled it to bring Tehran and Washington together to start the talks that led to the nuclear deal.

The biggest challenge the Gulf states face is not invasion by Iran, it is their population’s growing sympathy with radicalism and this is linked to Iran’s actions in the region. Images of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp together with Hezbollah and other Iranian-sponsored militias ethnically cleansing areas of Sunnis in Iraq or participating in starvation sieges in Syria expose the failure of the rich Gulf states. This in turn serves to delegitimize Saudi claims to leadership of the Sunni Muslim world that radical movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State group are challenging.

Islamist radicalism has been on the increase since the 1979, the year when an alignment of the stars produced the Iranian revolution that ousted the Shah, radicals opposed to the Al-Saud attacked the Haram in Mecca, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Zia-ul-Haq imposed sharia-based punishment in Pakistan, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin set up his Islamic charity in Gaza, and both Syria and Egypt faced increased violence from their respective branches of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It has since been a downward spiral with radicals on one side producing more radicals on the other. The result is a collective feeling of victimhood among both Sunnis and Shias who look towards their own radicals for protection. Fast-forward to the present day, and the formula is simple. On the one hand the actions of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards increase radicalism and strengthen support for the Islamic State group among the Sunnis. On the other, a strengthened Islamic State increases the influence of the Revolutionary Guards among the Shia.

‘The big challenge Gulf states face is not invasion by Iran, it is people’s growing sympathy for radicalism’

Islamic State and the Revolutionary Guards are two sides of the same coin and they both gain by fighting each other – they gain against their own mainstream. The reason why Islamic State was able to take over Sunni towns such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul in a matter of days in 2014 can be found in what the Iranian-led Iraqi Shia militias were doing to that population. Similarly the Revolutionary Guards gain more recruits to their militias at the expense of moderate leaders such as Ayatollah Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraqi Shia, because they are seen as an effective force in fighting Islamic State.

In times like these it does not pay to be moderate. To counter Islamic State, the Saudis and the other Gulf states must show resolve in confronting Iran. The intervention in Yemen was therefore named Decisive Storm, or literally translated, Storm of Resolve, sending a message of confrontation against Iran which at the same time is meant to be a message of support to their own mainstream constituency.

The second stage of the war was named Operation Restoration of Hope, hope having been lost with the Revolutionary Guards gaining the upper hand in the region, producing a sense of defeat and Sunni victimhood. This period coincided with the rise of the Saudi king’s son, the more confrontational Prince Mohammad bin Salman, to the position of crown prince.

From this perspective, President Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran and its proxies to fight the Islamic State group and his marginalizing of the GCC states could not have been more harmful. Iran was given a green light to create havoc in the region by an administration keen to protect the nuclear deal. The Saudis succeeded in changing the narrative during President Trump’s visit by setting up a largely Sunni coalition against Islamic State inaugurated at a summit with 50 Islamic-majority countries. The message was that the Sunni mainstream, under Saudi leadership, was the best ally against the Salafi-jihadists and that Iranian intervention was the problem.

The crisis between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar could not have come at a worse time. All the positive messages from the Trump extravaganza in Riyadh evaporated barely three days later. What was meant to be a united front against terrorism collapsed amid mutual accusations of supporting the terrorists.

This meshes with Russian and Assad regime propaganda accusing the Arab states of fuelling terrorism, leaving many to wonder again whether the Gulf states are as much part of the problem as they are the solution. If the trigger for the crisis was indeed the result of fake news posted on the website of the Qatar News Agency, then it must enter in the annals of hacking history as one of the most successful ‘active measures’ operations of our time.

There have been worse times than this. In 2009, after a devastating attack by Israel on Gaza, Qatar organized a rogue meeting of the Arab League held in Doha with president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran as the honoured guest and with the participation of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In his wisdom, the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia immediately defused the situation and called for reconciliation two days later in Kuwait. The new generation gaining power now in both countries would do well to follow that example. There are valid reasons for the conflict with Qatar but if the Gulf states are to act collectively as a stabilizing force in the broader region, the fact that different countries are in touch with opposing sides is more of an asset than a liability.