The “deal" of the century
The US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Israel will meet in June in Bahrain for Jared Kushner's economic plan to redraw the balance of power in the Gulf
- Saturday, 27 July 2019
This article is also published in the July/August issue of eastwest.
The handshake between the Qatari Prime minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani and the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz accompanied by his son and heir Mohammed bin Salman at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit (GCC) at the Mecca in Saudi Arabia last May 30, was not just a formal act, nor a moment of detente between the two Gulf countries that have broken off diplomatic relations now for the past two years. It also transpires that Riyadh only invited Doha on America's behest, a friend of both with vested interests, albeit of a different nature, in both countries, that is trying to broker a situation that since June 5 has resulted in the Qatari emirate being effectively isolated from the rest of the Gulf countries. Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, with Saudi Arabia in the forefront, have imposed an embargo on Qatar. It is accused of funding terrorism but essentially it's about controlling an area to try and soothe Saudi fear of Iran.
After two years of embargo, Qatar certainly has its problems. Its economy is growing slower (creeping towards 3% in 2018 after a drop to 1.5% in 2017), but the Saudi action, besides not achieving its intent has if anything achieved the exact opposite. Because instead of banishing what Riyadh refers to as the "terrorist threat", meaning the groups that one way or another are linked to Qatar and, more importantly perhaps, reducing Iranian influence over the region, the blockade has somehow increased Tehran's presence in the area.
Relations between the Gulf countries and its neighbours are effectively always binary: Shiite or Sunni, oil or gas, are two of these binary combinations. Qatar is the only country that belongs to all four: it is the largest producer of natural gas in the world but also has some oil (the sector where Saudi Arabia rules the roost, followed by the UAE, among anti-Qatar coalition members); it is a Sunni country but has relations with Shiite Iran and is the only country in that part of the world that does so. The reason being that the largest gas field in the world, the South Pars in the Persian Gulf, five times the size of the Russian Urengoy gas field, is jointly owned by Iran and Qatar. Plus Qatar has excellent relations with Islamic movements which the Realm of Saud and other countries backing the embargo reject outright. This especially applies to the Muslim Brotherhood that have a splinter group in Palestine's Hamas and in Egypt backed former president Morsi.
Yet, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar follow the same Hanbali Sunni tradition that spawned the Wahhabism that has spread throughout Arabia and the Salafi tradition found in Qatar. Both the orientations, Salafism and Wahhabism have been considered non-Sunni, in some way 'detached' from the resolutions reached by the World Islamic conference in Grozny, in Chechnya, in 2016. The decision at the conference to exclude the Wahhabis and the Salafis from Sunni "orthodoxy", led to protests among the Saudis, who accused Russia of running the show from the sidelines.
However, the issue here also relates to how terrorism is perceived in the world. Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and the Taliban share a great deal with Wahhabism which, with its aim to ensure that Islam and Muslim lifestyles follow a path involving a correct literal interpretation, calls for an unflagging observance of the Summa, an extremely orthodox interpretation that ends up compounding its inflexibility and thus promoting fundamentalism. The enemies of this vision, as the doctrine would now have it, are not just the "infidels", but also those Muslims who don't abide by these rules, with the Shiites the worst offenders.
Over the years, the terrorist attacks fuelled by Islamic fundamentalism, the latest being those in Sri Lanka last Easter, have been linked to movements influenced by Wahhabism. But not necessarily funded by Saudi Arabia. No doubt, Riyadh has seen plenty of funds being siphoned off to pay for new mosques and cultural centres, schools and meeting places where Wahhabi fundamentalism has been promoted as the only true doctrine compared to that of the heretic Shiites, while actually acting as a cover up for a more political Saudi battle waged Iran, rather than an instance of Sunnism versus Shiism . Even recently, during the period prior to the Indonesian elections last April, a number of American intelligence reports have highlighted the worrying spread of Saudi backed Wahhabism in the most populated country with a Muslim majority in the world.
For some years now, Saudi Arabia is trying to demonstrate that it is far removed from the country that the collective imagination believes to be one of the main funders of terrorism. American President Donald Trump made his first presidential trip abroad to Riyadh, from 20 to 22 May 2017. On that occasion, along with King Salman, he opened the Global Centre for Combating Extremism in the country's capital. During the visit, Trump reasserted an idea that had already been upheld by his predecessors, but which no one, him included, has ever put much money into: the need to combat terrorism not so much on the battlefield, with military actions, as by stemming its ideological dissemination. The suggestion was instead acted upon by the hereditary crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who at the end of the same year reiterated his country's determination to stamp out extremist ideologies. And a few steps in the right direction have been taken. Besides the public and heinous executions of "terrorists", the latest of which took place at the end of May, the crown prince has engaged in a complete clean-up act (often with political goals in mind too) against the religious communities that have the closest links to extremism. As a few analysts have noted, his influence has also been seen abroad, with the downsizing of the Muslim World League, once a Saudi mouthpiece used to export Wahhabism worldwide, and whose leader had gone as far as condemning denial of the Holocaust and asking all Muslims around the world to integrate within the societies they live in, in complete opposition to the original precepts of Wahhabism.
Qatar, on the other hand, even formally, has not stepped away. In Doha the Muslim Brotherhood have set up a semblance of an embassy and there used to be one run by Hamas, which was the only one to pay a price. But Doha is still paying the Palestinian group that is considered a terrorist organisation, according to intelligence agencies, both under the counter as well as through the millions of dollars it sends to the Gaza strip on a monthly basis. With Israel's approval, the support for the Muslim Brotherhood (Qatar in the past has been accused of funding IS, al-Qaeda and al-Nusra among others) has drawn Doha closer to Ankara. So during the anti-Qatar embargo imposed by the Gulf countries, Qatar Airways flights were allowed to fly over Iran, while foods supplies, which used to reach the small desert Gulf state from nearby Saudi Arabia, across the country's only land border, are now airlifted in from Turkey, where Erdogan's AKP is very close to the Muslim Brotherhood to which Riyadh and Cairo are so opposed and which the US want to include in the list of terrorist organisations. A situation which, obviously enough, has increased Turkey's presence and influence around the Gulf, and the same goes for Iran.
And Israel? What was once a common foe to all, who managed even to get Shiite and Sunnis, Iranians and Saudis to join forces under the banner of hatred and aversion towards the country of the Star of David, has managed to change the rules of engagement in the area. Thanks to a smart operation by Benjamin Netanyahu, who despite his internal political problems has shown considerable farsightedness in foreign policy, and the increasingly close alliance with Donald Trump's America (who has considerable economic interests in Saudi Arabia for a weapons-oil exchange and has its largest military base of the Gulf in Qatar, with a specifically anti-Iranian mission), relations between Israel and the Gulf states are moving towards an unexpected reconciliation. Just a couple of months have passed since Israel announced it will have its own stand in the Dubai Expo in 2020, despite the fact the two countries have no diplomatic relations. Israeli airlines are now allowed to fly over both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and Netanyahu has set up excellent ties with the Oman Sultanate even though diplomatic relations have been broken off since the Nineties. In Manama, in Bahrain, on 25 and 26 June, an economic forum on the Middle East sponsored by Trump and his son-in-law/advisor Jared Kushner will be held which could reveal part of the economic plan contained in the Deal of the Century, the American plan for the Middle East opposed by Palestine. Besides the US and Israel, the meeting will also be attended by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, while Morocco and Jordan still have to make up their minds. The whole exercise is seen as an opportunity to review the balance of power in the Persian Gulf.