By Richard Falk
11 Dec 2020 – Responses to interview questions on sub-regional geopolitics in the Persian/Arab Gulf countries, Qods News Agency, 10 Dec 2020. Qatar is caught between seeking the end of the coercive diplomacy led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and not wanting to end its necessary cooperation with Iran, especially with respect to large maritime natural gas deposits. The efforts at accommodation can turn out to be either a lessening of a confrontational approach to Iran or its intensification. Coming months, perhaps weeks, will be clarifying.
Qatar: Between the Scylla of Coercion and the Charybdis of Accommodation–An inquiry into sub-regional geopolitics
Q1: What is the role of Saudi Arabia in the structure of countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or even Lebanon?
There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia seeks to spread its influence throughout
the Middle East, both to enhance the regime stability of the monarchy and to contain challenges of Iran arising in the countries mentioned in the question. Saudi Arabian security is also linked to sectarian identity, not only to give hegemonic legitimacy to its particular version of Islam but to express its view that Shi’ism is responsible for turmoil and strife throughout the region, and is the basis of Iranian influence beyond its borders. These issues cause political controversy and explain external intervention in the four countries mentioned. In each one Iran is perceived by the Saudi government as blocking national ambitions in Riyadh to be the regional leader, but also of the perceived threats to Saudi security and legitimacy. The Islamic Republic of Iran is seen by Saudi Arabia as being not only a challenge to Sunni dominance of Islamic allegiance and identity in the region but also as an abiding threat to domestic security due to the strategic presence in the society of discontented and radicalized Shi’ite minorities and by Shi’ite insistence, clearly articulated by Ayatollah Khomeini, that monarchy is not compatible with Islamic values.
Q2: Given the fact that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE obey the US policies, what is your assessment of the current dispute among them?
It is a mistake to assume that the U.S. controls all aspects of Gulf country behavior. I believe that Saudi Arabia and UAE were disturbed by what they regarded as Qatar’s independent line of political behavior that collided with their policy preferences. These governments wanted there to be unity of purpose and policy with Gulf Cooperation Policy under their reactionary leadership, and opposed Qatar’s normalized relations with Iran, their openness to giving asylum and diplomatic support to Muslim Brotherhood leaders and prominent Hamas leaders living in exile, as well as their relative openness to ‘modernity’ with regard to freedom of expression and independent media, particularly Aljazeera, which carried articles that were critical of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in relation to the Syrian strife and otherwise. From available information, the U.S. never was comfortable with this split among Gulf countries, except at the very outset when the Saudi anti-Qatar received the obviously ill-considered blessings of President Trump while he was in Riyadh. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. Government realizing its strategic interests, quickly shifted its position and began using it diplomatic leverage to encourage reconciliation. It is plausible to believe that U.S. influence might have discouraged more aggressive moves against Qatar. The large U.S. Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar undoubtedly was a factor leading Washington to promote accommodation and at the same time likely inhibiting the Saudi/UAE led coalition from making any serious effort to implement their reported intention to achieve regime-change in Doha. It is likely that the Biden presidency will persist in its efforts to restore harmony among the Gulf monarchies, which is also what Israel seeks.
Q3: What reasons caused the shift of Arab world leadership from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar? What were its effects?
Egypt, Syria, and Iraq exhibit national situations that each have their own special features generating distinct atmospheres of national emergency. At the same time, they share all-consuming preoccupations associated with domestic turmoil, strife, and conflict within their respective countries. These crisis situations dominates the energies of the political leadership of these governments. It is hardly surprising that the search for stability at home take precedence over the regional agenda. As well, these countries are not nearly as worried as are Saudi Arabia and the UAE by Iranian expanded influence in the region, or particularly threatened by anti-Sunni sectarianism. In contrast, as suggested above, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are relatively stable domestically, while giving greater attention to developments within the regional context of the Middle East. Qatar seems differently motivated, and can be best understood as asserting its independence as a sovereign state, thereby overcoming being in the shadows cast by its larger neighbor. Qatar uses its fossil fuel wealth and active political imagination to overcome its subordinated and mini-state reality, which it did so successfully as to provoke Saudi and Emirate elites, apparently particularly annoyed that Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup.
Q4: What are the reasons for the current regional security and political crises in the Middle East?
There are four principal reasons for these serious, prolonged crises: first, the various regional reverberations of the Iranian Revolution that has generated since 1979 a counterrevolutionary series of responses led, and even financed by Saudi Arabia and regional allies, and strongly endorsed by Israel and the United States. Each of these political actors has their specific motivations and priorities, as well as convergent policy objectives; secondly, the regionally destabilizing impacts of the Arab Uprisings of 2011, and the various efforts to reverse, or at least neutralize, those challenges directed at the established economic and political order. As well, the severe unresolved civil strife in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya have offered occasions for competitive interventions that have led to several proxy wars; thirdly, the U.S./UK attack on and regime-changing occupation of Iraq in 2003 had the effect of intensifying sectarian tensions and contributing to political extremism, dramatized by the rise of ISIS, and other manifestations of transnational terrorism; fourthly, the outside reactions to these developments in Iraq increased the scale of regional and international interventions in Syria and Yemen, produced oppression in Egypt, and led to frequent unlawful military actions by Israel in Syria. Such turmoil was aggravated by various U.S. undertakings designed to destabilize Iran, including by covert actions and sanctions maintained during the COVID pandemic despite international appeals to suspend sanctions and mitigate acute civilian suffering and adverse humanitarian consequences. The United States and Israel have given a high priority to curbing Iranian regional influences in relation to Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and more recently, Lebanon, as well as in Gaza.
Q5: What is your opinion about the role of the Persian Gulf Arab countries in the formation of terrorist groups?
I am not an expert on this topic, nor is it easy to assess, given the role of secret and disguised behavior of Persian Gulf Arab countries. For many years, Saudi Arabia invested many billions in support of madrassas in Asian Sunni countries that encouraged Salafi versions of political extremism that
inspired terrorist organizations and political agendas, and also led to an increased reliance on state terrorist tactics and weaponry in carrying on counterterrorist warfare regionally. It is my impression that the lower profile military engagement by the U.S. during the Trump presidency led the Gulf Arab governments to be more regionally cautious, seemingly worried about escalation that might lead to war if Iran was unduly provoked, with the assumption that a full-fledged regional war would produce catastrophic results for all sides. Illustrative of a more cautious Gulf style of confrontation was the muted response to the drone attack attributed to Yemen, but with Iranian weaponry and alleged political support,t on the state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities located at Abqaiq in eastern Saudi Arabia. Whether Biden will revive American participation in the 2015 Nuclear Program Agreement in Iran, ending sanctions, will affect how Persian Gulf Arab governments deal with anti-Iranian terrorist organizations. As always, expectations about such behavior in the region should be tentative as many uncertainties loom on the road ahead.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs.
14 December 2020