Diplomatic crisis in the Gulf: old hostilities and new dangers

 

One month after the outbreak of the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf and in the wake of Qatar’s rejection of Saudi demands, it is more than ever imperative to understand the relations that have been historically linking the Peninsula’s countries one with the other and one against the other

 

One month ago, just a few days after Trump’s visit to the Middle East reconsolidated the Washington-Riyadh relationship, several Arab countries severed their diplomatic ties with Qatar; closed all maritime, land and sea links with Doha; and expelled all Qataris residing within their borders. Among those countries, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt stand particularly out – both for their geopolitical importance and for the major role they have been playing in pulling the strings that have led to the crisis that is currently paralyzing the Gulf.

Riyadh and the Arab countries that followed its steps motivated their move through a series of accusation against Doha according to which the latter would have supported groups such as Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas while also maintaining cooperative and cordial ties with Iran – Saudi Arabia’s nemesis.

Faced with the rejection of all accusations on part of Doha and with the support it found in Turkey, Iran and –though with more softer tones- Kuwait and Oman, the “group of four” has proceeded two weeks later to present to Qatar a series of 13 measures with which it was expected to comply within 10 days in order to end the crisis and its isolation within the GCC.

As of today, with Monday’s deadline now passed, Doha has denounced the Saudi requests (that go from the interruption of all links with those groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that Riyadh labels as terrorist, to the cessation of any cordial relation with Iran, to the shutting down of the network al Jazeera, to the closure of a Turkish military base in Qatar) as unacceptable and a threat to Qatar’s sovereignty. This refusal on part of Doha seems thus to disappoint the hopes of those who had believed in the possibility of a swift end to what has emerged as the worst diplomatic crisis ever in the Gulf region.

On the background of a crisis of such seriousness that not only has no precedents but that also has the potential to change drastically the balances within the GCC and the Arab-Sunni sphere, it becomes fundamental to understand the relationships that have historically defined friendships and hostilities in the Arabic Peninsula and how they are now reflecting on the current events.

Historically, Qatar has characterized itself as the Gulf country with the most autonomous foreign policy with respect to the general line traced by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and followed by the other members of the Council. Indeed, it has always maintained cordial relations with Iran; it has hosted members of the Brotherhood when they were expelled from Sisi’s Egypt, as well as leader of Hamas and representatives of those fringe of the Afghan Taliban open to dialogue with Kabul; it has supported Hamas and its government over Gaza; it has let Al Jazeera become in 2011 a channel of support for the values and the demands that were igniting the Arab Spring and that many fears were causing instead in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain.

It thus emerges how Qatar, with respect to the other Arab-Sunni countries of the peninsula, is a sui generis actor. Interestingly, despite Qatar’s attempts to conjugate its autonomous choices of foreign policy with the necessity to conform with the line dominating within the GCC, this has not been enough to placate the hostility towards Doha on part of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, that has indeed translated into diplomatic tensions more than once.

For Saudi Arabia, in particular, it is the Iran factor to be crucial. Since 2011, with the collapse of traditional regimes in the Middle East and the breaking out of brutal civil wars that have exacerbated the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, Iran has found room –in Syria, Yemen and Iraq- to assert itself as major regional actor with whom nor its Sunni rivals nor the west could refrain from dealing. This ascent on part of Iran has caused several worries in Riyadh, that has had to cope both with the economic difficulties caused by the drop in the global price of oil and with the threats to security caused by the war in Yemen, by a Shiite population calling for ever more rights, and from a weakening of the ties with Washington under Obama. In this context, it has become crucial for Riyadh to maintain its credibility as major power by asserting its role as regional hegemon vis-à-vis Iran, and it is in the optic of this tough rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia that the isolation imposed by the latter against Qatar needs to be read.

On their part, the UAE seem to be less obsessed with the Iranian nightmare that bothers Riyadh’s sleep and seem rather to put more emphasis on the necessity for Qatar to cut all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and all the other Islamist groups of the region. Abu Dhabi, in fact, sees those groups as a dangerous destabilizing force and as a serious threat to the sustainability of the regional and peninsular status quo on which its foreign policy and its alliances rest. To this, it is then to be added how the UAE hope that the isolation –and therefore the diplomatic weakening- of Qatar can induce the US to transfer to its country the military base it actually has in Qatar.

The UAE’s fears regarding the support provided by Doha to Islamist groups active in the region is also shared by Bahrain and Egypt. Since February 2011, when the Arab spring’s protests engulfed the streets of Manama and threatened the stability of the al-Khalifa family, Bahrain is a strenuous defender of the status quo that the Islamist groups close to Doha seem willing to upset in the name of their political programs of reformism.

A similar concern is found in Cairo: here, since the coup that led Sisi to power in 2013, there has been a tough repression against the Brotherhood and any group connected to them and the government is engaged in a daily fight with Islamist-inspired groups that threaten the country’s security in less centralized areas such as the Sinai Peninsula. Moreover, the tough financial difficulties of the past years have contributed to consolidating the ties between Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as the gulf countries have provided Egypt with substantial financial aid.

Conversely, Oman and Kuwait have historically played the role of mediators between Qatar –with whom they maintain friendly relations- and the other members of the GCC. Like Qatar, in fact, they have maintained mostly cordial relations with Iran and they similarly believe in the importance of inserting the enhancement of the Gulf-Iran relations in the broader framework of the fight against terrorism and regional instability. Like Doha, then, they have deep ties with Teheran in the field of energy: Oman has been planning for some time to begin importing Iranian gas through a pipeline connecting the Iranian province of Hormuzgan with Sohar, and Kuwait also seems to have recently initiated negotiations with Iran to import its gas.

The crisis that is interesting the Gulf is thus taking place on the background of pre-existing tensions and rivalries that the latest events have not but exacerbated. Because of the longtime nature of these tensions, making predications on what might be the consequences if Qatar and its four neighbors did not find a common line of agreement is extremely difficult. The only assertion that can be made with certainty –and with preoccupation- is that, if an agreement is not reached, the dynamics that have existed in the region until now would be upset and the regional security further compromised.

The lesson Bahrain (and others) should learn from Iraq

The role played by Maliki’s sectarian policy in leading Iraq to chaos should warn against the risks of sectarianism, and leave no doubt on the advantages that integration brings to both populations’ security and governments’ stability

The Arab Spring – occurrence that has changed forever our perception of the Middle East, of Islamism and perhaps of democracy itself – first reached Bahrain on 14th February 2011, when the capital’s streets got crowded by Bahraini Shias and Sunnis asking for greater political rights and freedoms. They were advancing those demands in one voice – testimony of how the Sunni-Shia divide is not always and not everywhere a clear-cut line of separation and hostility.

But those days were to be for Bahrain the last in which a single Sunni-Shia voice could be heard, the last in which being and feeling Bahraini came before being and feeling Sunni or Shia.

Such shifts in the perception of one’s identity are generally the consequence of some external pressure, and Bahrain made no exception. With protests going on and demands for change becoming more pressing, the country’s regime did what all non-democratic and non-liberal regimes do: ignore people’s demands, try to break the opposition’s cohesion putting one group against the other, and create the justification for a crackdown. In the specific, Bahrain’s government did so by denying that those protests were national and political (as they actually were) and tagging them instead as sectarian and religious. More precisely, as Iran-backed Shia uprisings. In this way, not only did the government create among Sunnis a certain suspicion against Shia protesters, but also justified the perseveration of its anti-Shia policy.

The al-Khalifa regime’s discrimination towards Shias (who though making up 70% of the population occupy no relevant positions) is indeed nothing new: it has always tried to marginalize them – economically, politically and socially – by encouraging conversions to Sunni Islam; by rigging elections in favor of Sunni candidates; by fuelling anti-Shia propaganda; and by preventing Shia professionals from holding high level positions. Since 2011 on, though, not only have all those measures intensified, but also new ones have been adopted – among which the most infamous and worrying is undoubtedly the control of citizenships. It means in fact that the government has the power to revoke Bahraini citizenship to those Shias (159 since 2012, and 128 in 2015 alone) accused of radicalism, terrorism, or of being Iran supporters, and to give instead Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis coming from various Arab countries – hoping to alter in this way the country’s demographics.

No surprise, then, that such a sectarian policy has exacerbated sectarian divisions within Bahrain. On the one hand, in fact, there is the Sunni minority that – increasingly suspicious of the Shias due to the government’s propaganda – fears their aim is to shape Bahrain on the Iranian model. Such a government-inducted fear has led many Sunnis to adopt an ever tougher stance towards non-Sunni compatriots and to support the government’s sectarianism – seen by many as the only way to avoid that the ayatollah’s influence reach Manama. On the other hand, there is the Shia majority, that feels (not without reasons) increasingly oppressed and discriminated against. Such a feeling of oppression and marginalization has led to the emerging of new Shia groups that no longer consider effective moderate stances and look for more aggressive actions – something that, in a vicious spiral, contributes to make Sunnis even more suspicious and unsympathetic towards Shias.

Such status quo has over the last years been strengthening the Sunnis’ position at the expense of Shias:

power, influence, wealth, opportunities and jobs mainly belong to Sunnis, and even those Shias who have managed to build themselves a career tend to be marginalized. So why should the regime change its policy and why should Sunnis want to share their privileges with Shias?

Not too far from Bahrain’s shores lies Iraq. If the al-Khalifa family stopped for a moment its anti-Shia senseless obsession and paid attention to Iraq’s tragic last years, it could realize how it was precisely Baghdad’s sectarian policy that dragged the country into a mortal vortex so serious, that it is now rising doubts on Iraq’s possibility to survive as united entity in the map of the Middle East.

Survived the destruction and death sewn by internal terrorist groups, and survived the brutal war triggered by OIF, what eventually condemned Iraq to disintegration was paradoxically (though not surprisingly) the element that had worried the least the international community: Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian agenda. It was indeed his sectarian approach to government – that finds a worrying reflection in al-Khalifa’s current rule over Bahrain –  that inevitably created an internal axis of division that spread outrage among the Sunni population, put into question the legitimacy of the government in Baghdad, and created a fertile soil of resentment that a terrorist group like ISIS could easily exploit to gain support.

Instead of using his powers to lead Iraq towards a future of democratic stability, to bring peace to an Iraqi population prostrated by years of war, and to create a climate of trust in the government, Maliki made the mistake of focusing on the short-term only. He failed to understand that if he wanted to hold on power and to create a permanent favorable environment for Shias, the only option was to build an open, inclusive, and legitimate political system. Through sectarianism, in fact, he only obtained short-term gains: he strengthened his own power and that of the Shia community but at the same time – through that same policy – he created the conditions and ignited the forces that would make the whole system collapse.

Had he paid more attention to the long-term, he would have made his government a credible institution (instead of a source of social disruption) and would have made Iraq a secure country (instead of a prey for terrorists).

Now al-Maliki is gone and Iraq is hoping to shred off his legacy.

But al-Maliki’s mistakes are not an isolated case, as they are shared by many regimes who lack a rational, long-term lecture of what the political and social reality is, and of how it tends to develop and react.

Al-Maliki’s mistakes are indeed the same that, made by Hadi, contributed to lead Yemen’s Houthi-Sunni divide to reach the point of non-return. And they are the same mistakes that are now threatening Bahrain.

But Bahrain can still learn from Iraq’s collapse and realize how integration is critical for everyone’s survival (even for those who today seem the strongest). If Shias are integrated in the country’s social, political and economic life in the same way – and to the same extent – Sunnis are, then Bahrain can not only enjoy stability and security but also retrieve and strengthen its national identity. And this feeling of being a nation, of being a same entity within the same reality, is the most powerful means a country has to save itself from mortal divisions.

It’s time for Middle East’s regimes to face the reality that sectarianism – like the mermaids who with their melodious chants attracted Ulysses’s companions just to eventually kill them – gives the illusion of power but is actually nothing more than an open door to civil war.