Another Gulf Storm

Has Saudi-led military intervention against Qatar been prevented, or merely postponed until conditions allow?

tamim bin salman

By Abdel Bari Atwan

With the almost instant collapse of Qatar’s surprise ‘initiative’ to seek dialogue with Saudi Arabia last week, hostile media exchanges between the two principal parties to the crisis in the Gulf have resumed with ever-increasing venom, and a further serious escalation in the quarrel can be expected.

US President Donald Trump must be ruing the day he sought to put together a NATO-style Arab Gulf alliance that could confront Iran and counter its growing influence in Syria Iraq once the ‘terrorist’ groups in those two countries have been defeated.

Midnight mess

Friday night was distinctly stormy, like so many others since Saudi Arabia and its allies the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain dramatically threw down the gauntlet to Qatar around 100 days ago.

It began on an unexpectedly positive note. The al-Arabiya TV channel, the most influential of the Saudi-led alliance’s media mouthpieces, triumphantly broadcast an urgent government statement that was also carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. It stated that the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin-Hamad Al Thani, had placed a call to Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman and told him he was willing to sit around the table with representatives of the four countries in order to discuss their demands and safeguard the interests of all sides. The channel affirmed that Muhammad Bin-Salman welcomed the contact and promised a formal response after he consults with his partners in the alliance.

This news broke after midnight (for some reason, almost every move by the Saudi-led side in this crisis has been announced late at night), and caused a flurry of optimism. But this did not last long. Within the hour, the self-same al-Arabiya channel reported that the kingdom had decided to cease all contacts with the State of Qatar, and that its earlier welcoming of the Qatari emir’s call had been ‘frozen’ until Qatar makes its true position clear. The channel proceeded to host a succession of Saudi and Egyptian analysts who lambasted Qatar and spoke of its Emir not having the final say on policy and of being a facade for a ‘deep state’ that runs the country’s affairs – an allusion to Tamim’s father Hamad, the former emir. They concluded that Doha was not serious about resolving the crisis and was continuing to adhere to its previous policy of dissembling.

What unleashed this wave of Saudi anger was Qatar’s al-Jazeera channel, a longstanding source of headaches for the four countries — which is why its closure topped their list of 13 demands that were conveyed to Qatar via Kuwait as a condition for lifting the blockade of the country and ending the crisis.

Al-Jazeera had broadcast an official statement which put a different spin on the conversation between Tamim and Muhammad Bin-Salman. It spoke of ‘contacts’ having taken place between the two men that were ‘coordinated’ by the United States. It made no mention of Tamim having initiated the contact, but gave the impression that he had acted at Trump’s request and in support of his efforts to resolve the crisis. The statement also reaffirmed that any future negotiations would be held on the basis of respecting the sovereignty of states.

The Saudis wanted to portray the Qatari side as having backed down by taking the initiative to request a reconciliation, accepting the 13 demands in full, and agreeing to negotiate only about the mechanisms for their implementation. The Qatari side for its part sought to affirm that it had not made any concessions that compromise its sovereignty, and had merely complied with a request made by the most powerful state on earth. The result: yet another row.

Mediation over

The Gulf crisis has thus reverted to square one.  The wound to Saudi pride has deepened, and the level of trust between the two sides has sunk to an all-time low. There is no prospect for a political settlement in the foreseeable future — unless Qatar raises the white flag and its emir goes to Riyadh to beg forgiveness and mercy, and that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

When he went to Washington last week or talks with Trump, the Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, sought to enlist the US’ clout in support of his mediation efforts. But he achieved the opposite. The US president’s intervention and his calling of Saudi, Qatari and UAE leaders (he did not bother with the Egyptians or Bahrainis) served to complicate the crisis even more.

The Kuwaiti emir also managed to antagonize both sides with the remarks he made after meeting Trump, which caused much controversy and were apparently, or deliberately, misconstrued. Sheikh Sabah spoke of Qatar having accepted the 13 demands and being willing to engage in dialogue, and then conceded that some of these demands infringed its sovereignty and needed discussing and were unacceptable even to Kuwait.

But what really stirred things up was his remark that his mediation efforts had succeeded in preventing a military intervention in the crisis by Qatar’s detractors.

Qatar’s foreign minister immediately hit back by categorically rejecting the 13 conditions because they violate Qatar’s sovereignty and affirming it would never accept them. He also demanded the lifting of the blockade as a condition for resuming negotiations and even accepting mediation.

Saudi Arabia and its partners for their part issued an angry statement expressing ‘regret’ at the Kuwaiti emir’s reference to military intervention and insisting that this option had never been considered and never would be, now or in the future.

Intervention plans

The Kuwaiti emir’s mediation may now be effectively over, but his revelation that military action against Qatar had been averted cannot be dismissed. He is a veteran statesman and would never have said such a thing lightly.

In my judgement, military intervention was indeed being planned earlier on in the crisis, along the lines of the 1996 intervention by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain with Egyptian support aimed at restoring Sheikh Khalifa bin-Hamad to power after he was deposed by his son, Hamad.

But a number of factors combined to take the plan off the table.

For one thing, both Tamim and his father have resolutely remained in Qatar since the crisis began – mindful of their own family’s history. Previous palace coups in Qatar have taken pace when the incumbent emir has been outside the country (Sheikh Ahmad bin-Ali was in Iran on a hunting trip when he was ousted in 1972 by his cousin Khalifa, and he in turn was in Switzerland when he was deposed by his son in 1995). Tamim even refused to go to Washington when invited by Trump for fear that this might be a ploy to get him out of the country.

Tamim was also quick to seek support form his Turkish allies and Iranian allies. Turkish troops were rapidly deployed to Qatar — unconfirmed reports put their number at anything between 10 and 30,0000 – to counter any coup attempt, internal unrest or external intervention. Iran opened up its airspace and ports to help break the blockade of Qatar, and there have been reports (strongly denied) that it has sent military advisors too.

The question to ask is whether the military action referred to by the Kuwaiti emir was indeed prevented, or merely deferred until a more opportune time.

Taking sides

Meanwhile, Saudi, UAE and allied media and PR firms have been heavily promoting a Qatari opposition conference that is due to be held in London next week – billed as the ‘Qatar Global Security & Stability Conference’.

Massive publicity has been accorded to the event, and Saudi and Emirati TV channels are expected to give it blanket coverage. There are rumours that it will be opened and addressed by Sheikh Abdallah Bin-Ali Al Thani, the Qatari ruling family member apparently being groomed by Saudi Arabia, and that his speech may contain some ‘surprises’.

So is the plan to invade Qatar and install Sheikh Abdallah in power in Doha? It could well be, if and when conditions permit.

However, if this Gulf crisis has taught us anything, it is that none of the protagonists are truly sovereign. The real sovereignty resides in the White House, and to pretend otherwise is mere deception and self-delusion.

So it cannot be ruled that Trump will intervene directly in the crisis in due course and either impose solutions on all the countries concerned or else side firmly with one camp against the other.

If so, he can be expected to take the side of the camp has the deepest pockets, biggest economy and the greatest political clout, and that is best able to pander to the business mentality.