What will come of the Saudi-Qatari feud?

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Qatar's Foreign Minister, Chalid al-Atija (L) holds a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif on February 26, 2014 in Tehran. (Photo: AFP-Atta Kenare)

By: Nahed Hattar

Published Friday, March 14, 2014

The nearly 100-year-old tribal struggle between Al- Saud dynasty from Anza and Al- Thani dynasty from Tamim in the region of Najd in the Arabian Peninsula, has become part of the fault line strategic axis of the world’s politics. This is not due to either tribe’s cunning, but rather due to their three greatest assets: energy, religion and terrorism.

Saudi Arabia is seeking to isolate Qatar in both the domestic and international arena, and is now going after the very tool that the small Gulf monarchy uses to interfere in other states: the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, the Saudis have been launching a vicious attack against Qatar but we are only aware of what is being circulated in public. Meanwhile, Riyadh has other measures on its agenda. Secretly, Qatari interests are being threatened in Saudi Arabia and the conflict might even result in a military clash.

However, Qataris control their own terrorist networks, and they would no doubt respond to Saudi interests in Syria, or even in Dubai. Maybe they would even strike in Saudi Arabia itself, by giving a political and media cover to the Shia opposition.

Of course, this clash between the two Wahabi strongholds would be in the best interest of the Arab and Islamic world. Syrian blood will not be shed in vain, and the resistance axis won’t have to face Saudi-Qatari terrorism as the two sides will destroy each other in an inevitable war.

Over a century ago, British rule opposed the Saudi demand of annexing Qatar on the grounds that it was part of al-Ahsa. Tense relations between the two countries remained, and Riyadh still considers Qatar as a separatist region and the ruling al-Thani dynasty as subjects who dared to rebel against the Saudi crown. Meanwhile, al-Thani members believe they are worthy of challenging Riyadh. Geography, demography, and religious and political statuses are all worthless when it comes to the tribal world.

Regardless of the political and historical background of the feud, Qatar, a small country with a tiny population but massive wealth, adopted a successful strategy to protect itself and to strengthen its position globally. It sought to occupy the media through television and the Internet, attracting hundreds of Arab intellectuals, journalists and technicians. Thousands of the Arab elite seeking a platform to express their minds found one in Al-Jazeera, and they were soon being co-opted into the Qatari project. However, Doha did not settle for just being known as a news hub, it sought to own a political organization with regional and international affiliations.

As Gulf residents are used to buying their goods ready to use, Qataris bought a deep rooted organization that only needed a headquarters, a platform, and funding. Hence, Qatar took over the Muslim Brotherhood.

It was all working as planned up until the Arab Spring. Qatar was able to penetrate the Arab world via the media and politics, and was well accepted by regional parties. It had good relations with the Syrian-Iranian alliance and with Israel, with Iran and with Turkey; it seemed too good to be true. However, Qatar fell victim to its own success story; it moved from its self-protection strategy to a strategy seeking to control the Arab world

If Qatar had settled for its successes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, it could have preserved its position and strengthened its role in the Arab world, but it thought it could keep playing the Arab Spring game in Syria despite the destruction and the bloodshed. Unfortunately for Qatar, it had miscalculated.

Qatar put terrorist networks under its wing in Syria, it allied with Turkey in a vicious war against the Syrian people. For a while, Qatar controlled the war in Syria and used all its cards, including its most precious one, Hamas. It pulled the movement out from the resistance axis and into the fight in Syria.

Such a loss in Syria tipped the scales of the regional balance. The Muslim Brotherhood fell in Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and even lost some of its power in Turkey. And as the Qatari project regressed, the Americans were displeased with their expanding influence. Meanwhile, the Saudis took the lead after the former emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa, and Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem retreated from power, as a sign of Qatari defeat.

The Saudis launched a series of initiatives. First was the formation of a Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini, Jordanian alliance. The second was showering the new Egyptian military regime with money, political and media support against the Muslim Brotherhood. The third was renewing the war in Syria through the reformation of terrorist groups and providing all factions that obey Saudi Arabia with political support, training, funding, and arms. And the final initiative was working on two levels in Lebanon; a terrorist one that targets Hezbollah and Iranian interests, and a political one that blackmails parties in order to keep the Future Movement afloat while attempting to break through the March 8 front.

Saudi Arabia’s remaining problem concerns its relations with the Obama administration. Riyadh’s obvious and almost public ties with Islamic terrorist groups crossed a red line set by the United States. And amid the US- Iranian rapprochement over the nuclear understanding and other critical regional issues, Saudi Arabia felt isolated. In the summer of 2013, Saudi Arabia was betting on a US air-strike on Syria that would topple the Assad regime. The kingdom was shocked with the US-Russian agreement stipulating that the Syrian regime destroy its arsenal of chemical weapons, sparing Washington a war it didn’t want it in the first place.

Facing a Russian- Iranian- Syrian challenge, as well as US pressures and Qatari alertness to take over its role, Saudi Arabia made three strategic choices. First, Saudi Arabia has been coordinating with Israel in Syria and for a possible confrontation with Iran. Second, Saudi sought to exercise full control over the Syrian opposition outside Syria and the militant groups on the ground. Saudi detached itself from groups that are not under its complete control by designating them as terrorist organizations. And finally, the kingdom has been using revolving door policy when it comes to terrorism; denouncing it and supporting it at the same time to bring down both the Syrian and Iraqi regimes based on sectarian mobilization, as the two regimes are Iranian allies.

Saudi Arabia announced new political initiatives that would pave the way to renew the Saudi- US alliance during the coming visit of President Barack Obama amid regional and international changes. Saudi Arabia restricted its citizens from fighting in Syria or any other country- without taking any measures on the ground- and put an end to all takfiri incitement inside the kingdom while designating some factions as terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front.

The designation was a smart move by Saudi Arabia in its conflict against al-Thani dynasty. Meanwhile, if the Saudis reach a broader understanding with Obama during his visit, Qatar should expect further decisive moves from the kingdom. Interestingly, the Qatari response would only come from the country where Doha made its first mistake; Syria. The normalization of Qatari-Syrian relations is the only way to build an understanding with Moscow and Tehran.

Indeed, Qatar is attempting to mend ties with Assad is now receiving a warm reception in Damascus. In the coming days, Qatari communications with the resistance axis parties will intensify and we may witness some changes on the ground, through the announcement of a Qatari-Turkish retreat from Syria which would pave the way for further reconciliations. The release of the nuns in Yabroud revealed that some factions are still loyal to Qatar. Will a reconciliation take place in Yabroud? Will it pave the way for an understanding between the resistance axis and Qatar? Time will tell.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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