It’s probably safe to say that the early “winner” in the spat between Qatar and the Saudis is Iran.
And you know that’s gotta piss Riyadh off because the whole point of this was to punish Doha for adopting a conciliatory stance toward the Iranians and, more generally, to rein in what the Sunni community increasingly views as a kind of rogue entity. Here’s a useful recap from Bloomberg:
Saudi Arabia’s isolation of Qatar has been brewing since 1995, and the dispute’s long past and likely lingering future are best explained by natural gas.
Not only was that the year when the father of the current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, toppled his own pro-Saudi father, it was also when the tiny desert peninsula was about to make its first shipment of liquid natural gas from the world’s largest reservoir. The offshore North Field, which provides virtually all of Qatar’s gas, is shared with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s hated rival.
The wealth that followed turned Qatar into not just the world’s richest nation, with an annual per-capita income of $130,000, but also the world’s largest LNG exporter. The focus on gas set it apart from its oil producing neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council and allowed it to break from domination by Saudi Arabia, which in Monday’s statement of complaint described Qataris as an “extension of their brethren in the Kingdom” as it cut off diplomatic relations and closed the border.
Instead, Qatar built its own ties with other powers including Iran, the U.S. — Qatar hosts U.S. Central Command — and more recently, Russia. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund agreed last year to invest $2.7 billion in Russia’s state-run Rosneft Oil Co. PJSC.
“Qatar used to be a kind of Saudi vassal state, but it used the autonomy that its gas wealth created to carve out an independent role for itself,” said Jim Krane, energy research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, in Houston, Texas. “The rest of the region has been looking for an opportunity to clip Qatar’s wings.”
Qatar gas wealth enabled it to develop foreign policies that came to irritate its neighbors. It backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and armed factions opposed by the UAE or Saudi Arabia in Libya and Syria. Gas also paid for a global television network, Al Jazeera, which at various times has embarrassed or angered most Middle Eastern governments.
If you followed along on Monday, you know that on a certain level this whole thing is laughably absurd. It borders on being farcical. Although rest assured that from the perspective of the Sunni community, there’s nothing funny about it.
But to those of us with a penchant for lampooning the ridiculous, this story has a lot of comedic value. Indeed, if you didn’t know anything about the sectarian divide, you’d probably be inclined to think you were reading a movie script.
There’s Kata’ib Hezbollah (which reports directly to the Quds) kidnapping a Qatari falconry party in Iraq in order to help secure the release of Shia militants in Syria who were previously kidnapped by al-Qaeda-linked rebels.
That story becomes even sillier when you consider that the hunting group was snatched in December of 2015, which means Iran was holding them for more than a year, as Doha and Tehran tried to figure out how to mask a ransom payment so it wouldn’t be abundantly clear to the Saudis that Qatar handed over money to the Iranians.
Finally, Tehran and Doha found the cover they needed in the “Four Towns Agreement” which is itself a kind of tragicomedy involving offsetting evacuations that in the final analysis accomplish absolutely nothing other than creating more human suffering in Syria.
And then there’s the patently ridiculous hacking episode that unfolded late last month, the details of which add yet another layer of absurdity to the whole thing.
Meanwhile, Qatar is trying to figure out how to cope with the fallout which included some rather harrowing declines in financial assets.
Iran has the luxury of watching the whole thing unfold from the sidelines. 24 hours later, they’re taking advantage of an opportunity to curry favor in Doha. Consider these headlines out this morning from Bloomberg:
- Iran Opens Up 150 New Air Routes to Help Qatar: Payam Radio
- State-run Airports & Air Fleet Co. of Iran has made preparations to receive an additional 100-150 flights from Qatar amid dispute between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbors, Rahmatullah Mahabadi, co.’s managing director, says in Payam Radio broadcast.
- Step is intended to help resolve Qatar’s air-traffic difficulties, took effect on Tuesday at 4:30am local time
- Iran Can Supply Meat to Biscuits to Qatar: Fars News
- Iran is in a good position for the supply of red and white meat, dairy, eggs, fruit, vegetables, bread and biscuits, Kaveh Zargaran, head of the agriculture committee of Tehran’s chamber of commerce tells Fars news agency Tuesday.
- “Iran needs to use this opportunity to export food products to Qatar”
Jokes aside, it’s very clear what Iran is after here and apparently, “differences” (that’s the understatement of the year) with regard to the fate of the Assad regime in Syria aren’t going to stop Tehran from seizing this opportunity.
“Iran seems to be willing to forget the difficulties in the past years and help Qatar,” Foad Izadi, a member of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran said Tuesday, adding that the “Qataris now depend on Iran to survive with regards to air corridors and shipping lanes.”
“Whether this new attempt is going to create a new direction for Qatar, we don’t know yet,” Izadi continued, before concluding that “yesterday and today, Iran and Qatar’s relations are much stronger than last week.”
So, this appears to be backfiring for the Saudis – at least in the short-term.
And the timing couldn’t be worse. The last thing Riyadh needs right now is one less Sunni ally as Iran moves aggressively to reinforce the Shiite crescent.