The row between Qatar and the other Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain has been the worst flare up in relations among the US-backed oil and gas monarchies going back many years.
All of the energy-rich sheikhdoms are American allies, or more accurately, client regimes. The prolonged rift in which the Saudi-led bloc was supported by Egypt and a few other Arab nations was at the same time posing a danger to American strategic interests in the vital region.
On June 5, Saudi Arabia and the others announced that they were cutting off trade, transport and diplomatic links with Qatar – the fabulously wealthy tiny gas-rich Arab Peninsular state which shares a land border with Saudi. The Saudi-led bloc ostensibly accused Qatar of “supporting terrorism” and being too friendly with Iran, the Shia power to the north which is viewed as an enemy by the mainly Sunni Gulf Arab states.
The Qatari monarch, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, who owns the Doha-based Al Jazeera news network, was also accused of meddling in the internal affairs of Arab neighbors and inciting instability.
The bombastic allegations reeked of grandstanding and hypocrisy. So when the Saudi-led camp imposed a stringent list of 13 demands and a deadline of June 23 for compliance, the Qataris simply ignored the ultimatum.
One of those demands was for Qatar to shutter the Al Jazeera channel. That was as outrageous as it was preposterous. Al Jazeera is a respected news service with an international recognition, unlike any of the media based in its Arab rivals. To call for its closure betrayed the despotic nature of Saudi Arabia and the others.
The standoff in the Gulf was acutely discomfiting for Washington. Its association with despotic regimes was coming under sharper focus than ever.
But not only that. The Americans rely on Qatari territory for its main military base serving the entire Middle East. It is where the American Central Command is headquartered. The airbase at al Udeid, where 10,000 troops are stationed, is the hub for US air strikes in Iraq and Syria, and the coordinating center for wider operations, from Afghanistan to Yemen.
For the Gulf row to spiral into a crisis – as it was threatening to do given the intransigence on both sides – was viewed with deepening apprehension in Washington. America’s strategic position in the energy-rich region is predicated on unity between the Sunni kingdoms. At stake is US military projection, the global petrodollar monetary system and excluding Iran from capitalizing on any political schisms.
US President Donald Trump blundered into region when he initially backed the Saudi-led bloc in its dubious claims against Qatar. Trump singled out Qatar as a “sponsor of terrorism” and appeared to take credit for green lighting its isolation during his official visit to Saudi Arabia on May 20-22.
It appears that Trump went rogue on his own State Department. Because ever since the Gulf erupted, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been at pains to defuse the crisis. Last week, Tillerson was engaged in shuttle diplomacy, flying between Qatar and Saudi Arabia to get the two sides to bury the hatchet. His efforts were in vain, as Qatar refused to bend the knee for its neighbors.
Within days of Tillerson returning to Washington having failed to resolve the Gulf dispute, the US media started cranking out a series of damaging stories on the Saudi rulers and their Gulf allies.
Among of the stories this week receiving prominent American news coverage was the arrest of a young Saudi woman wearing a miniskirt. She was seen in a video strolling through a remote Saudi village donning a short skirt and a cropped top bearing her mid-riff. The video went viral on social media, and the hapless young female was subsequently arrested by the Saudi religious police in the hyper-conservative kingdom, where women are forbidden to show flesh. All the US media majors went big on the story. The young lady was promptly released from custody without charge.
Then there was the story of a Saudi university student facing execution by beheading because he allegedly participated in anti-government protests. Mujtaba’a Al Sweikat was due to go to Western Michigan University in the US, but he has spent the last five years in a Saudi jail. Newsweek reported this week that President Trump is being implored by the American Federation of Teachers to intervene in order to spare the student from a grisly death penalty.
Another juicy read was about palace intrigues in the House of Saud, as reported by the New York Times. From that account, it appears that the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ousted the previous incumbent in a soft coup last month. It also appears that the sidelined prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, has been placed under house arrest to prevent a counter-coup. Evidently, from the oblique references to sources, the NY Times relied on the CIA for much of its claims, whose net effect is to undermine the Saudi authorities.
But the big story this week to hit the Saudis was the claim from US intelligence agencies about the hacking of fake news in the Gulf. The story was given prominence by the Washington Post and in a follow-up by the NBC outlet.
American intelligence came out to effectively back Qatar’s side in the row with the other Gulf states. The US assessed that the official Qatar News Agency website was hacked by “the government of United Arab Emirates” on May 24, which sparked the whole stand-off in the first place.
That hack planted fake news on the QNA site in which the Qatari ruler purportedly praised Iran as an “Islamic power” and voiced support for the Palestinian resistance group Hamas. At the time, Qatar promptly pulled the apparent news items and declared them to be the result of a malicious hack.
However, the Saudis and UAE flagged up what they claimed was Qatar’s transgression. The following week, the Saudis and their allies imposed the blockade on Qatar and have tried to exploit the standoff by issuing stringent demands, notably the shut-down of Al Jazeera.
Well, lo and behold, following the slew of bad news stories out of the US concerning the Saudi rulers and their Gulf cronies, the impasse seems set for a resolution.
The Saudi-led bloc reportedly made a sudden U-turn on its onerous list of 13 demands on Qatar. Instead, a new list of six watered-down “principles of agreement” has been issued. And guess what, the previous ultimatum for Qatar to shutter Al Jazeera is no longer on the to-do list.
Conveniently for its strategic interests, dishing the dirt on the Saudis has allowed the US to flush the Persian Gulf blockage.