It was clear from the moment that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain issued their 13-point ultimatum to Qatar at the end of last month that they had bitten off more than they could chew. It was no surprise then to see the Gulf triumvirate and their Egyptian lackey begin their climb down within weeks of having positioned themselves on such perilous heights. Their unreasonable demands, which were seen as an unprecedented attack on the sovereignty and independence of a fellow member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), ruined the possibility of a soft landing.
To save face, the blockading countries headed by Saudi Arabia replaced their threatening ultimatum with six principles that are nothing more than a reaffirmation of points which the GCC countries were committed to before the impulsive autocrats decided to create unnecessary chaos and instability in the region. The principles include a commitment to combat extremism and terrorism in all its forms; a full commitment to the 2013 Riyadh Agreement; prohibiting all acts of incitement; and to confront all forms of extremism and terrorism.
As much as they would like to give the impression that the blockade has been fruitful and that by agreeing to the six principles the region will turn over a new leaf – with the GCC will “never go[ing] back to the status quo,” as the UAE Ambassador to the UN Lana Nusseibeh said during a briefing earlier this week – there is nothing on the list that could vaguely be described as political concessions made by Doha. In fact, the volte-face by Saudi Arabia and the UAE is clearly an indication that it was they who were forced to make political concession; it is they who have been embarrassed and humiliated.
This is not the first time that Saudi and the UAE, which US Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis, dubbed “Little Sparta”, have misread political signs and made things worse for the region. The autocrats in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were the main instigators of the disastrous counter-revolution against the popular uprisings that swept the region in 2011. Not only has their misjudged intervention created greater violence, instability and chaos across the Middle East, but it has also weakened their long term grip on power.
It could have been so different. The Arab Spring presented a perfect opportunity for these monarchs to cement their hold on power. Arguably more importantly for the Middle East, which suffers from a chronic deficit of political legitimacy, they could have changed their image from one of authoritarian despots to legitimate rulers. They could have remained in power and checked the growth of domestic and external enemies alike.
Try to imagine that instead of backing military coups and counter-revolutions at the cost of an eye-watering $340 billion spent on propping up dictators who kill and oppress their own people, the Gulf monarchies had decided to invest in and develop the Arab world. They could have created millions of jobs and addressed many of the underlying root causes of the regional crises. I do not suggest that it would have been plain sailing but it’s hard to disagree with the observation that these rulers missed an opportunity to be hailed as heroes. As a result, they are now fighting one war in Yemen, are funding another in Syria and constantly looking over their shoulders to check Iran’s march towards their borders.
The Gulf rulers’ miscalculation over Qatar may not prove to be as calamitous as their decision to support the reactionaries in the region, but it has – again – highlighted their naïve misreading of the political climate. The ambitious 31 year old Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman – aka “the prince of chaos” and plotter of the palace coup that deposed his cousin, Mohammad Bin Nayef, to make himself the heir to the throne – greatly misjudged the situation. Not only did the Saudis misread Turkish and Iranian intentions, but they also greatly overestimated Donald Trump’s influence.
The writing was on the wall as soon as Ankara decided to deploy additional troops to a Turkish military base in Qatar. It confirmed what everyone knew but what the blockading countries chose to ignore; Qatar is an indispensable pillar of Turkey’s strategic posturing in the region and it would not allow the gas-rich country to become a vassal state of the counter-revolutionary forces. With Iran also extending its hand in support to ease the impact of the blockade, the risk of a fellow member of the GCC floating into the political orbit of an arch-enemy became very real.
Above all, it was their misreading of the US administration that proved to be the undoing of the Saudi-led blockaders. They overestimated Trump’s and underestimated Qatar’s importance to the senior US officials who are far more grown up about politics than the US President. It’s possible that the royals in Riyadh were beguiled by Trump’s authoritarian streak. Here was a US leader whose language, tone and mannerism had more in common with the despots in Cairo, Damascus, Riyadh and Baghdad than the usual calibre of leaders in Washington, London, Berlin and Paris. The tyrants of the Middle East must have cheered Trump’s hostility towards the mainstream media and opposition to democratic institutions. Here was a man with whom they could do business; here was a man who understood their need to supress all opposition and clamp down on press freedom.
Trump, though, was as much a stranger to officials in Washington as he was familiar with despots in the Middle East. Their mistake was to think that Trump’s personal dictator-like characteristics could transform the US government into an absolute dictatorship and shift foreign policy single-handedly. The blockade on Qatar, as I pointed out here, exposed deep divisions within the US administration. The Saudis failed to appreciate the sway that realists in Washington such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis had over the cabal of ideologues and amateur politicians in the White House. Not only was this battle won by the realists in the administration, but Tillerson and Mattis also successfully undermined the blockading countries by leaking US intelligence reports which revealed that the UAE was behind the hacking that started the crisis. More than anything else, the split within the US administration may well be the main reason why Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have reined-in their demands.
The blockade by the GCC clique and their Egyptian client is but the latest in a series of political miscalculations to shake the Middle East. Beginning with the 2003 western invasion of Iraq, which was by far the most disastrous political miscalculation of this or possibly any other generation, the greedy ambitions of wealthy “Little Spartans” wanting to maintain a permanent grip on power has stunted the progress of the region for many years to come.
The hopes of the people across the Middle East must now rest on a new deal between citizens and rulers which tilts the balance of power towards the former. Millions of people have little or no say in how they are governed despite claims that the West is involved in the region to “spread democracy”, and they are paying a high price for the disastrous political moves of their leaders. The very public embarrassment of Saudi Arabia and the UAE exposes really serious regional misfortunes. Genuine political and social changes surely have to be made.