The politics of the Persian Gulf have always been dominated by disputes over religious sectarianism and cultural modernization, and the power of petroleum.
The last is still potent, but it is also in decline. The imperative to slow down carbon-fueled climate change, and the rise of “green” energy alternatives like wind and solar power predict that the influence of the oil states, like the price of their product, is in short-term stagnation and long-term retreat.
Hence, the new Saudi regime of King Salman has been re-focusing national and regional attention away from such troubling energy issues through its hyper-aggressive promotion of 2 dangerous disagreements: the Sunni-Shi’ite religious schism and the cultural, intra-Sunni split between Saudi-led Wahhabi traditionalism and the more modernizing ideologies of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Saudi Arabia banning Qatar for “fostering terrorism” has all the legitimacy of a Saudi denunciation of the United Kingdom for “fostering monarchy.” The Saudi state and its richest and most state-allied citizens have done more to finance terrorism in Europe, the Middle East and Asia than anyone else, including the Qataris.
The Saudi disagreements with Qatar are not about boosting violent, radical, Islamist terrorism, but about which terrorists to support. There have been conflicting Saudi and Qatari political or paramilitary commitments in Syria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
It was the Qataris’ long-term support for the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Arab world, and most particularly for the MB government in Egypt that not only crossed the Saudi royals’ red lines, but also accelerated Al Jazeera’s losses of market share and credibility. That slide began with the network’s obviously slanted reports on the failed, 2011 democratic uprising in Bahrain.
Ironically, this reporting — that a local one-man one-vote political movement led by Bahrain’s Shia majority against a repressive Sunni-minority royalist government was actually an Iranian conspiracy to destabilize the Gulf region — was ordered by Al Jazeera Arabic’s Qatari management specifically to placate the Saudis.
One should note, after originally following AJ Arabic’s Saudi-dictated lead, Al Jazeera English (advised that they were endangering their hard-won international reputation) did a 180-degree turn on the story, producing an award-winning documentary and lots of daily coverage of the crushing of the Bahraini “democracy movement.” AJE, unlike AJ Arabic, wasn’t shy about showing the lead role played by the Saudis, sending in armed forces to rescue Bahrain’s Sunni Royal rule, and to encourage the crackdown that followed.
If AJ Arabic’s “official story” coverage of Bahrain was a deposit into in the Saudi “favors bank,” it was wiped from Qatar’s balance sheet by its coverage of the “Arab Spring,” and the Muslim Brotherhood government it brought to power in Cairo in 2012.
Not only did Al Jazeera Arabic emphasize the MB’s undeniable democratic credentials, it scanted coverage of its anti-democratic, borderline jihadist tendencies. Worse, the Qataris started another television news channel Mubasher Misr (Egypt Live) specifically for the Egyptian market. Mubasher Misr was an uncritical mouthpiece for the MB movement and its increasingly unpopular President Mohammed Morsi. Closing it down was one of the first actions of the el-Sisi military dictatorship after it overthrew Morsi and took control of Egypt.
But, the mother channel Al Jazeera Arabic, as much as ex-General/President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi detested it, remained available to Egyptians. And held onto most of its former viewers, who may have become more skeptical about the channel’s reporting, but who still believed, on most stories, most of the time, Al Jazeera was still the Arabic-language news channel to watch.
Until on the Fifth of June, 2017, that is. That’s when Egypt, along with Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Mauritius, Mauritania, the Maldives, Libya and Saudi Arabia pulled the plug. Al Jazeera is gone. “Perhaps you’d like Al-Arabiya, the Saudi news channel instead?”
Gen. el-Sisi has no more important backer or funder than Saudi Arabia.
But Al Jazeera and Qatar’s Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood heresy is 4 to 6 year old news. And the conflicts between Doha and Riyadh in Syria, Libya and Tunisia over which political parties, militias, armed gangs and terrorists to get guns and money to, are also old business.
So, what’s new here? According to the American President himself, it was his encouragement that triggered the Saudi-led, multi-national boycott of all things Qatari, especially Al Jazeera.
One can speculate about the corrupting influence of President Trump’s long-standing business and financial connections to the Saudis (and the Emeratis) and the contrasting lack of any Trump money-connection to Qatar. But there is no speculating needed about the influence of Trump’s impulsiveness and ignorance, which probably sufficed for this misjudgment
The Qatar-Saudi split will hurt a lot of, mostly poor, people, but the chances that it will produce anything good for anybody, much less bring the benefits the Saudis dream of, are even poorer. Already it has made Qatar more dependent on Iran, the very opposite of what was desired.
Like the immensely worse, also American-supported Saudi war in Yemen, this latest Salmanic aggression was ill-conceived and ill-executed and will not end in honor or victory. Escape is the best-case Saudi scenario for both their Yemen and Qatar catastrophes.
For President Trump, the fact that Qatar is considered an important ally at the American Departments of State (for their generally moderate diplomacy), Treasury (for their work against radicals’ money laundering) and Defense (Qatar hosts CENTCOM’s on-the-ground HQ, the biggest “allied” military air base outside the United States) apparently counted for nothing.
For his friends and business associates in the Persian Gulf region, as for his friends and political supporters in the coal industry, “The Donald” is proud to sail boldly, if stupidly, into the winds of history, backing retrogression to the hilt.
Will a return to anthracite destroy the planet?
Will the advance of Wahhabi fundamentalism continue to cripple the Islamic world’s adaptation to the 21st Century?
The best thing you can say for President Trump on these questions is that he doesn’t know. The worst is that he doesn’t care, either.