Shifting Alliances in the Middle East

BY SPENCER MCMURRAY, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST

The House of Saud, under pressure domestically and internationally – and undergoing a change in management – has taken a broad swipe at Qatar, in what appears to be a transparent attempt to reassert Saudi Arabia’s dominance in the Persian Gulf. The charge is led by the newly appointed Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, who seeks to bolster his tough-guy credentials in light of his recent appointment. But the risk of his chest beating is the potential to further destabilize an already unsteady region, which would have catastrophic consequences.

The “swipe” at the small but incredibly wealthy and influential Kingdom of Qatar has thus far been figurative: on June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Bahrain, the Maldives, and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with the Gulf state. The Saudis went one step further and slammed shut all access from Qatar’s only land border and both Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. denied Qatari airlines access to their airspace.

 

But punishing Qatar may trigger exactly the opposite reaction that the Saudi’s have desired.

 

The erstwhile allies have demanded, among other things, that Qatar shutdown the bothersome government-funded Al Jazeera news network and abandon its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political organization that is active (and hated) throughout the region.

While this blockade came as a bit of a surprise, it was nevertheless predictable. After all, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. and Bahrain have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in the past, most recently in 2014. 2014 was a long time ago though, and since then, geopolitical realties (and internal Saudi politics) have meant that the hegemonic dominance of Saudi Arabia has increasingly been challenged while Qatar itself has adopted a “way-ward” foreign policy with great success.

Saudi Arabia, long the region’s dominant force, has suffered from falling oil prices, restlessness amongst its youth, and increased acts of terrorism. The failing Yemeni Campaign has become a quagmire, straining government resources and tarnishing their perceived strength. Coupled with the West’s thawing of relations with Iran and the Iranian’s subsequent political and economic reawakening, the expansion of IS, and the complexity of the Syrian Crisis, Saudi Arabia and their allies have been feeling the squeeze.

Thus, when Qatar, a small but financially powerful state on Saudi Arabia’s eastern border, began adopting an independent foreign policy by getting cozy with Iran, Turkey, and supporting the Brotherhood post-Arab spring, the Crown Prince sought to remind Qatar who’s boss. It’s a message Doha cannot ignore, even if it is unable to make the demands outlined by the Gulf Bloc.

But punishing Qatar may trigger exactly the opposite reaction that the Saudi’s have desired.

Getting rid of the Brotherhood’s only political and financial haven in the Gulf, in-light of pressures they face in Jordan, Kuwait, and the West Bank, may push moderate members towards extremism, replenishing so-called IS’s dwindling reserves. It may also, ironically, push Qatar closer to their “nefarious” allies. Considering the blockade and the subsequent food shortages, Iran and Turkey have offered up a ton of support – enough to off-set any losses posed by the Gulf coalition. And let’s not forget that Qatar has enough available resources to continue to buy influence. Hence, Qatar can seemingly weather this storm which may postpone a resolution, only furthering the divide that may potentially reorganize relationships in the region. And though this may royally anger the House of Saud, the Kingdom would be hard pressed to strike directly or engineer a coup.

Qatar is host to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, with no plans to change that in the near future. An attack would surely complicate matters for the U.S., and so they have adamantly supported a diplomatic resolution to the crisis and would not tolerate a direct attack against a key ally. Closer to home, a coup may prove to make matters even worse, as it could spook others in the region or force a crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and their allies.

If Saudi forces a coup in Qatar over their support of the Brotherhood, countries that support the Muslim Brotherhood may feel increasingly unsettled in their relations with Saudi Arabia. This is particularly troublesome in Turkey, a strong Brotherhood backer. Turkey and the Saudi’s have been working closely in their fight against IS. Increased tension and distrust would fester, putting the anti-IS coalition in jeopardy and ultimately dissolving any semblance of unity against region-wide issues.

Qatar’s more quiet regional supporters, such as Sudan and Pakistan, may not remain quiet either. In this scenario, they would likely have to choose between aligning with Qatari or Saudi leadership – splitting up the traditional sunni geo-political unity in the Middle East.

It is clear that the U.S.’s traditional role as arbiter of regional squabbles is withering. In the short term, the blockade will likely continue and the subsequent rhetoric will only increase. This poses serious problems for the long-term stability of the region as animosities may harden and new alliances could solidify. This also puts into question the viability of a unitary front against IS while providing Iran with welcome reprieve from region-wide coordinated pressure.

The Crown Prince may soon find himself regretting his decision to test Qatari, and the regions, resolve in their support for Saudi hegemony. And if they weaken any further, it may lead to even more ill-timed and disruptive power moves to save face, maybe by other actors as well. In a neighbourhood that is already plagued by crisis, the region can’t afford to have testy leaders enter into pissing contests. The stakes are simply too high.


Spencer Adrian McMurray is currently an International Security Analyst with CDS and is a Research Intern with the Governance & Peacebuilding Unit of the United Nations Development Programme in Amman, Jordan. He has previously served as a Junior Consultant to the UNDP in East Jerusalem and was a Fellow with The Mosaic Institute in Toronto, Canada. He holds an honours B.A. in Peace, Conflict, and Justice studies from the University of Toronto. He’ll be entering the M.A. in International Security program at Sciences Po in Paris this upcoming Fall. 

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