Opinion Op Ed 04 Jan 2019 Mideast in ferment: ...
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi

Mideast in ferment: Riyadh-Doha tussle expands

Published Jan 4, 2019, 1:33 am IST
Updated Jan 4, 2019, 1:33 am IST
Hamas were supple enough to mobilise support from another formidable axis — Iran, Hezbollah and Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin
 Russian President Vladimir Putin

When former Indian ambassadors to Riyadh remember the sophistication and finesse of the Saudi diplomatic style, they are clearly nostalgic about the 40 years of Prince Saud bin Faisal’s stewardship of the kingdom’s foreign office. Flamboyance to the point of farcical theatre was the style of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, particularly after the late King Abdullah entrusted him with the Syrian portfolio, demanding Bashar al-Assad’s head on a platter. What did Bandar not do to obtain that head? Before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Bandar turned up at the Kremlin unannounced and offered Russian President Vladimir Putin the moon if only the Russian strongman could let him walk away with the trophy —Assad’s head. He promised Mr Putin a “terror free” Winter Olympic because jihadi cells in the Caucasus were in his control. Had the story not been leaked by the Kremlin to a Beirut newspaper, the world would never have known Mr Putin’s reply: “We have known for years that terrorists in the region are under your control.”

After Prince Faisal’s departure in 2015 due to illness, the foreign office came down a few notches in prestige under a non-Saud family career diplomat, Adel al Jubeir. On his lean shoulders fell the task of convincing the world’s sceptical chanceries that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was no murderer. Mr Jubeir must have begun to look like the face of a cover-up — hence the change of guard. Ibrahim al Assaf has been appointed the new foreign minister. Mr Jubeir has been demoted — he is now minister of state in the foreign office.


During a visit to Qatar recently, I was struck by the sophistication of Qatari diplomacy: it resembled Prince Faisal’s unflustered style. In fact, in a strife-ridden neighbourhood Qatar exceptionalism today invites jealousy. The May-June 2017 closing of the Saudi land border led to a catastrophic situation. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan severed diplomatic relations, shut down the Al Jazeera channel, and imposed a land, sea and air embargo. But the coordinated effort to bring Qatar to its heels boomeranged on the conspirators. With Metternich-like diplomatic finesse, the Emir, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani (advised by his father), wove a formidable coalition. Just in case Saudi Arabia thought of a military adventure, Turkish troops in brigade strength had taken up pre-emptive positions in Qatar.


The line being enunciated by the strategic community in the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia is too facile to be credible. The Shia-Sunni faultline in the Arab world will subsume the Palestinian issue. This is anathema to the Qatari rulers. A sheikh with direct access to the palace minced no words: “There are two taboos in Qatar — never speak about intra-tribe conflicts and total silence on Shia-Sunni identities.” In the Emir’s framework: “We are all Qataris — period.” So firmly has this line been pursued that it is impossible to know whether Shias are five or 15 per cent of the population. In a country as rich as Qatar, the top three or four businessmen are Shias.


The broad spread of Wahabism in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries has been tempered in Qatar with strands of orthodox Sunni belief, a fact which gives the sheikhdom access to activists of the Akhwan ul Muslimeen, or the Muslim Brotherhood, which holds sway over Hamas in Gaza.

The Brotherhood must be ruing the day they appointed the inept Mohamed Morsi as President of Egypt after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. For that one year of Mr Morsi’s rule, there was a coherent Muslim Brotherhood ring from Egypt, Qatar, Turkey to Hamas. Mr Morsi simply did not have the intellect to consolidate on this game.


Hamas were supple enough to mobilise support from another formidable axis — Iran, Hezbollah and Syria. The paradox was that the Muslim Brotherhood and the ayatollahs in Iran representing two antithetical interpretations of Islam converged on the Palestinian cause. This was cause for alarm for Tel Aviv as well as Riyadh, the latter because the Brothers, like the ayatollahs, are opposed to a monarchy being the keepers of the two holy shrines. Little wonder that the late King Abdullah turned up in Cairo with $8 billion to help Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stabilise himself after Mr Morsi’s ouster. It was important to remove Egypt, a key link in the Brotherhood chain. A similar effort to breach the Iran-led axis, by bringing about a regime change in Syria, had come a cropper despite persistent efforts since 2011. The resilience of Hamas must be broken.


The closer Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman gets to Israeli positions in the region, the more do Qatar’s emirs tap into their own generosity towards the battered economy of Gaza. This goes down well even in today’s relatively desensitised Arab Street. Gaza civil servants were saved from abject penury when the Qataris picked up the entire salary bill for the last month. More is in the pipeline.

While these gestures are lifesaving ones for Hamas, they are sources of annoyance to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority nurses conspiracy theories. Tel Aviv is aware of these transactions, say Palestinian officials, since most of this cash is transferred from Ben Gurion Airport across Israeli territory.


Earlier, the United States sent $840 million to Hamas annually. But an essential part of Trumpism is to invite regional players to chip in for problems in their neighbourhood. The recent talk of the President’s son-in-law, Jarred Kushner, of “Palestinian misery” is designed to invite the oil-rich sheikhdoms to loosen their purse strings. By harping on this narrative, the Palestinian Authority is suggesting that Qatari generosity towards Gaza is at Washington’s and Israel’s bidding. This narrative reinforces that it was at American behest that Qatar opened an office for the Taliban in Doha as a channel for dialogue. And as a recent report suggests, this channel is the active one on which hope hinges for progress in Afghanistan.


This must raise jealousies in Riyadh. Who knows by 2022 when the universe will be riveted on the Fifa World Cup in Qatar, Khashoggi, like Banquo’s ghost, will continue to haunt MBS, possibly to the bitter end.