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Is a Qatar showdown on the horizon?

By Gwynne Dyer      

Bin Salman’s terms for ending the blockade of Qatar were so harsh that it looks like he wanted them to be rejected.

Saudi Arabia's Prince Mohammed bin Salman holds meetings at the Pentagon in June 2016. Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense by Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz
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The deadline that Saudi Arabia and its allies set for Qatar to submit to their “non-negotiable” demands has just passed, and Qatar has not complied. So what happens now? Does Saudi Arabia invade Qatar? It could easily do so if it wanted to: Qatar has one-tenth of Saudi Arabia’s population, a relatively undefended land border, and tiny armed forces.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seems to have the public support of Donald Trump (although not of the U.S. State Department) in his blockade of Qatar, and he could probably talk Trump into accepting an invasion too. Moreover, this is the man who committed Saudi Arabian forces to the vicious civil war in Yemen on the mere (and largely unfounded) suspicion that Iran is helping the rebels militarily.

Bin Salman’s terms for ending the blockade of Qatar were so harsh that it looks like he wanted them to be rejected.

Qatar would have to align itself with Saudi Arabia and its allies “militarily, politically, socially and economically, as well as in financial matters.” In other words, no more independent foreign policy, and tighter social controls at home.

The 13 demands included completely shutting down the Qatar-based al-Jazeera media group, whose satellite-based television network is the least censored and most trusted news organization in the Arab world.

Qatar was to break all contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, a largely non-violent and pro-democratic Islamic movement that was a leading force in the “Arab Spring” of 2010-11. It was also to end all support for radical Islamist rebel groups in Syria, and above all, for the organization that was called the Nusra Front until late last year. (It then changed its name in an attempt to hide its ties to al-Qaeda.)

Qatar was to hand over all individuals who have been accused of “terrorism” (a very broad term in the four countries operating the blockade). It would have to expel all of the citizens of these countries who currently live in Qatar (presumably to stop them from being contaminated by the relatively liberal political and social environment there).

Finally, Qatar was to end practically all trade and diplomatic contact with Iran, even though its income comes almost entirely from the huge gas field it shares with Iran. Oh, and it must pay compensation for the nuisance it has caused, and accept regular monitoring of its compliance with these terms for the next ten years.

The four countries operating the blockade (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt — three absolute monarchies and one military dictatorship) are really just trying to suppress democratic ideas in the region. The accusation that Qatar is “supporting terrorism” would be more convincing if Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had not been doing exactly the same thing.

They all have ties with the Nusra Front, and turned a blind eye to its ties with al-Qaeda because it was fighting the Shia-dominated regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Now they have all stopped doing that, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE are condemning Qatar for doing it. Any old excuse for the embargo would do, so far as the Arab world is concerned: the 600-pound gorilla sits where he wants. But the “supporting terrorism” charge also gets the Americans (or at least one ill-informed American called Donald Trump) on board.

Qatar will pay a price for rejecting the Saudi demands. Almost all of its food is imported, and in the future it will all have to come in by sea or by air: the land border with Saudi Arabia will be permanently shut. But Qatar is rich enough to pay that price.

In the end, Saudi Arabia will almost certainly not invade. The 10,000 American troops based in Qatar give it no political protection (Washington will always put Saudi Arabia first), but the mere hundred-odd Turkish troops who are based there would help to defend the country if Qatar chose to resist.

“We don’t need permission from anyone to establish military bases among partners,” said Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We endorse and appreciate Qatar’s stand towards the 13 demands. It’s a very, very ugly approach to trying to interfere with our agreement.”

There’s some hypocrisy here too, because Erdogan also used to support the Nusra Front. But Saudi Arabia will not risk even a small war with Turkey, so it will restrict itself to using its financial clout to stop other countries from trading with Qatar.

As Omar Ghobash, the UAE’s ambassador to Russia, told the Guardian newspaper last week: “One possibility would be to impose conditions on our own trading partners and say that if you want to work with us then you have got to make a commercial choice (to boycott Qatar).” But that’s not likely to work either. Prince Mohammed bin Salman has started another fight he can’t finish.

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