Saudi-UAE campaign to isolate Qatar and Iran puts Muslim nations in a bind

Saudi-UAE campaign to isolate Qatar and Iran puts Muslim nations in a bind

James M. Dorsey

A Saudi and UAE-driven campaign to isolate Qatar, and by extension Iran, puts non-Muslim Arab states in a bind and tests the degree of Saudi soft power garnered over decades of massive spending on the propagation of anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism.

The Saudi-UAE campaign, building on an increasingly vicious cyber and media war against Qatar, kicked into high gear on Monday with the kingdom, the Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt breaking off diplomatic relations and cutting air and sea traffic with Qatar and a 41-nation Saudi-led, Pakistani-commanded military alliance suspending Qatar’s participation in operations in Yemen.

The suspension came a day after Qatar said that six of its soldiers had been wounded in Yemen “while conducting their duties within the Qatari contingent defending the southern borders of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”  

Bahrain blamed Qatar’s “media incitement, support for armed terrorist activities and funding linked to Iranian groups to carry out sabotage and spreading chaos in Bahrain” for its decision.

Bahrain, a majority Shiite nation ruled by a Sunni minority, has blamed Iran for a popular uprising in 2011 that it brutally squashed with the help of Saudi troops and for subsequent intermittent protests and violence.

The Saudi-UAE campaign aims to force non-Arab states to take sides in a four-decades old proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has escalated in recent years and persuade the Trump administration to come down hard on Qatar because of its refusal to join the anti-Iranian Saudi bandwagon and its ties to Islamist and militant groups.

Qatar hosts the sprawling al-Udeid Air Base, the largest US military facility in the Middle East, which is home to the U.S. military’s Central Command and some 10,000 American troops.

Robert Gates, a former US defense secretary and director of central intelligence, warned last week at a Foundation for the Defense of Democracies gathering on Qatar and the Brotherhood that Qatar risked losing its hosting of US forces if it failed to revise its policies. “

The rupture in diplomatic relations and military suspension like the media campaign ignored Qatar’s assertion that its websites had been hacked and treat the report as accurate.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking on the side line of a bilateral meeting with Australian officials in Sydney that was also attended by Defense Secretary James Mattis, appeared to express implicit support for the Saudi-UAE-led move.

Scores of Muslim nations signed up for a military alliance created in 2015 by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman initially to support the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen. The alliance’s purpose was reformulated to counter political violence when it became clear that many Muslim nations, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan were reluctant to become embroiled in what has become for the kingdom a fiasco and public relations disaster.

Non-Arab Muslim nations, insisting that their commitment was to protect the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and to counter political violence, were equally hesitant about being sucked into the kingdom’s all-but-military confrontation with Iran.

The rupture in Arab diplomatic relations with Qatar and military alliance suspension raises the stakes for many non-Arab Muslim nations.  

Pakistan’s diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE initially soured after the Pakistani parliament in 2015 rejected a Saudi request for Pakistani military assistance in Yemen.

The unprecedented decision ultimately left Pakistan with no choice when the kingdom two years later asked it to allow General Raheel Sharif, who had just retired as chief of army staff, to take over the command of the Saudi-led military alliance.

Pakistan, despite insisting that General Sharif would use his position to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has seen violence along its volatile border with Iran increase, relations with the Islamic republic deteriorate, and prompted calls for Pakistan to recall General Sharif.

Similarly, Malaysian Defense Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein announced in March that Malaysia and Qatar were elevating their diplomatic ties by forming a High Level Committee to focus on the structural framework of both countries’ defense institutions.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman visited Qatar last month to further enhance relations with Qatar.

Responding to the rupture in diplomatic relations and the military suspension, sources close to the Malaysian Foreign Ministry said that the government was advising its agencies to remain neutral in the dispute with Qatar. Some sources, however, cautioned that the defense and interior ministries may adopt a more independent approach.