Doha, Qatar. There are some analysts who believe there is more to the Qatari crisis than what meets the eye. For some the pieces moving on the middle eastern chessboard are converging into the material used to build a world war.
Poland 1939, or perhaps Doha in 2017? We could be at a historic moment akin to the Nazi panzers rolling into Poland, which resulted in what became known as the Second World War.
This time, though, the possible clash is between a Saudi-United Arab Emirates force and Iran. Experts are speaking out now saying Washington must act quickly to stop the forces marching to war, rather than wait for the blood to spill across the hot Arab sands.
Caught in the crosshairs of Saudi Arabia and the UAE is Qatar, which has long diverged from the Arab Gulf consensus over Iran. Riyadh and a growing list of Arab countries broke ties Monday with the gas-rich emirate, and Saudi Arabia announced that it had halted permission for Qatari overflights, closed the land border, and banned ships bound for Qatar transiting its waters.
That is a declaration of war by almost any definition. For perspective, the Six-Day War, which occurred 50 years ago this week, was prompted by Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran, thus cutting off Israel’s access to the Red Sea. In this case, the sanctions are far more punitive.
Iran reportedly has announced it will allow Qatar to use three ports to collect the food imports on which the country is dependent — a gesture that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will probably see as only confirming Doha’s far reaching ties with Tehran.
According to the government of Qatar, the official Qatari News Agency was hacked on May 24 and a fake news story was planted quoting Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani as saying, “There is no reason behind Arabs’ hostility to Iran.” The allegedly false report reaffirmed Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, as well as claiming Doha’s relations with Israel were good.
The government-influenced media in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, adopted an alternative narrative, treating the news story as true and responding quickly with a burst of outrage.
Qatar sees itself as a victim of a plot by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which have had a traditionally antagonistic relationship with Doha despite the shared membership of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Riyadh views Qatar, which, like the kingdom, gives Wahhabi Islam a central role as a regional troublemaker.
Doha, which allows women to drive and foreigners to drink alcohol, in turn blames the Saudis for giving Wahhabism a bad name. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi despises Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in the UAE.
Washington can play an important role in defusing this potentially explosive situation. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is arguably well-placed. Exxon-Mobil, where he was CEO before joining the Trump Administration, is the biggest foreign player in Qatar’s energy sector, so he presumably knows the main decision-makers well. The world must now hold its breath with wars pending in Korea, Qatar, Ukraine and Syria, one can again hear the panzers engines starting in the distance.