While receiving some press coverage, the growing Qatar Crisis is worthy of larger consideration. Standard commentaries on the Middle East rightly identify the ongoing struggle between the Saudi's and Islamic Republic of Iran. Sometimes it's even referred to as the Middle Eastern Cold War. This is a multifaceted struggle over the leadership of Islam, Sunni vs. Shiite, Arab vs. Persian and it also represents an aspect of a larger proxy struggle between the great powers.
Under the Shah, Iran was an American ally opposing secular Arab Nationalism and Leftism. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the American allied Saudis were under threat. Political Islamism spread like wildfire and threatened the morally and theologically compromised House of Saud. The Saudis began to try and subvert the jihadis by utilising them for their own purposes. They wanted to demonstrate their commitment to Wahhabism and that they were worthy of being the keepers of the shrines of Mecca and Medina.
They embarked on a massive programme of mosque building and educational outreach to the larger Islamic world. This was done with Washington's blessing throughout the 1980s and 1990s. While the tone has changed since 2001, both the Saudis and Washington continue to utilise Islamic radicals.
Iran found de facto allies in post-Soviet Russia and China. All targets of American imperialism they have been pragmatically driven toward a common cause and purpose. They share mutual interests and in some cases mutual enemies. Much of what has happened in Syria over the past 6 years has to be understood in light of this. But of course as with all questions it's even bigger. One must take Turkey and Israel into account when considering the agenda in Syria.
In the 1990s, in the wake of the Gulf War, the United States was looking to expand its presence in the Gulf and established a relationship with Qatar. Under British rule until the 1970s, for a time it fell prey to one of the many tug-of-wars between the France and the Anglo-Americans. France still supplies the bulk of its weaponry. By the mid-1990s the country liberalised and opened up to the wider world. Flooded with wealth and investment, Qatar began to wield a degree of sway in the Middle East. The launching of Al Jazeera also brought both influence and prestige. Qatar hosted the US Central Command and facilitated the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Then something happened. The Obama administration viewed the 2011 Arab Spring as an opportunity to bring change and reform to the Middle East, to turn a new page. The Saudis, Israelis and others, even some within the American Deep State looked on with horror and did all they could to appropriate it and corrupt it. For the most part it ended in a nightmare.
For a brief period of time the Obama administration attempted (for the second time) to reach out to the larger Islamic world and while unhappy to see Egypt's Mubarak toppled, they considered a modus vivendi with the Muslim Brotherhood and the short-lived Morsi regime. To the great consternation of Riyadh, this move was supported by Qatar. When Morsi was toppled by al-Sisi the Egypto-American relationship was allowed to revert to its former status, though somewhat cooled during the final years of Obama's tenure. Trump of course has rekindled the warm friendship between Washington and Cairo.
But during 2011, a year of instability and uncertainty, the Qataris made their move and to the astonishment of many joined the US coalition against Qaddafi. Suddenly the US relationship with the Saudis was under strain and Qatar was quickly becoming a new comrade-collaborator with the Americans.
The Saudis despite the large US weapons deal signed in 2010 were becoming both angry and alarmed. Not only were they wondering about the stability of the US alliance, they were concerned about the rise of Qatar and the fact that it was becoming a player in the Middle East.
The Saudis were not about to break the relationship with Washington. In fact they cannot. It's devil's deal and they would not be allowed to simply 'leave'. It would spell their doom and certain civil war... US sponsored. It could even lead to an invasion as Nixon and Kissinger considered in 1973. And yet they began to strike a more independent course and much to Washington's ire they signed a large atomic energy deal with the Chinese in 2012.
Worried about the relationship with Washington, irritated by Qatar's rise, the Saudis were further angered by Obama's unwillingness to be more aggressive vis-à-vis the Assad regime in Syria. It spiraled out of control and turned into a proxy war with multiple countries funding multiple fighting forces. The al Nusra (al Qaeda) split with ISIS became a sore point as the Qataris were at times working contrary to Saudi (and Israeli) purposes. Speaking of the Israeli's and their secret collaboration with Riyadh... the Palestinian Authority (the successor to the PLO) is funded and supported by the US and Saudi Arabia. It is a manipulated tool, a pathetic pseudo-opposition to Israel that in fact is controlled largely by Tel-Aviv. It's a joke. Arafat's capitulation and de facto surrender is what led to the rise of Hamas and its eventual electoral victory in Gaza. Qatar continues to support Hamas and this angers both the Saudis and Israel.
While it seems completely counterintuitive that the Saudis and Israelis would cooperate... stranger things have happened, especially when it comes to Israel. The Saudis and Israelis have common allies and many common interests. The Israelis see the Saudis as countering Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria. They maintain the status quo which is all Israel hopes for. They're never going to be close or have open and public relations... but they are working together, both strategically and at times even tactically.
But the final breaking point was the fact that Qatar moved closer to Iran and began to cooperate with them diplomatically, militarily and in terms of energy exploration and production. While on opposite sides in the Syrian conflict they worked together in terms of 'the Gulf' in a way that the Saudis could only view with hostility.
The Iran Nuclear deal was also opposed by the Saudis and from the standpoint of Riyadh it was beginning to look like Qatar was becoming a very dangerous rival, seeking to unseat their leadership and possibly collaborating with Iran... Qatar could become a direct threat to the House of Saud.
And yet it would be wrong to simply identify Doha and Tehran as allies. Their relationship is volatile at times and they are hardly in agreement on everything. But the Saudis cannot stand it and by the end of the Obama administration they were ready to act. The Obama White House supported the Saudi war in Yemen and yet its endorsement was tepid. The US is not off the hook. It has actively supported the war with weapons, fuel and logistics and yet Obama continued to anger Riyadh with his moralising... a hypocrisy that many find hard to stomach. Being lectured on human rights and the rule of law by the Americans is sometimes a bit too much to take.
But then the 2016 election happened.
Whether clearly understanding what he was doing or not, Donald Trump gave the green light to Saudis. He gave them a massive weapons package and has openly supported their foreign policy. The Yemen War marches on but now sword-dancing Riyadh has been emboldened and they have put together a coalition. They mean to bring Qatar to its knees and have made very aggressive moves against them... moves many would say are acts of war.
Whether this move against Doha is a precursor to a planned collaboration with the Trump administration against Tehran is an open and very valid question.
Once again this is but another chapter in the superlatively insane saga of Middle Eastern politics in the wake of the Soviet collapse of 1989-91. The US moved into the Middle East and the region has been plagued by wars and unrest ever since. Always a troubled region the past quarter century (or one could even push the epoch back to crucial year of 1979), has been a tale of woe and sorrow.
And now the older conflicts are producing spin-offs. There are multi-faceted layers and as it grows more complicated, the danger increases... and the world moves ever closer to a global conflagration.
The Saudis are angry with Qatar and accuse them of supporting rebels in their eastern provinces and in collaborating with Iran to undermine their control of the still troubled nation of Bahrain. Riyadh has now removed Qatar from participation in the Yemen War.
Are the Qataris funding jihadist groups?
Undoubtedly they are and yet at least since the Libyan invasion of 2011 this is at the behest of and supported by the United States. And of course the Saudis have and continue to support many terrorist groups... as does the United States. To put it in overly simplistic terms, there's a lot of evidence that indicates the Saudis and Israelis have supported ISIS...as did the US and Turkey at one point.
The Qataris have been funding al Nusra which has also been supported by the United States. It's a dangerous game (reminiscent of 1980s Afghanistan) and everyone keeps flipping sides as the geopolitical winds change.
With regard to the Saudi-Qatari diplomatic crisis, it's not entirely clear if the Washington Establishment is alarmed. It appears some may be attempting to do some damage control and were distressed by Trump's wild and irresponsible statements. Will the Saudi's be reigned in? Will Trump follow through and continue to support them? Is this but an opening salvo in a larger conflict with Iran?
The clock is ticking for the Saudi's. Their dominance of the world petroleum market is in danger and in its final chapters. The United States is demonstrating a level of instability and a lack of reliability. The House of Saud seems to think that now is the time to move. Ultimately they want to bring down Iran but there's no hope of accomplishing that unless they first remove Qatar from the equation. Or to put it another way the road to Tehran is through Doha.
At this point it's impossible to tell what effect this row will have with regard to the war in Syria. The Middle East is on fire... and the embers are blowing in the wind.