US President Donald Trump with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia (centre) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Saudi Arabia last month.
It’s that time of year again: 103 years ago this week, Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting in motion a train of events that led a few weeks later to the outbreak of World War I.
In a difficult and complicated world, it’s hard to keep track of what’s happening in faraway places. Few people were focused on Bosnia in 1914, and few readers now will be playing close attention to events in the Persian Gulf.
But if you’ve got an eye for historical parallels, it’s deeply alarming to read the demands presented to Qatar last week by Saudi Arabia and its allies. They unmistakably echo the ultimatum that Austria-Hungary made to Serbia: a pretext for a war that started local but quickly ensnared all the great powers of the day.
Briefly, the story is this:
At the beginning of this month, immediately following Donald Trump’s visit to the region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates all severed relations with Qatar, a tiny but very wealthy Gulf emirate, accusing it of supporting terrorism and Islamic extremism. The muted reaction from the United States suggests that administration officials, if not Trump himself, had given some sort of green light to the move.
When Saudi Arabia is accusing someone else of Islamic extremism, it’s pretty clear that something else is really going on. Qatar’s real sins, in the Saudis’ eyes, seem to be threefold:
- It has tried to maintain good relations with Iran, thereby, at least to some extent, opting out of the Saudi narrative of perpetual conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam;
- It has provided funding and other support for the Islamic political movement the Muslim Brotherhood, which was overthrown by the current military regime in Egypt and is aligned with both Hamas in Gaza and the Turkish government; and
- It is the home of news network Al Jazeera, which is funded by the Qatari royal family and provides generally independent and politically neutral reporting on Middle East issues.
Not coincidentally, Iran, the Brotherhood and Al Jazeera are all high on the enemies list of the hard right in America. (Hillary Clinton last year was plagued by claims that one of her key aides was linked to the Brotherhood.)
More significantly, all three issues put Qatar, relatively speaking, on the side of democracy and liberalisation in the region. Iran is closer to being a democracy than any of its critics (or, for that matter, than Qatar itself): if you were serious about “regime change” to promote democracy in the Middle East, you would start with Saudi Arabia, not Iran.
The Muslim Brotherhood, although in one sense it is “Islamist” (a good reason for not using that confusing term), is also a force for democracy, and hated by autocrats for that reason. And Al Jazeera, of course, has revolutionised news coverage in the region, providing an alternative to the heavily censored, state-controlled networks.
It was instrumental in facilitating the wave of protests six years ago that became known as the “Arab Spring”, and the current crisis can perhaps best be seen as an attempt by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to extinguish the last embers of that movement.
Back in 2011, Gideon Rachman, memorably drew attention to the way the West had put itself on the wrong side of the popular movements: “The good news is that this is the Arab 1989. The bad news is that we are the Soviet Union.” At the time it seemed a little unfair. It no longer does.
With its acquiescence in the offensive against Qatar, Trump’s United States has openly become a force for repression. One does not have to be uncritical of America’s past foreign policy record to see this as a very dangerous development.
As John Feffer at Informed Comment warns, “Trump is not making a doctrinal statement by siding with extremist Sunnis. He knows nothing about Islam and is not interested in learning. This is about power — who will control the Middle East.”
Qatar shows no sign of giving in. Its Foreign Minister said “We have been isolated because we are successful and progressive. We are a platform for peace.” Nonetheless, on its own it would not be able to put up much of a fight; the country has only 2.5 million people, and the large majority of those are foreign guest workers.
What makes the situation so scary is that Qatar is not alone; it is part of a net of competing alliances that have the potential to lead to war just as they did in 1914. While Egypt and Saudi Arabia are backed by the United States, Qatar is backed by Iran and Turkey, who are in turn at least potentially backed by Russia.
A century ago it was Russia that came to the aid of Serbia, drawing in Germany to support Austria-Hungary, which then drew in France and Britain on the other side. Pride, paranoia and the unwillingness to desert an ally all played their part. The friendship between Trump and Vladimir Putin could be facing a severe test.
Perhaps the thing most likely to prevent history from repeating itself is the parties’ awareness of the scope of possible disaster. World War I killed 17 million people, but that took more than four years; Russia and America now have the capacity to do worse in an afternoon. No sane person can prefer that to a peaceful resolution on any terms.
But with the leader of the chief military power now every bit as touchy and inexpert as Kaiser Wilhelm II, it’s hard to be confident of anything. The Gulf has suddenly become a very dangerous place.