The confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which currently takes the form of an embargo and the severing of diplomatic relations with Qatar by governments from Egypt to the United Arab Emirates, might be the result of a strictly local genital-measuring contest between two ambitious young men in rival royal families feeling their oats: The 37-year-old Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is the youngest reigning monarch in the Gulf Cooperation Council and has held power only since 2013, while 31-year-old Mohammad bin Salman was named the Saudi crown prince only a week ago.
But it might well be something more.
Qatar is a tiny country with no real military and a population smaller than Brooklyn’s. It sits atop one the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, accounting for nearly 15 percent of all known supplies. It has long maintained a “third way” foreign-relations stance, negotiating for itself a delicate position as neither a satellite of Iran, a fellow natural-gas power, nor a supplicant to the giant next door, Saudi Arabia, with which it shares the Arabic language and the Sunni religion. The Saudis, for their part, are not quite sure they think Qatar is a real country, and they have over the years disputed the borders drawn up under British rule. In 1992, Saudi troops went into Qatar and occupied a border post at al-Khafus.
If you are wondering what is on the mind of the powers in Doha, consider that a few years ago Qatar reinstated military conscription and that its military exercises consist of preparing for a single scenario: troops pouring in down the highway from Saudi Arabia.
The public cause of the standoff between the Saudi-dominated Gulf states and Qatar is an incendiary, pro-Iran speech made by the Qatari emir during a graduation ceremony at a military academy, which was later published on an official government website. The Qataris say the document on the website was placed there by hackers, and they deny that the emir made the remarks attributed to him. A senior Qatari government official who attended the graduation in question says that not only did the emir not make the remarks, he did not in fact attend the ceremony at all.
But the Qataris have from time to time smiled in the direction of Tehran when doing so frustrated Riyadh. Qatar and Iran share exploration rights to gas fields in the Gulf. For their part, the Iranians have gone so far as to offer to sign a mutual-defense pact with Qatar, which would of course bring Iran closer to the confrontation with Saudi Arabia that some in Tehran believe is inevitable. For the moment, there are no Iranian forces in Qatar.
There are, however, at least 5,000 Turkish troops.
When the Saudi-organized coalition decided to blockade Qatar — a move that has left officials at the U.S. State Department describing themselves as “mystified” — the immediate problem was food. Qatar imports about half of its food from Saudi Arabia. Food disappeared from store shelves. In response, the ambitious Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan rode to the rescue with 121 cargo planes full of food. “We have conducted the world’s biggest airlift operation in two weeks,” the Turkish economy minister, Nihat Zeybekci, boasted. Turkey also dispatched 5,000 soldiers.
“It was like what happens in the United States before a hurricane,” says a U.S. businessman who was in Qatar at the time. He adds:
The food stock disappeared. And then, suddenly, things went back to normal. Erdogan has played this really well. But that complicates things for Saudi. Think about it: Qatar is a postage stamp of a country. It would take nothing to knock it over, and, if you take it, you get one of the world’s largest supplies of natural gas. You also take that “third way” off the table and make an example. And Saudi Arabia spends $80 billion a year on its military, more than “real countries” like Russia and France. But Turkey has a real military and can bring real forces to bear. This probably won’t blow up, but between these two young leaders, it could.
Before 9/11, Saudi Arabia was a fairly big military spender, but since that time it has stepped up and is now making massive investments in its national arsenal, developing the world’s third-largest military budget, behind only the United States and China according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. It spent $82 billion on its military in 2015 — or $2,600 per capita. The United States spends about $1,800 per capita, while Russia spends $465 per capita and China only $100 per capita.
Saudi’s crown prince is a reformer internally and assertive externally: He has backed moves to limit the power of the religious police and to diversify the Saudi economy. He also has been a critical advocate of the Saudi–United Arab Emirates war in Yemen, which has not been going well. He is looking to flex his muscles, and he may very well prevail over Qatar without having to fire a shot, so disproportionate is the power and influence of the two countries.
The Middle East is involved in a new round of the Great Game.
What is worth noting is that the Saudi military buildup took place partly under the presidency of George W. Bush but mainly under the presidency of Barack Obama, who held as a headline diplomatic priority reaching an agreement with Tehran regarding the Iranian nuclear program. The Saudis complained about the Iran deal, but not nearly as energetically as might have been expected. The Obama administration’s support for the Saudi war in Yemen was part of the price paid for Saudi acquiescence to the Iran deal. Facilitating the Saudi military buildup — which is, in spite of the kingdom’s famous wealth, still being partially financed with U.S. military aid — may very well be another.
The Middle East is involved in a new round of the Great Game. It is not clear that the Trump administration knows how to play. After being fêted and celebrated by the Saudi royals, Trump took to Twitter to brag about his being the catalyst of the Saudi-led embargo of Qatar. In reality, that project almost certainly was being organized behind the scenes long before the reports of the Qatari emir’s pro-Iran speech, and the U.S. government’s mystified response to it suggests very strongly that Washington was the last to know.
Strictly local? Maybe not, after all.