As the crisis surrounding Qatar worsens, Riyadh may soon show the region a terrible example of what happens to rulers who defy Saudi Arabia’s willby Anatol Lieven / July 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
The crisis surrounding Qatar—where I work as a professor at Georgetown University’s campus—is an indication of the bankruptcy of the US’s hegemony in the Middle East. This failure is by no means due to mistakes by the US alone, catastrophic though these have been. It also stems from ferocious regional divisions, exacerbated by population growth and economic, social and political stagnation.
The Gulf state finds itself cut dangerously adrift from many of its neighbours. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Yemen have made extensive demands of Qatar. It must: reduce relations with Iran (with which it jointly owns the world’s largest gas field in the Persian Gulf); end support for Hamas; close its TV channel, Al Jazeera; make payments to Saudi and its allies; close the Turkish military base in Qatar; end support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and affiliated groups elsewhere; and hand over Saudi, Egyptian and other dissidents. Qatar is supposed to “align with” Saudi Arabia and its allies “militarily, politically, socially and economically.”
These demands are so extreme as to reduce Qatar to a Saudi client state, and humiliate the Emir of Qatar and the Al Thani dynasty to the point where their rule would be in question. The new de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, cannot climb down without a loss of prestige that would undermine his claim to the throne. So, barring a US diplomatic intervention—unlikely under Trump—this crisis looks likely to persist. A Saudi invasion would be militarily easy but diplomatically dangerous for Riyadh, given the presence of a huge US air base in Qatar. After all, US allies around the world will be asking, if hosting the US military on a large scale cannot save you from your neighbours, why host them?
Rather, the Saudi hope seems to be to use a blockade to strangle the Qatari economy, until finally—with Saudi help—a coup from within overthrows the Emir. The most important Saudi card here is Qatar’s reliance on imported construction material. Unlike with food, alternative sources are difficult to find, and Qatar cannot prepare for the 2022 World Cup without vast amounts of the stuff. Road construction and repair has largely come to a halt as a result of lack of tarmac, and building construction for lack of glass. Even if…