The chief beneficiaries of the ongoing rift between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are the Ayatollahs in Iran, a senior political analyst told The Middle East magazine this week.
Just 10 days after President Donald Trump called on Muslim countries to stand united against Iran, a public feud between Qatar and some of its Gulf Arab neighbours, most notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is jolting his attempt to tip the regional balance of power against Tehran.
The crisis erupted after remarks were attributed to the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in which he expressed support for alliance with Iran and criticised efforts to isolate its government in Tehran. The remarks were swiftly denied by the Qatari authorities, who claimed their news agency had been hacked.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to be outraged by what they regard as Qatar’s conciliatory line on Iran, and its support for Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, which they regard as a dangerous political enemy.
A new geopolitical settlement has emerged in the Middle East since the 2011 Arab uprisings, observed political commentator Hassan Hassan, in The National.
The countries of the region can be divided into two camps: one that seeks to advance its foreign interests through the support of Islamists, and one whose foreign policy is guided by opposition to the rise of Islamists.
Before 2011, the US referred to countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt as the moderate states. They had a pragmatic outlook towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, unlike the dogmatic position of countries like Iran and Syria. After 2011 however, those countries took on deeper roles. Events in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria compelled governments to take specific positions as they were pounded by the political and religious waves that swept the region.
Iran, was no longer able to sustain its old position of presenting itself as having a cross-sectarian agenda against Israel, working with Shia and Sunni Islamists to advance the Palestinian cause. Instead, it was forced to adopt a narrower policy, defined by attempts to maintain or expand its reach through Shia militias.
Qatar and Turkey also put many of their eggs in the Islamist basket. In Syria, they supported some of the most extremist forces in the conflict. They also took the side of Islamists in the Libyan conflict, and backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere.
The conflicts in Libya and Syria, for example, could be explained through the prism of support or opposition to Islamists, as could other conflicts in the region today.
A UAE minister entered the fray when he warned recently that the alliance of Gulf Arab states was facing a major crisis and, he noted, there was an urgent need to rebuild trust. Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, made his comments on Twitter.
“The Gulf Cooperation Council countries are passing through a new sharp crisis that carries within it a great danger,” Gargash noted. “Fending off sedition lies in changing behaviour, building trust and regaining credibility”.
This is not the first sign of a rift between the main protagonists of the current feud. Ties between Qatar and some of its GCC allies suffered an eight-month breakdown in 2014 over Qatar’s alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood. At that time, Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, although they returned after less than a year.
The 2014 rift ended after what diplomats said at the time was a promise by Qatar to the UAE that the Muslim Brotherhood would not be allowed to operate from the country.
The current spat shows no sign of abating, raising the prospect of a long breach between Doha and its closest allies that could have repercussions around the Middle East.
“The GCC could harm it own interests in this fight and is at risk of becoming more vulnerable to Iranian encroachment,” said a Western diplomat based in Doha.
This article acknowledges input from Reuters news agency, The National and Gulf Business magazine