Siege of Qatar – new adventure for Trump and Gulf allies

By Stephen Bell

On 5 June the governments of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade upon the people of Qatar. Qatar’s sole land border, with Saudi Arabia, was closed. Air space over the blockading countries was denied to Qatari planes. Access on the sea, via UAE ports, was denied. Qatar imports 98 per cent of its foodstuff, mostly through the Saudi land route.

A deadline of two weeks was given for all Qatari citizens to leave the blockading countries. When this expired on 19 June, all Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini families were ‘forcibly recalled’ from Qatar, despite invitations from the Qatar government to stay.

For the population of Qatar this situation is clearly an assault upon their elementary rights. As well as the obvious humanitarian issues, the 300,000 citizens of Qatar are now unable to fly to relatives in other Gulf countries. The 2.4 million migrant workers resident in Qatar also face problems returning to their country of origin. The blockade will have a huge impact upon the construction industry, with workers facing the prospect of losing jobs and wages.

From summit to siege

This action appears to be a direct result of US President Trump’s policy. Having identified Iran as the major obstacle to US policy in the region, it was inevitable that he would align US policy more emphatically with Saudi Arabia, the Arab regime most hostile to Iran.

On 21 May Trump addressed the summit of Muslim nations in Riyadh. He stated that ‘For decades, Iran has fuelled the fire of sectarian conflict’. Without bringing forward any evidence, he accused Iran of being the key promoter of terrorism in the world. He then called upon ‘all nations of conscience to isolate Iran’.

Trump then went on to praise regimes some of which have provided ample evidence of promoting terrorism. Most notable was Saudi Arabia, where he made twelve references, mostly effusive. His sole reference to Qatar was the dismissive, ‘Qatar, which hosts the U.S. Central Command, is a crucial strategic partner’.

On 24 May, after midnight in Qatar, there occurred a hack of the Qatari state news agency. An item appeared claiming that the Emir of Qatar had made a statement critical of Trump, supportive of Iran, suggesting an eagerness to work with Israel, and offering unconditional support for Hamas in Gaza. It was obviously an incoherent position, and was taken down within minutes. The Emir had made no statement that day.

Nevertheless, UAE channel Al Arabiya and Sky News Arabia broadcast the false statements and commenced rolling coverage. Twitter accounts opened up, claiming to speak for an opposition in Qatar, including alleged defecting soldiers. The IP addresses were subsequently traced to Egypt and UAE. The original hack was traced by the FBI to Russian hackers. There was no suggestion of Russian government involvement, these were hackers for hire.

The whole incident seems to resemble a failed attempt to elicit or co-ordinate a coup against Sheikh Tamim al Thani, the Emir of Qatar. Immediately following this, daily reports were issued from Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Riyadh accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism. The imposition of the blockade on 5 June appears to a response to the coup failure, and is another method to secure regime change.

Economics of adventure

Trump’s presidency has already had a belligerent impact upon the Gulf. President Obama had attempted to promote negotiations to end the war in Yemen. He had limited US drone use in Yemen. And he had attempted to pressure the Saudis by suspending some arms sales. Trump overturned this, waiving aside negotiations, lifting the suspension of arms sales, and increasing direct US military action in Yemen. The sole result has been the worsening of a Level 3 humanitarian disaster (the most serious) by the emergence of a cholera outbreak claiming 1,400 lives, with 218,000 suspected cases, so far.

This chimed well with the then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He had been leading the Saudi intervention in Yemen. In May he had publicly suggested the need to take the fight against Iran into Iran. His adventurism connects with Trump’s aim to make US foreign policy less ‘predictable’. After the imposition of the blockade, he has been promoted to Crown Prince, next in line to succeed King Salman, usurping a more traditionally cautious Mohammed bin Nayef, now apparently under house arrest.

The economic logic behind Trump’s foreign policy asserted itself at the Riyadh summit. With a current account deficit of $469 billion in 2016, US imperialism needs to have its debts covered by foreign capital creating direct investment. From the summit Trump claims to have secured over $400 billion of investment from the Saudis. He also claimed over $110 billion in arms sales, though subsequent reports cast doubt upon this figure.

For the Saudi regime, the collapse in world oil prices since 2013 has created domestic pressures which in turn fuels the more aggressive elements of its foreign policy. Whilst its huge reserves give it room for manoeuvre, it anticipates continued pressure on future revenues. Hence it is undertaking an economic reform, titled Vision 2030. The difficulty is to fund a rentier state with a large bureaucracy, sustain a huge royal family, and provide subsidies to citizens denied elementary human and political rights. Vision 2030 aims to reduce the dependence of Saudi citizens upon state employment and subsidies, especially on energy. The method is to increase the weight of the private sector, including through some limited privatisations.

Currently 70 per cent of Saudi citizens work in the public sector. There is a growth of unemployment for Saudi citizens, currently 12.1 per cent. The aim is to create 450,000 jobs in the private sector by 2020, an unlikely prospect. Migrant workers, who make up the majority of the workforce, are concentrated in the private sector. They face new taxes and an increase in visa fees. They are excluded from the economic benefits associated with citizenship

The Saudis’ economic policy attempts to move away from a pattern made unsustainable by lower oil prices, but risks being highly unpopular. There is already serious internal opposition to the proposed share sales in the government owned oil company, Aramco.

US conflict inside ruling class

Trump’s encouragement of Saudi adventurism has prompted another struggle inside the US state apparatus. Whilst Trump is ramping up the conflict, the State Department appears to want to dampen it down. Trump tweeted in support of the blockade, immediately after it commenced, seeming to claim credit for it. Secretary of State Tillerson spent the next few days trying to secure negotiations between the different regimes.

On 9 June Tillerson said ‘The blockade is hindering US military actions in the region and the campaign against ISIS. We ask that there be no further escalation by the parties in the region’. A few hours later, in a Rose Garden press call, Trump stated ‘The nation of Qatar has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level … The time has come to call on Qatar to end its funding. They have to end that funding and its extremist ideology’. Yet three days later, Defence Secretary James Mattis had no problem signing an arms deal with the regime for 36 F15’s worth $12 billion.

The efforts of the state Department were concentrated of forcing the blockading nations to clarify what they were demanding of the Qataris. Friday 23 June saw the publication of the list of thirteen demands presented to Qatar, accompanied as these were by a ten day deadline for compliance.

Thirteen demands as an ultimatum

The list constituted a demand for the surrender of anything distinctive or sovereign about Qatar’s national policy. It opened with the demand to end diplomatic, trade and commercial relations with Iran outside of US imposed sanctions. For Qatar this is particularly difficult. Qatar is developing a gas field in an area spanning Qatari and Iranian waters. In April this year, the Qatari regime ended a twelve year moratorium on the development of this field. Called North Field in Qatar, and South Pars in Iran, this is the world’s largest field for the production of liquefied natural gas. The field is now being brought onto line jointly by the two governments. In 2014, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain withdrew ambassadors from Doha, the capital of Qatar, in opposition to Qatar’s proposal to develop this field. At that time, the proposal was to promote a pipeline for gas distribution via Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey. The successes of the Assad aligned forces in Syria has made this a less attractive option. It now seems likely to be developed via a pipeline through Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

Actually the siege is deepening relations between Qatar and Iran. Although they are supporting opposite sides in the Syrian war, the Iranian government is providing practical support for Qatar. Air space has been opened for Qatar planes over Iran, and supplies of food are being shipped to Qatar from Iran. Given that the UAE is Iran’s largest trading partner in the Gulf, the hypocrisy of demanding Qatar break all ties is clear.

The demand for Qatar to close the Turkish military base is also prompting the opposite effect. The Turkish parliament voted to deploy a substantial contingent of troops to Qatar. Reports suggest that 3000 Turkish troops will be stationed at the base for ‘joint exercises’. The Turkish government shares with the Qatar regime a sympathetic relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, either route for the proposed gas line from Qatar ends in Turkey.

Also demanded is that Qatar sever all links with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE claim this is a terrorist organisation. Even the US and British governments do not claim this. But it is a very influential party across the Arab world. Sisi, the military dictator in Egypt, came to power by imprisoning the elected President and entire leadership of the Egyptian MB. The UAE and Egypt are arming and intervening on one side of the Libyan civil war, General Haftar and the House of Representatives in Eastern Libya. Qatar and the MB are supporting the Government of National Accord in Western Libya. For the Saudi regime, the MB represents an alternative amongst its Sunni population, alongside the Shia opposition in Qatif province in eastern Saudi Arabia. None of the blockading countries are tolerating a serious internal opposition.

This intolerance is further demonstrated by the demand that Qatar closes Al Jazeera, Al Araby Al Jadeed stations and the website, Middle East Eye. Given the international popularity of Al Jazeera, this has attracted attention. It is evident that the dictatorships in the blockading countries regard any critical voices as a threat to their existence.

Another demand is to hand over to the governments of Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE exiles of these countries resident in Qatar. This would be a breach of Qatar’s international obligations to such exiles. Such people would simply be passed over to torturers and executioners.

Less there be any doubt about the outrageous character of the demands, there is a demand that Qatar subordinates itself to the policy of Saudi Arabia. Senior figures inside that regime believe it was a mistake to have ever tolerated the independent existence of the Qatar state, since the formation of the Saudi state. Demanding its subordination is a first step to annexation.

In total, the regime in Qatar has been invited to present itself for disposal by the Saudi-led blockaders.

British government tip-toes

The British government’s reaction to these events has been circumscribed by the ambiguities in US policy. It cannot carry out the sub-contract, if the contractor isn’t clear. Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, met with the Qatar Foreign Minister (FM) a week after the siege had begun; he also met FMs from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE. A FCO press release then expressed alarm at the blockade, but called upon Qatar ‘to take seriously their neighbours’ concerns’ and that Qatar ‘urgently needs to do more to address support for extremist groups’. The pathetic character of the response is summarised by its call to ‘ease’ rather than ‘lift’ the blockade. Prime Minister, Theresa May, spoke to leaders of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on 15 June. Her statement at the time reiterated concern about Qatar’s ‘ongoing isolation’ (as if sulking!). She called for ‘all sides to urgently de-escalate’ but added ‘Qatar should continue to build on the progress … to address the scourge of radicalism and terrorism … in partnership with its Gulf allies’ – ‘allies’ who are at present besieging it. At the start of this week, Johnson expressed concern that some of the demands sought from Qatar are unreasonable. Such miserable tip-toeing round the dictators of Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE is the consistent practice of Tory foreign policy.

How the conflict will develop is entirely unclear. Military action after such a siege is logical, but highly risky. Yet given the adventurist stance of the Trump/Saudi alliance it cannot be ruled out. But it is perhaps not as likely as the continuation of attempts to hold the people of Qatar under siege. There may be negotiations around a more realistic attempt to reset relations with Qatar.

Overall it is clear that Trump’s policy has prompted a further destabilisation in the Middle East. The adventure may well falter on the determination of the people of Qatar to survive the siege. If that is to be the case, then it will likely produce a loss of prestige and create opposition inside the blockading countries. The line of the international labour and progressive movement must be for a complete lifting of the siege.