16 July 2019
Heavily reliant on food imports from Gulf countries, Qatari shoppers rush to buy essentials following the blockade led by Saudi Arabia. Photo: thesundaily
Heavily reliant on food imports from Gulf countries, Qatari shoppers rush to buy essentials following the blockade led by Saudi Arabia. Photo: thesundaily

Why did Saudi Arabia want to punish Qatar so badly?

Recently, there has been an unrelenting thunderstorm within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the Middle East, with its leading members Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain suddenly breaking off diplomatic relations with Qatar, one of the richest countries on earth.

And it just got worse. Shortly afterwards, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and even Maldives followed suit and cut off ties with Qatar, leading to the worst diplomatic crisis to hit Gulf Arab states since the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1991. And the tiny state of Qatar is now virtually being blockaded by its Arab neighbors on land, on sea and in the air.

On the surface, the reason Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies are suddenly ganging up on Qatar is that, according to their accusations, the country has been sponsoring terrorist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Hamas and Hezbollah. And their accusations were also endorsed by US President Donald Trump on Twitter.

However, as a matter of fact, perhaps all international relations experts or diplomats specializing on the Middle East know perfectly well that it is actually the pot calling the kettle black when the Saudis accused Qatar of supporting terrorism.

It is because everybody knows Saudi Arabia itself has remained the biggest sponsor of Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East over the years, not to mention the fact that many jihadists are Saudi nationals, and that Riyadh has secret and complicated links with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

As such, accusing Qatar of sponsoring terrorism and destabilizing the region is in fact just a pretext by Saudi Arabia to serve its hidden diplomatic agenda. So what is the true motive behind Riyadh’s relentless diplomatic onslaught against Qatar?

The answer is, Saudi Arabia has long regarded Qatar as a pain in the neck and a defiant little neighbor and badly looking forward to teaching it a lesson and putting it in its place.

And the unpredictability in international politics brought about by Trump and the currently warm relations between Washington and Riyadh have just offered the Saudis a golden opportunity to mount a full court press against Qatar and bring it to its knees.

And the No.1 reason Saudi Arabia dislikes Qatar so intensely is the tiny country’s close relations with Iran. As we all know, Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Sunnis whereas Iran commands the Shia Muslims, and the two countries have been competing for regional leadership and seeing each other as nemesis for decades.

The fact that Qatar, which is located on a tiny peninsula that shares its only land border with Saudi Arabia, has close economic ties with Tehran and has taken sides with it on several issues in the past has aroused deep suspicions among Saudi leaders who cannot tolerate the presence of a close Iran ally right on its doorstep.

The second factor that gives rise to the bad blood between Saudi Arabia and Qatar stems from the fact that during the Arab Spring in 2011, the Saudis and their allies supported Egyptian military strongmen like Hosni Mubarak and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

However, Qatar refused to toe Riyadh’s line and endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood instead, which is regarded by the Saudis as a group of terrorists and a potentially subversive force due to its opposition to Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s national religious sect, and its tough stance against the extravagant Saudi monarchy.

Last but not least, the Al Jazeera TV network sponsored by the Qatar government, which is probably the most libertarian media outlet in the region, succeeded in swinging public opinion both within the Arab world and in the international community in favor of the opposition by portraying anti-government groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as “the embodiment of democratic spirit”.

Worse still, the Al Jazeera network has become one of the most vocal critics of the autocratic rule and human rights record of Saudi Arabia in the Arab world in recent years. And Riyadh strongly suspects that the Qatar government is behind such anti-Saudi propaganda.

The recent all-out diplomatic onslaught against Qatar indeed can be seen as an international debut of the new generation of leaders of the Saudi royal family, who are a lot more combative than their elders and won’t hesitate to go to extremes to subdue their foreign rivals.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 13

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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