The Saudi-Qatar row is the first big step in a process that had started much earlier and will continue with added speed till the political map of the larger Middle East changes fundamentally. The larger Middle East includes countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran and Central Asian states.
Saudi Arabia has long been pursuing the status of a hegemon in the Muslim World. It has been using money and religion as tools for the purpose. Along with the country’s role as the custodian of the two holy sites for all Muslims — Mecca and Medina — and its strand of Wahhabi Islam, Saudi power also owes a lot to oil and in that Arab American Co (ARAMCO) has a fundamental role. Iran has been a cAonsistent and a powerful challenger to Saudi Arabia’s hegemonic status. The rivalry between the two states has its roots in the Arab-Persian rivalry before Saudi Arabia had even come into existence. The rivalry persisted even when both were allies of the US before the revolution in Iran.
Qatar, a small Gulf Sheikhdom, is one of the richest states in the world. It is located between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It shares much with Saudi Arabia. Both are Wahabi-Sunni autocratic monarchical states. But Qatar’s location has dictated it to try balanced relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Emboldened by its riches, Qatar now seeks a more independent position and thus does not fit well into Saudi hegemonic goals. With the help of its money, Qatar looks at Islamic forces as vital elements of the future of Middle East and its security. Saudi Arabia does not have a much different position on this issue. UAE, another important player of the region, shares more with Saudi Arabia in feeling threatened by political Islam, even if it is more open socially, though politically it is as autocratic as Saudi Arabia, or for that matter Qatar.
Saudi Arabian use of Wahabism to achieve its goals of control has given birth to religious extremism and intolerance in the lager Middle East, including countries like Malaysia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Its current policy of creating the so-called Muslim Military Alliance is an attempt to strengthen its weakening control in the region. Saudi Arabia has not been satisfied with the downfall of Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes in Egypt and Libya, respectively, and Saddam Hussain’s regime in Iraq — as a result of US intervention in the country. However, it has been happy with the ensuing crisis in the region that has giving birth to the Islamic State (IS) considered to be a serious threat. In Libya, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (and UAE) support opposing religious extremist groups.
Emboldened by US President Donald Trump’s visit, Saudi Arabia may have considered it as a stamp of approval for its leadership role in the region. Thus, it could have taken the extreme step against Qatar, in its announced policy of counter terrorism. One question that comes to mind is: has Saudi Arabia misinterpreted US support like Iraq did when it attacked Kuwait? One must keep in mind US has a large military base in Qatar. US has formally asked all parties to show restraint, which can be interpreted as it not wanting any military confrontation between the two Gulf States. Though Saudi Arabia has created some troubles for Qatar, it has not been able to isolate it. Rather it has created further divisions in the larger Middle East. Turkey and Iran have quickly come in to help alleviate shortages of food and other related items. The crisis has also created serious foreign policy dilemmas for many Muslim countries, including Pakistan. Pakistan has to date taken no stand on the issue — either of neutrality or of support for any party. Its allies and international partners stand in opposite camps. Pakistan’s quest for developing strategic relationship with Russia and Turkey, a long standing ally, and Qatar, with which it has strong economic ties, pulls it on one side, while Saudi Arabia expects it to stand with it. How will Pakistan wriggle out of this? We will learn very soon. As a first step, Pakistani Prime Minister has planned a visit to Saudi Arabia, which may be followed by visit to Qatar, without declaring the purpose for these visits. PM will probably try to woo Saudis to not be annoyed if Pakistan stays out of this quarrel. Taking along the COAS means he would re-assure Saudis of commitment to their rule, if directly threatened. While UAE stands squarely with Saudis, Kuwait is trying to mediate. Sudan’s declaration of support would be a burden rather than help.
Pakistani PM has planned a visit to Saudi Arabia, which may be followed by a visit to Qatar. PM will probably try to woo Saudis to not be annoyed if Pakistan stays out of this quarrel
The people, economies and geographies of all Gulf States are so well intertwined that crisis in one state will mean crisis in the region. Even when fighting amongst themselves, all states share some basic features — they are autocracies and subscribe to Wahabi Sunni Islam. This means victory of any side will not mean a victory for democratic modernist anti-extremist forces. In fact, Saudi influence over the past few decades is directly responsible for increased intolerant sectarianism in many countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia and Egypt. One can include in this list the broken down states of Iraq, Libya and Syria, where IS has gained ground and is spreading all over, even if Saudi Arabia does not control most of these extremist movements any more. Different extremist groups receive support either from governments including those of both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or from citizens of these countries.
Even if a direct war is avoided and gradually diplomatic relations are resumed, a process of complex destruction and divisions has started, which cannot be arrested, let alone reversed. The mistrust that already existed between these states will increase further. The rich will try to spend more on military. The news that Saudi Arabia has put on sale its shares in ARAMCO is like cutting the tree branch on which one is sitting. The weaker states will expect to be compensated for their continued support. Keeping in mind the dwindling income from oil and the continuously increasing cost may well result in a situation similar to ‘imperial overreach’ — a term coined by historian Paul Kennedy. In the coming days, one will witness fundamental changes in the larger Middle East. The exact nature of these changes may not be easily predicted, but they will be violent and non-state forces will stand to gain ground in the intermediate. States would become more autocratic to protect themselves in such a situation. This may further the appeal of extremism. Democratic forces will be squeezed between the extremists of various shades, in state and non-state groups.
To conclude, the intelligent must think of strategies to minimise human tragedy, accepting the unbearable and painful fact that it cannot be avoided altogether. And the visionaries must plan and debate for the times after.
The writer is the chairman of International Relations Department at the University of Peshawar