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 the next Emir did not bow to all of Saudi Arabia’s demands, Riyadh would still have shown the region a terrible example of what happens to rulers who defy Saudi Arabia’s will.
The father of the present Emir of Qatar replaced his own father in a bloodless coup in 1995. However, such coups have invariably been from within the immediate royal families, with the backing of the armed forces. The legitimacy of dynastic rule therefore continued unaffected. By contrast, a coup by another branch of the dynasty under open Saudi sponsorship would be much less likely to find support within the royal family. It would probably be resisted, and even if successful would leave the new Emir with his legitimacy in tatters. As for replacing the house of Al Thani with another tribe, that would set a precedent from which the house of Saud might recoil, recalling its rule over “Saudi” Arabia dates back less than a century.
What should the US, and in particular Britain’s response be? As far as the legitimate parts of Saudi Arabia’s case are concerned—those relating to extremism—as has been pointed out, these could equally well be made against Saudi Arabia, and on a far greater scale. On other issues, Qatar—though hardly sinless—is fundamentally in the right. The Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was deeply flawed, but it was democratically elected, and the military regime which overthrew it has continued all the worst aspects of military government. Al Jazeera has its faults, but is still the best broadcaster in the Arab world—possibly the Muslim world. Sunni and Shia, and Arabs and Iranians need to find accommodations if the Middle East is to escape decades of sectarian violence. This is especially true of Pakistan, where due to the Pakistani diaspora in Britain, sectarian peace is a direct British security interest. Pakistan, despite the crucial economic importance of remittances from Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is doing its utmost to stay neutral in this crisis.
As for Britain, the Saudi role in promoting radicalisation has supposedly been highlighted in the infamous government report on the subject, apparently withheld so as not to forfeit the Saudi arms market. If a desire for arms sales leads Britain to acquiesce in a Saudi strategy of regional hegemony in the name of Wahhabism, autocracy and sectarian hatred, then what conceivable right will we have to criticise Russia or China for their policies in the region?