Commentary | 10 June 2017

Trump Iran policy: Dark undertones to Saudi-led public ire over Qatar

Originally published in the Australian.

Originally published in the Australian.

The latest spat between Qatar and a Saudi-led group of Arab states is not the first controversy involving the immensely wealthy Gulf state. But the reaction to it is a strong indication that regional players see the Trump administration as one that shares their view of the Middle East security landscape.

The flashpoint for this fracas was some rather incendiary remarks allegedly made by Qatar’s Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and reported on the Qatari government news agency’s website.

It reported that in a military graduation speech he spoke positively about Iran, said the Trump administration might not last and asserted that the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Hamas was the true representative of the Palestinians.

This was taken up by regional media and rapidly became a significant issue. Doha denied that any such comments were made by the Emir and claimed the website had been hacked; the FBI has been called in to assist the Qataris with their investigation. But such was the belief in the region that these words could have been uttered by the ruler of Qatar that the truth or otherwise of the speech became a secondary consideration. Disputes between Qatar and its neighbours are nothing new. There was a brief, small-scale clash over a border dispute with Saudi Arabia in 1992, but the main catalyst for problems has been Doha’s willingness to use its enormous wealth to initiate an independent regional foreign policy, often separate from, and at times opposed to, that of other Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Doha established the Al Jazeera media network, whose criticism of Saudi Arabia led to Riyadh withdrawing its ambassador to Qatar in 2002, and it has backed Libyan groups fighting UAE-backed groups in the chaotic post-Gaddafi era. Qatar actively sup­ported Mohammed Morsi’s presi­dency in Egypt when its Gulf partners did not, leading to the withdrawal of several Gulf ambassadors from Qatar. And in Syria, Qatar’s lack of due diligence in choosing anti-Assad forces to support drew criticism for facilitating the arming of radical Islamist groups, although there is plenty of blame to go around among regional states on this point.

But Qatar also has been strategically savvy at times. It largely funded the construction of al-Udeid air base in the 1990s to house US and coalition air assets. It was an extravagant insurance policy, but as its importance has grown the decision to tie Washington to Doha through a basing agreement has proved useful.

Although Doha’s aggressively independent foreign policy stance has regularly courted conflict with its Gulf Co-operation Council neighbours, the disputes tend to follow a familiar pattern. Doha’s policy approaches reach a point sufficiently affronting to attract the enmity of Saudi Arabia. A third party then brokers a deal in which Doha is seen to pull back some of its more provocative actions and to act as a team player, and life goes on. Following the controversy over support for Egypt’s Morsi, for example, Doha contributed troops and aircraft in support of Saudi Arabia’s problematic intervention in Yemen.

Kuwait appears to be playing the role of regional mediator at the moment, but Qatar is continuing to publicly assert its independent streak. Al-Thani very publicly invited the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading (and exiled) Egyptian ideologue Yusuf al-Qaradawi to a post-fasting iftar meal the evening after the announcement, while a draft agreement for basing Turkish military personnel in Qatar was rushed through Ankara’s parliament in a show of support for the Emir from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Qatar’s good relations with Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups and individuals have been a particular point of friction. From its hosting of former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and the exiled ideologue Qaradawi, through to its close relationship with an increasingly Islamist Turkey under Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Justice and Development Party (AKP), its approach was seen as unnecessarily provocative.

Gulf states’ concerns surrounding political Islam are even greater than they are regarding radical Islam, which is considered a security rather than an existential threat. But political Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood offer what violent Islamists don’t — an alternative governance system attainable through the ballot box. So significant a threat is the Brotherhood seen in the post-Morsi ­period that it was declared a proscribed terrorist group by Saudi Arabia, the kingdom of Bahrain and the UAE in 2014. Egypt had proscribed it at the end of 2013.

There is little doubt Saudi Arabia is trying to teach Qatar a lesson and using this very public dispute as a warning to others regarding the levels of Sunni Arab disunity that will be tolerated.

It is also another element in the increasingly assertive approach towards Iran being demonstrated by Riyadh.

Riyadh demands a united Arab front against Iran, while Qatar considers Saudi and UAE concerns over Tehran overblown. Qatar’s views are tempered by the fact it shares ownership of the world’s largest offshore gas field with Iran, but not everyone is convinced their relations are purely commercial. Qatar and Iran have both backed Hamas in Gaza, and the rather opaque negotiations concluded in May for the release of 26 Qatari hunters captured by the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militia Kata’ib Hezbollah in December 2015 in southern Iraq have drawn criticism. Reports of negotiations being held with Iran to secure the hunters’ release and allegations of hundreds of millions of dollars being paid by the Qatari government without the knowledge of the Iraqi government to pro-Iran­ian non-state militias as part of the deal were not well received.

The public statements surrounding the reasons for cutting off diplomatic relations with Qatar varied between states; however, they generally referred to Qatar’s complicity in supporting terrorism as well as Iranian interests.

There is, of course, some irony in Riyadh criticising Qatar for financing terrorism given the lack of oversight relating to private Saudi financial donations to such groups, as well as the fact Saudi nationals have been among the highest number of foreign fighters with Islamic State during the US occupation of Iraq and more recently in Syria and Iraq.

As one analyst has noted about the double standards involved in Riyadh accusing Doha of promoting extremism: “Qatar’s problem isn’t that it has supported Islamists; it’s that it’s supported the wrong Islamists.”

But Saudi Arabian money speaks. Its 28 registered lobbyists in Washington have been busy providing a Saudi viewpoint on issues, particularly Iran, and senior UAE and Saudi visitors to Washington preceded Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May. The Saudis provided a lavish welcome to the US President during last month’s visit and promised to invest heavily in US infrastructure, a favourite Trump topic. It is likely that Saudi Arabia believes it can achieve a policy convergence on regional security with the Trump administration that it never had with the Obama administration. And in the immediate ­aftermath of Trump’s visit to Riyadh, Bahrain’s violent crackdown on Shia protesters, Riyadh’s ratcheting up of security operations in its Shia-majority Eastern Province and the harsh measures taken against Qatar are likely opportunistic and a way of testing the degree of Washington’s interest in reining in Saudi responses to what the latter perceives as threats to its authority.

Normally events in the Gulf region are of little concern to Australia other than for trade or the safety of their nationals, but the strength of the regional response against Qatar raises some potentially uncomfortable questions for Canberra. With a major military base in the UAE and military personnel in Qatar and Bahrain, the actions of these governments become pertinent to Australia.

Should we continue to base military personnel in Bahrain when its government continues to discriminate against its Shia population and to limit free speech? And with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh seemingly focused on confronting what they like to portray as an omnipotent Iran, how neutral can Australia stay, given our major military base in the UAE — particularly in view of the fact Washington appears to be much more closely aligned to Saudi Arabian and UAE views of the ­regional security landscape, especially on the subject of Iran’s intentions, than was the Obama administration.