The increasingly taut Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) finds itself in a state of crisis, the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades. Political issues between the predominantly Sunni Middle Eastern powers, that have always existed beneath the surface, have now erupted – much like Christopher Hitchens did every time he heard the words, “Intelligent Design”. Of all things good and/or bad (depending upon your view of the rather capricious US President) that have followed Donald Trump’s election to the White House, this most definitely is the development which could have the most enduring consequences on a global level.
So, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain decided a few weeks ago to cut diplomatic ties with their enormously rich neighbour, and fellow member of the GCC, Qatar, for alleged regional meddling. Among the many allegations levelled at Qatar is that, through Al Jazeera – a channel owned and funded by the relatively tiny but deceptively wealthy nation, it has been instigating the people of the region to push for democratic reforms and overthrow authoritarian monarchies. It is widely accepted that Al Jazeera was one of the primary catalysts behind the Arab Spring. It has also been alleged that Qatar funds and supports terrorist groups, such as Al-Nusra, in the Middle East. The Qataris, on the other hand, accuse the opposing side of subverting the terms of the GCC, and the UN Charter, by taking unilateral action against them based on unfounded and malicious claims.
Now, the Qataris can’t be absolved of some of their questionable actions. Even the most loyal viewers of Al Jazeera would concede that some of their journalism is disruptive, and rather slanted. (While encouraging people to overthrow a monarchy and push for democracy is a noble act, it looks abysmally hypocritical when one realizes that Qatar itself is a monarchy.) Additionally, there have been well-documented attacks against free speech in Qatar, such as the imprisonment of poet Mohamed Rashid al-Ajami in 2011 for insulting the emir of Qatar in one of his writings. Furthermore, the Qataris have in the past refused to support international sanctions against certain terrorist organizations. In spite of this, though, one is tempted to side with the Qataris in this political tussle due to several reasons. To begin with, Saudi Arabia, the de-facto leader of the protesting faction, is arguably one of the world’s leading sponsors of terror groups. It is widely believed to have funded many terrorist organizations over the years in an attempt to spread its Wahabi ideology. Add to that its grossly illiberal laws, particularly with regard to women, and its medieval punishments, including beheadings, and Saudi Arabia doesn’t look like a country that can claim to hold the moral high ground in this, or any other type of international dispute.
Ever since a land and air blockade was imposed on Qatar, it has come to be viewed as a country that is being bullied by its relatively more powerful neighbours to submit to unjustified demands – one of which is seen as a direct attack on free speech – the call to shut down the Al Jazeera network. Not only has Qatar been able to subsist during this difficult time (with considerable help from Turkey), it has come closer to Iran – which comes as a big blow to Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni-dominated nations of the region. In the short run, at least, Saudi Arabia’s plan to corner Qatar seems to have backfired. Following the poor decision to get his kingdom involved in the seemingly endless war in Yemen, the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, along with his father, seems to have made another mistake in foreign policy. After Donald Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first international destination as POTUS, and spoke openly against Qatar’s alleged funding to terrorists, King Salman was probably emboldened into taking this harsh step against Qatar. He may have felt that with the Americans on his side, he could get Qatar to submit to his demands. He forgot one little thing though – America’s under-fire President alone does not call the shots on their foreign policy.