Changing Constellations In West Asia

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By Avijit Goel

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Barring a fleeting silver lining of Trump’s endorsement and a majestic show of support during his visit to Riyadh, there is little to cheer in the Saudi kingdom. The change in guard in Saudi is an ominous foreboding akin to an overcast sky.

 

A popular saying in Arab desert war folklore goes: “When power, over time, decays to an assumption of power, lie still.” A possible reference to the Arab wars in the medieval times, when warriors fast depleted in battle against an increasingly hostile foe. It does hold a few lessons to take away, even today. Especially, today.

 

How Qatar gained ground

 

The 1990s saw major re-adjustment in Saudi and Qatar relations, with Sheikh Hamad deposing his father in a bloodless coup in Qatar in 1995 (much to the chagrin of Saudi), and asserting Qatari might and autonomy outside of Saudi domination. This, in the backdrop of technological breakthroughs allowed a global demand for liquefied natural gas (the largest reserves of which were in Qatari control). The hyper-growth in economy from $8 billion in 1995 to an astounding $200 billion in 2014 lies at the heart of Qatari confidence and assertion.

 

In the last decade, Saudi has accused Qatar of a slew of transgressions, from hosting and financing the “first independent-minded Arab media house” (Al Jazeera) critical of Arab monarchies, to espousing the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood, to supporting interests and groups inimical to Sunni interests. As the litany of complaints against Qatar gathered largely within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the diplomatic and economic boycott only required a little thrust, and Trump’s visit to Saudi served as the perfect backdrop.

 

The unease gave way leading to a ‘grave’ and ‘unprecedented’ crisis in the GCC, with a Saudi-led bloc severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, adding trade and travel bans to enforce impact.

 

Taking on Saudi

 

For a country the size of Qatar, with a population of close to 2.6 million, getting onto the wrong side of a bloc comprising Saudi, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain amongst others does seem like unwelcome trouble.

 

However, two underplayed yet key indicators might just be the proverbial dark horses in throwing up unexpected consequences and possibly challenging a carefully built regional order.

 

First, it is rare to see the GCC so divided on a Saudi-led regional agenda, as now. GCC members Kuwait and Oman have advised restraint and mediation as the way forward, and not allied with either side, yet. An interesting role could be played by Oman, which has been accused similarly by Saudi in the past, of deepening relations with bête-noire, Iran. Second, a new cooperation axis of Iran and Turkey seems to be taking concrete shape.

 

Turkey’s Erdogan recently announced a substantial increase in Turkish military advisors in Qatar, followed by Iran and Turkey sending food aid and offering air-space to the national airline, amongst others, to overcome the possible humanitarian crisis.

 

Riyadh’s list of 13 demands to resume ties are ‘non-negotiable’ and include shutting down Al Jazeera and reducing Turkish military presence in the country. Qatar’s acquiescing to them on ‘non-negotiable’ terms seems very unlikely.

 

Also, Qatar can count on Iran and Oman to ensure the free flow of its hydrocarbon exports through the Strait of Hormuz. If Qatar can maintain its gas sales to Asia, the Saudi bloc’s action against Doha may fail to achieve any economic arm twisting. (Even the demand side is assured as all buyers of Qatari gas, including Pakistan, have declared that it shall be business as usual.)

 

While it remains to be seen how this deadlock resolves, the most probable solution rests in finding middle ground, and a mediating agent unaligned in the crises. A military conflagration might be unlikely, but it does sow seeds for future power constellations.

 

These changing power constellations might just have some rude awakenings for Saudi – Qatar might just step back when Saudi expects it to bend.

 

The writer is a geopolitical analyst.

 

Story by Business Line

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