Martin Jay is an award winning British journalist now based in Beirut who works on a freelance basis for a number of respected British newspapers as well as previously Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle TV. Before Lebanon, he has worked in Africa and Europe for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, BBC, Sunday Times and Reuters. Follow him on Twitter @MartinRJay
Saudi Arabia’s standoff against Qatar was fraught with miscalculations and comically ill-conceived notions from the start. But now the crisis is becoming a threat to Riyadh’s own prominence and security in the Middle East.
“Almost all relationships begin and continue as mutual forms of exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be determined when one or both parties run out of goods.” – English-American writer, W. H. Auden.
This Ramadan will surely be remembered in the Middle East by Saudi Arabia’s inflated idea of a new zealous relationship formed with the US. Following Donald Trump’s ‘Arab Summit’ visit in May, Riyadh is reinvigorated with a new sense of importance and power, and has indulged itself on just how far warm sentiments from the Trump administration can take its new government and its struggle against Iran, an enemy of convenience that gives Saudi Arabia an important role in the region. But who needs the other more? The Saudis or the Americans?
In recent days, Saudi Arabia’s bold plan to isolate tiny Qatar in a bid to get it to agree to Riyadh’s geopolitics appears to be coming off the rails. But worse than merely suffering a modicum of humiliation when Riyadh inevitably climbs down and admits its zany plan didn’t come off, there are signs that the attempt to destabilize Qatar is going to backfire. Indeed, King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s new, inexperienced government has yet to recognize, let alone even understand an important maxim in politics: ‘When in a hole, stop digging’.
Although the cataclysmic errors of going ahead with such ill-conceived plans – like backing extremists groups in Syria – could be blamed on his predecessor, his brother King Abdullah who died in 2015, Salman must accept responsibility for other mistakes, like the beleaguered campaign in Yemen, which shows no signs of ending. And now Qatar.
It’s as though the Saudis are simply incapable both of effective military strategy or any form of sage diplomacy; blinded by delusional ideas of their own capabilities and power, they blunder ahead with scant regard of the consequences, even towards themselves.
“Most worrying is that Saudi Arabia and the UAE may repeat the mistakes that were made when the Saudi leadership decided to launch a war in Yemen,” said Yezid Sayigh, a Beirut-based senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They had no clear political strategy, based their action on false assumptions, have incurred heavy financial costs and a growing human toll, and are probably now worse off in terms of their security,”according to Livemint.com
Indeed, the swift 180-degree turn by Trump, who started off entirely behind the Saudi move but ended on a more cautious note, must have really hit Riyadh hard. After the Pentagon more or less put Trump straight on Qatar and the implications of this tiny country going rogue, the architects of this foolhardy plan were confronted by a stark reality: ‘We’ve gone too far.’
And they really have. In a matter of days, the reality has hit home: not only is Trump and Tillerman now calling for Saudi Arabia to back down on the siege, but it appears that the requisite premise of the entire idea – that the US would militarily defend the Kingdom’s huge borders – is also folly. Suddenly, the veiled threats of Saudi Arabia going further beyond just the blockade look disingenuous when any skirmishes that may result on Saudi’s borders will have to be dealt with by its own army.
Erdogan, the real Sultan of Swing
But it gets worse. If the Saudis massively over-estimated the support their masterplan would muster from the US, they also underestimated that another wild card in the region would swiftly run to the aid of Qatar: Turkey.
I recently argued about the significance of Qatar merely starting a debate about whether Iran is really a threat and how Qatar’s refusal of the Saudis using Iran as a pretext to hang its entire geopolitical strategy on is detrimental to Riyadh. But a ‘third way’ is already happening now and this is entirely the Saudi’s fault.
Previously this alternative strand of joined-up-thinking was contained and confined to only Qatar as the underhand control that Saudi Arabia has on media in the entire region is almost absolute and succeeds in muffling any such debate, according to a recent report by Wikileaks.
But now, with the Saudi move – despite it being planned in advance, right down to the planted op-eds in US newspapers about how Qatar is the problem in the region to countering terrorism – the third way is very much a real, living beast. It is a trilogy of those who consider Saudi Arabia – as opposed to Iran – as the threat, a group made up of Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood itself.
Incredibly, the West – perhaps even Trump himself – has to accept some responsibility for this. Just three days before Trump gave his speech in Riyadh before over 50 heads of state of Muslim countries, where he denounced Iran and Hezbollah, Turkish President Erdogan left Washington DC entirely empty handed. I initially speculated that Trump’s people could not trust Erdogan and I stand by this. But there was more to it than that. Trump’s people could not give what the Turkish President wanted in Syria as it might have upset the Saudis; the best kept secret in the Middle East is that the Saudis intensely dislike Erdogan and were hoping that the attempted coup in July of 2016 would have ousted him. Erdogan flew back to Ankara from Washington empty-handed, realizing that he will never be part of the powerful elite and should look East.
Few Western commentators in the region understand that Turkey supporting Qatar is payback to Trump and the Saudis, as the real ideology that Erdogan supports (apart from his own Sultan-like autocracy) is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is universally loathed by the Saudis. By giving Qatar the support it needs, Erdogan believes he cashes in big time – as if Qatar gave in to pressure, it would have left Turkey as the only real player who supports the pan-Arab Islamic group. He gets a new role in the Middle East as a dangerous ally of two hated creeds in one blow: the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. Erdogan suddenly becomes more than just a wild card, but a figure to fear more than merely a leader of a rogue state in terms of how the Turkish leader can impact Saudi stability.
Yet even Erdogan will pay a very high price for this cavalier play and not just with the expected withdrawal of Saudi and UAE investment in Turkey. but more how Moscow will now treat him, given that he has proven to Putin that he simply cannot be trusted by defiantly going against the wishes of Russia to stay neutral. “If Erdogan enters the Qatar conflict head on, he will be going against Russia’s legitimately stated position of neutrality,”argued The Duran. “If Erdogan jumps into the Gulf he will at once isolate himself from Wahhabi Saudi, the secular Arab world (which he is already largely hated in), Russia and the United States.”
The heart of the beast
But did you ever wonder if you were being told all the story? In the Middle East disputes are never what they seem. There is always a hidden agenda and the Qatar calamity is no exception. We are lead to believe that the heart of the dispute is the funding of terrorist groups. A hilarious notion if we are to examine that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have both funded ISIS and its affiliates, at some stage of the Syrian war.
The greatest fear that the Saudis have is that their omnipotent role as leader of the GCC countries will be undermined by debate, which is sparked by this new trilogy, which will force other countries to look closely at Iran and ask is it really a threat to the region or more of a fake foe being used to keep a house of cards standing – a point I made in my earlier article, which has since been confirmed by a number of respected, leading journalists covering the Middle East.
David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye, who was previously chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian. He also writes that the spat has nothing to do with “funding terrorism or cosying up to Iran. In fact the Emiratis do a roaring trade with Iran, and they are part of the coalition accusing Qatar of siding with Tehran”.
“Their real demands” he continues, “which were conveyed to the Emir of Kuwait – who is acting as an intermediary – are the closure of Al Jazeera, de-funding of Al Arabi al Jadid, Al Quds al Arabi, and the Arabic edition of Huffington Post.”
So, it may well be that the trilogy of Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood has actually been created by Saudi Arabia’s blundering- which just adds to the gargantuan failure of the plot. But what is really at the core of the Saudi plan is to silence all debate which questions the Saudis. It’s really that simple. If you can’t buy media, then simply threaten the state which owns it to have it shut down.
In reality though, they are doing the opposite and actually making Qatar cool and creating more debate than ever.
Inevitably, the coming days might see the UAE cutting off its gas pipeline from Qatar but in the weeks to come keep an eye open for a curiously high number of Opeds about Qatar’s human rights record and how this should prevent it from hosting the world cup in 2022.
Although Trump faked out his Saudi hosts over taking a bold stand against Qatar, there is still some time before either Riyadh or Washington “run out of goods”.
Martin Jay is based in Beirut and can be followed at @MartinRJay
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.