Qatar and the Saudi Boycott

05.07.2017

Qatar has called the list of demands by Saudi Arabia and its allies “unrealistic and not actionable”, meaning that the boycott will continue and probably intensify. Anatol Lieven, Professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, told valdaiclub.com why Qatar will attempt to stand firm.

Given the intensity of the economic pressure, Qatar will try to make certain diplomatic gestures, but it cannot possibly meet the central demands. It is far too humiliating, far too much of surrender. Qatar by now also has considerable sympathy in the West, even in Washington, because despite the importance of Saudi Arabia, the country is not exactly loved by Western intelligence services or, of course, by human rights groups. Qatar is also strongly supported by Iran and Turkey. These are ensuring that adequate food supplies continue to reach Qatar. They cannot however provide adequate material for the huge construction sector, which is beginning to falter. If this leads to new and successful pressure to move the 2022 World Cup from Qatar, this will be a terrible blow given the amount of money and prestige that Qatar has invested in this project.

There are three central issues: one is obviously Iran. Saudi Arabia wants to position itself as the regional hegemon of an anti-Shia and anti-Iranian Sunni alliance. Qatar has only to a limited extent held against that. The second is Qatari support for popular and semi-democratic Islamist movements in the Middle East (also backed by Erdogan in Turkey), like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Egyptian regime and the Gulf monarchies hate and fear these mass movements, for obvious reasons. These regimes also bitterly resent criticism by Al Jazeera, which they see as pure Qatari propaganda) and are demanding its closure.

The third issue, which has been completely ignored by most of the Western media, is the role of Israel and the Israeli lobby in the USA. In recent years, Saudi Arabia and Israel have got much closer together as a result of their common paranoia about Iran. That is why Saudi has included an end to Qatari aid to Hamas in its list of demands, and one key reason why Trump has backed the Saudi line.

This will not do Saudi Arabia any good in the long term with its own people. Saudi Arabia has been for years telling its own people that Hamas was a heroic resistance movement.

If there is one thing the Saudis and other Gulf states (and Egypt too, for that matter) have never worried about is the liberal opposition, because they reckon that a) it is very small and completely dependent on the West, and b) its fear of Islamists and that in the end the liberals would side with authoritarian regimes.

The political threat that all these regimes are really fear is, of course, democratic, mass Islamist movements like the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt or the Islamist movement in Turkey. Qatar’s support for these movements really frightens and annoys the Saudis and others.

It is for that reason that they want to shut down Al Jazeera and have Qatar expel any Muslim Brotherhood figures on Qatari soil. Because are such issues involved, it is hard to imagine the existing Emir of Qatar agreeing to them.

It seems Saudi Arabia and UAE and Egypt have made these demands non-negotiable. It looks as if now the plan is slowly to strangle Qatar. Another key question is that Saudi invasion is very unlikely because it could horribly embarrassing the USA, and there are also some Turkish troops –not very many, but enough to mean that if any were killed by Saudi troops, it would lead to a drastic deterioration in Turkish-Saudi relations and perhaps a redrawing of the geopolitical map of the Middle East.

If the past is anything to go by, what Saudi Arabia may well try to do is try to back a coup by some branch of the Qatari family to try to replace the existing Emir. It is unclear how serious that threat might be, but over the years, there have been many coups in the Gulf from within royal families. It would usually be an elder son against the father or a brother against a brother. Something a little bit like that happened in Saudi Arabia itself last week. From the Qatar point of view that is probably the biggest danger. Failing some such outcome, this crisis will go on for a long time, with highly unpredictable results for Qatar and the region.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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