Long diversions

So much for the ‘Arab Nato’

What lies behind the Saudi-Qatar split? Yassamine Mather investigates

If there was any doubt that we live in a post-truth world, the events of the last few days in the Middle East have proved that false news is winning out. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace and sponsor of jihadi/Salafi fundamentalism, has broken relations with Qatar, a supporter of a different brand of jihadism, accusing it of supporting ‘terrorism’. And the president of the United States claims he initiated all this. You know you live in a post-truth world when lies are considered truth, stupidity is considered smart and failure is considered success.

Saudi Arabia claimed it had taken the decision because of Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region”, including the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qa’eda, Islamic State and “groups supported by Iran”. Now anyone with a basic knowledge of the Middle East would tell you that this list of ‘terrorist groups’ put out by the Saudis (and presumably supported by Donald Trump) makes no sense. While the Muslim Brotherhood, IS and al Qa’eda are staunch enemies of Iran and its supporters in the region (Hezbollah, Syria, etc), there is ample evidence for both Saudi and Qatari support for a plethora of Sunni jihadi groups in the region - mainly in reaction to Shia ascendancy following the ousting of the secular dictator, Saddam Hussein. Many would argue that if George W Bush and Tony Blair had listened to bourgeois academics in 2003, warning about the potential threat of a Sunni backlash, the world would not be facing the kind of daily terror attacks we are now seeing. If only Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi and David Cameron had not pursued personal ambitions when it came to regime change in Libya and Obama had not followed them in this endeavour, maybe the world would have been a safer space for all of us.

Let us be clear, contrary to what Trump may tell us, the Saudi-Qatari conflict has nothing to do with supporting jihadis. On that score both of them are guilty.

According to Patrick Cockburn, writing in The Independent,

Most fascinating … is what reads like a US state department memo, dated August 17 2014, on the appropriate US response to the rapid advance of Isis forces, which were then sweeping through northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

At the time, the US government was not admitting that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies were supporting Isis and al Qa’eda-type movements. But in the leaked memo, which says that it draws on “western intelligence, US intelligence and sources in the region”, there is no ambivalence about who is backing Isis, which at the time of writing was butchering and raping Yazidi villagers and slaughtering captured Iraqi and Syrian soldiers.1

On Qatar, according to The Daily Telegraph, “The fabulously wealthy Gulf state, which owns an array of London landmarks and claims to be one of our best friends in the Middle East, is a prime sponsor of violent Islamists.”2

This is not the first conflict between the two states.In fact tensions with Qatar’s Gulf Arab neighbours have grown in recent years as part of a race for regional leadership. Qatar has refused to obey Saudi diktats and has faced sanctions. However, none of the previous squabbles were as serious as the current one.

In the last few days, Qatari citizens, including journalists working for Al Jazeera, have been expelled from a number of pro-Saudi countries (Persian Gulf emirates and Egypt). These states have closed their airspace to Qatar Airlines, forcing its planes to take huge diversions via Iran and Turkey. The immediate imposition of sanctions resulted in long queues. The country imports 80% of its food.

So what is Qatar’s defence? Its minister of foreign affairs stated that

these measures are unjustified and based on false claims and assumptions. The state of Qatar has been subjected to a campaign of lies that have reached the point of complete fabrication. It reveals a hidden plan to undermine the state of Qatar.3


If the conflict is not about terrorism, what has created the current divisions in the Gulf Cooperation Council?

After Trump’s visit to the region and the launch of a Nato-style anti-Iran alliance, some countries, including Qatar, expressed mild reservations about the summit’s animosity towards the Islamic Republic. Those reservations are not ideological, but are mainly based on economic and financial reasons and to a lesser extent a wish to remain independent of the Saudi line and an unwillingness to bow down to Riyadh. There are also allegations, based on leaks of an audio file from May 24, that the Qatari emir had expressed “concerns about Saudis inflaming the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites”.

Then, on June 7, we had the first jihadi attack in Tehran, claimed by IS. In what was clearly a coordinated plan, men opened fire at both the Iranian parliament and the shrine of ayatollah Khomeini in the capital, causing at least 12 deaths and leaving dozens injured. In the last few months IS has stepped up its propaganda in Persian and the Iranian intelligence service claim they have foiled a number of Da’esh plots.

On the economic side Qatar lifted a self-imposed ban on developing the world’s biggest natural gas field, over which it shares ownership with Iran, in April. This was part of an attempt to stave off an expected rise in competition. In the same way that the United States does not accept anyone opposing its policies, Saudi Arabia expects obedience from fellow Arab countries. So, when Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, broke ranks over the Saudi hard line on Iran after the summit, it was inevitable that the country would face an angry reaction.

Not that Qatar is totally innocent. The excuse repeated by news agencies concerns a ransom paid in exchange for the release of kidnapped members of the Qatari royal family in Iraq. According to some reports, the ‘hunting expedition’ was kidnapped by an Iraqi militia with strong ties to Iran and one billion dollars was handed over. Other versions of this story claim that Qatar paid pro-Iran Shia militias to free the royal party from the Sunni jihadists and, in a third version of the same story, the Qatari emir himself paid the kidnappers.

According to one report,

Commanders of militant groups and government officials in the region told the Financial Times that Doha spent the money in a transaction that secured the release of 26 members of a Qatari falconry party in southern Iraq and about 50 militants captured by jihadis in Syria. By their telling, Qatar paid off two of the most frequently blacklisted forces of the Middle East in one fell swoop: an al Qa’eda affiliate fighting in Syria and Iranian security officials.4

It is this incident that is cited by the Saudis as an example of Qatar’s support for Iranian-backed terrorism. Clearly the story here is more complicated - we all know that France, Italy and a number of other European countries, not to mention the USA (during Irangate), have paid ransom to kidnappers in exchange for the release of their citizens. So Qatar is not an isolated case. However, the incident provides a good excuse.

The best part of all this is Trump’s support for the Saudis.

According to Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post, “Trump has adopted the Saudi line on terrorism, which deflects any blame from the kingdom and redirects it toward Iran.” A more nuanced and realistic approach to the region would avoid adopting any “line” on matters of such urgency. For example, Iran is supporting both the Iraqi and Syrian governments against IS and other terrorist organisations: according to a study summarised by Global Terrorism Database at King’s College,

more than 94% of deaths caused by Islamic terrorism since 2001 were perpetrated by the Islamic State, al Qa’eda and other Sunni jihadists. Iran is fighting those groups, not fuelling them. Almost every terrorist attack in the west has had some connection to Saudi Arabia. Virtually none has been linked to Iran.5

Recent terrorist incidents - all of them following Trump’s visit to the Riyadh summit - point to the fact that, although Iran’s Islamic Republic is unleashing repression against its own citizens, there is no evidence that it is involved in current threats against civilians in Europe and Afghanistan. On the contrary, groups opposed to Shia Iran are in the forefront of these actions. Tehran’s main enemy, Islamic State, which has suffered defeats in Iraq and Syria, has taken responsibility for three terrorist attacks since the summit: at the concert in Manchester on May 22; in a predominantly Shia district of Baghdad on May 29, when 22 were killed, including women and children; and at London Bridge on June 3, when at least eight civilians were killed. This is in addition to the killing of 29 Coptic Christians in Egypt on May 26 by an al Qa’eda-linked group based in Libya.

Of course, in some respect Iran’s Islamic Republic is the winner in all this. First of all, the Arab unity ‘alliance’ formed against it less than a month ago is in disarray, with rumours that the sultan of Oman was expressing doubts similar to those of the emir of Qatar before this week’s events. The Iranian regime is mobilising support for the Qatari population, with Iranians being urged to send food parcels, and no doubt the emirate will continue to need Iran’s help unless it can resolve its differences with Riyadh quickly.

Once more US intervention in the Middle East - this time in the form of Trump’s Nato-style alliance - has created further conflict and uncertainty.



2. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/qatar/11110931/How-Qatar-is-funding-the-rise-of-Islamist-extremists.html.

3. www.theguardian.com/world/bahrain.

4. www.ft.com/content/dd033082-49e9-11e7-a3f4-c742b9791d43.

5. Quoted at www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/06/saudi-arabia-splinter-iran-trump-hamas-russia.html?utm_source=Boomtrain&utm_medium=manual&utm_campaign=20170604&bt_ee=qRswCz4tF6EkJDwQW5H9rZSnxCTUc3

6. www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/06/