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Proletarian issue 79 (August 2017)
Saudi vs Qatar: thieves fall out
A sign of waning US imperialist power?
A rift, surprising in its ferocity and intensity, has opened up between Saudi Arabia (supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) on the one hand and Qatar on the other. It is so serious that the former countries have imposed a blockade on Qatar designed to starve the country into submission.

However, the effectiveness of this blockade is considerably reduced by the fact that countries such as Turkey, Iran and Oman are rendering considerable assistance to Qatar in its determination to defy Saudi Arabia. Then too there is the fact that its huge natural gas wealth means this tiny state enjoys the world’s highest GDP per capita (at least on the part of its officially-recognised citizens) and so it has immense reserves to draw on.

Saudi Arabia’s principal reason for imposing the blockade is purportedly Qatar’s support for terrorism – which is of course rich coming from Saudi Arabia, which is well known to be the chief sponsor of the terrorism now wracking the Middle East, and indeed further afield, although of course Qatar is also a jihadi paymaster. And an important condition of the Saudis for the lifting of the blockade is that Qatar should close down its news service, Al Jazeera.

One reason why these respective sponsors of terrorism and puppet regimes of US imperialism have come near to blows with each other is that while the Saudis covertly support Isis, the Qataris – who have long supported the Muslim Brotherhood, a deadly enemy of both the Saudi and the Egyptian government – allowed an interview of an al-Nusra leader (al-Nusra being a salafist al-Qaeda front opposed to Isis) to be aired on Al Jazeera.

With all these jihadis of various hues owing their flourishing to US imperialist support, it is seemingly strange – though gratifying – to see them fighting each other. As far as US imperialism is concerned, it would seem that President Donald Trump and his Israeli friends are supporting Saudi Arabia, while secretary of state Rex Tillerson is inclined towards Qatar – which is, after all, host to a major US imperialist military base.

At first sight, Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia in this quarrel, and in fact his claim to have personally incited Saudi Arabia to take action against Qatar whilst on a state visit to the kingdom in May, seems inexplicable. After all, on the presidential campaign trail Trump endlessly berated Saudi Arabia for failing to take a firm stand against Isis.

“Saudi Arabia had reason to be worried when Donald Trump triumphed over Hillary Clinton last November. Clinton was an old friend who had repeatedly praised the kingdom as a force for peace and stability, whereas Trump had been bashing the Saudis for years.

“In 2011 he had described the kingdom as ‘the world’s biggest funder of terrorism’ and said it was using ‘our petro dollars – our very own money – to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them’. On the campaign trail, he threatened to block Saudi oil imports if the kingdom didn’t do more to fight Isis.”

Yet today he is the Saudis’ new best friend: “seven months later, Trump flew to Riyadh on his first presidential trip abroad, called for regime change in Iran, and announced a $110bn arms deal, with another $240bn over the next decade. Whether the Saudi government follows through is another matter, given its 22 percent deficit because of falling oil prices.

“Nonetheless, White House officials crowed that the arms deal would provide the basis for an Arab Nato to combat both Iran and Isis [by which we can assume they meant ‘an Arab Nato to combat Iran and pretend to combat Isis’].” (America’s Saudi lobby by Daniel Lazare, Le Monde Diplomatique, 4 July 2017)

In his enthusiasm: “Mr Trump ... forgot two essential facts. First, Qatar provides a base for 10,000 American troops, which is the biggest US military base in the region and is of critical importance for military operations not only in Syria, but also in Afghanistan. Secondly, right after Trump’s statement on the issue, on 14 June, secretary of defence James Mattis signed an agreement with Qatar for the sale of $12bn in weapons systems, including big-ticket items such as 36 F15 fighter jets.

“Therefore, by their own admission, and perhaps in a symptom of full-blown administrative schizophrenia, US officials are selling sophisticated weapons to a state that supports terrorism!” (Saudi Arabia vs Qatar: Middle East controlled demolition plan by Gilbert Mercier, Global Research, 23 June 2017)

How can such apparent schizophrenia be explained?

Longstanding enmity between Qatar and Saudi Arabia

It was easy to assume that since Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both committed to wahhabism and have eagerly joined hands to bring down, or attempt to bring down, secular Arab governments in Libya, Iraq and Syria, they are as good as blood brothers.

The Arab spring in Egypt and Tunisia, however, brought out into the open their radically differing interests and objectives. Whereas Saudi Arabia was thoroughly opposed to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, Qatar not only eagerly embraced the popular movements for their overthrow but even, through its popular TV channel Al Jazeera, helped to foment them. Whereas Saudi Arabia was strongly opposed to the governments (which leaned towards political Islam of the type espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood) that arose in those countries following the overthrow of their leaders, Qatar just as strongly supported them.

At first sight it is difficult to understand why Qatar would support movements in Egypt and Tunisia professing to demand bourgeois-democratic rights for the masses of the people, when in Qatar itself these rights do not exist – any more than they do in Saudi Arabia. However, while Qatar does not tolerate Muslim Brotherhood activity on its own soil, it is perfectly happy to finance its activities in other countries if it believes this can advance Qatari interests, and even to provide asylum to Muslim Brotherhood refugees from Egypt, for example.

What, then, are Qatari interests, and how do they come into conflict with those of Saudi Arabia?

At bottom, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and those of Qatar are clan-based feudal warlords, ever looking to aggrandise themselves at each other’s expense. Saudi Arabia is very much the expansionist big brother – stronger and more powerful, expecting all around to bow to its wishes ... or else. Indeed, Qatar might well have been swallowed up by Saudi Arabia if it had not gained the protection of Britain in the 19th century, which, as it did with various other small sheikhdoms in the region, offered its patronage to Qatar’s al-Thani ruling family in return for their role in safeguarding Britain’s access to the Indian subcontinent.

Both the Ottoman empire and the British empire in their turn and in their own interests gave military support to the status quo, which meant preserving the medieval-style rule of traditional royal families that were heavily dependent on the subservience of the masses to religious obscurantism to maintain their rule. Nowadays it is US imperialism’s hegemony over the middle-eastern ruling elites that is an essential element in preserving these feudal rulers’ positions. This does not, however, prevent contradictions arising among the puppets – as recent events have so graphically demonstrated.

What has really changed the dynamic between the various Gulf states, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is that they have in the last 50 years become fabulously rich. As soon as Standard Oil started pumping oil in Saudi Arabia, the country progressed from being an impoverished backwater to being quite comfortably off. But the real wealth began to accumulate after 1973, when, in response to the western backing of Israel in the Yom Kippur war, the middle-eastern oil producing countries decided to cut back production and raise oil prices very considerably, triggering an economic crisis throughout the world from which it never fully recovered.

The oil-dependent countries, including the imperialist powers, had no choice but to pay up, as a result of which the Middle East’s producers became fabulously rich, selling their product for much more money that they could spend – even on the wholesale building works, infrastructure works, provision of healthcare and education, etc, in which they engaged with a view to bringing the living conditions in their countries up to the standard prevailing in imperialist countries.

“During the 1970s, there was a 42-fold increase in spending on construction across the six Gulf states.” (Rory Miller, Desert Kingdoms to Global Powers: The Rise of the Arab Gulf, Yale University Press, 2016)

Even after massive expenditure on modernisation, they still accumulated gigantic sovereign wealth funds, which gave them the power to buy influence: “Henry Kissinger, for one, had no doubt that the events of 1973 had ‘made possible a revolution in world affairs’, which had, in turn, brought about an ‘upheaval in world balance of power’. The stakes involved went ‘beyond oil prices and economics, and involve the whole framework of future political relations’, he told a September 1974 meeting in Washington attended by the foreign and finance ministers of Great Britain, France, West Germany and Japan.” (Ibid)

It was an upheaval over which US imperialism soon established control, ensuring most of the surplus funds were invested in US Treasuries or in providing finance to the World Bank, where it could be used as a tool to help spread US imperialist domination into every corner of the world.

Nevertheless, despite their continued vassalage to US imperialism, the various medievalist middle-eastern regimes still commanded vast funds that they could use to promote what they perceived to be their own interests, ie, primarily the preservation of the power of their own elites, and the extension of their regional influence for that purpose.

It is here that radically different approaches were taken by Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Qatar on the other. Saudi Arabia relies mainly on strictly enforced religious obscurantism and on wielding the big stick for the survival of the power of its elite, while tiny Qatar prefers to accommodate reformists as far as is necessary to secure their docility.

Given the fact that Qatari nationals resident in the country number only some 278,000 in a country with a total population of less than 2.5 million (including more than 2 million immigrant workers, who have no rights), this would seem to be the only option. With such a miniscule population, it is no wonder that Qatar feels that its self-preservation is best served by compromise than by unrelenting muscle.

A very obvious example of this compromise is that in Qatar women have been allowed to drive since the 1990s, something that in itself demonstrates another difference between Qatar and Saudi Arabia: namely, a certain degree of religious tolerance.

“The lack of influential native religious scholars allowed Qatar to advance women in society, and enable them to drive and travel independently; permit non-muslims to consume alcohol and pork; sponsor western arts like the Tribeca film festival; develop world-class art museums; host the Al Jazeera television network that revolutionised the region’s controlled media landscape and has become one of the world’s foremost global broadcasters; and prepare to accommodate western soccer fans with un-islamic practices during the 2022 World Cup ...

“In doing so, Qatar projects to young Saudis and others a vision of a less restrictive and less choking conservative wahhabi society that grants individuals irrespective of gender a greater degree of control over their lives. Qatari women in the mid-1990s were like those in Saudi Arabia: banned from driving, voting or holding government jobs. Today, they occupy prominent positions in multiple sectors of society in what has effectively amounted to a social revolution.

“It’s a picture that juxtaposes starkly with that of its only wahhabi brother. In doing so, Qatar threw down a gauntlet for the kingdom’s [Saudi Arabia’s] interpretation of nominally shared religious and cultural beliefs.” (Wahhabism vs Wahhabism: Qatar challenges Saudi Arabia by James A Dorsey, Middle East online, 8 September 2013)

Even before the mid-1990s, Qatar had a long tradition of tolerance toward alternative ideologies: “Qatar’s self-identity as a centre of refuge dates to the 19th century, when its desolate and semi-lawless territory offered sanctuary to outlaws, pirates and people fleeing persecution across the Arabian Peninsula.

“‘It’s always been this place where waifs and strays and unwanted people ended up,’ said David B Roberts, the author of Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State and an assistant professor at King’s College in London. ‘There was no overarching power on the peninsula, so if you were wanted by a sheikh, you could escape to Qatar and nobody would bother you.’

“In the 19th century, Qatar’s founding leader, Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, called it the ‘Kaaba of the dispossessed’ – a reference to the revered black cube at the Great Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, and a figurative way of describing Qatar as a lodestar for those seeking refuge.

“That national trait turned into a policy for Al Thani’s descendants, who since the mid-1990s have thrown open Qatar’s doors to dissidents and exiles of every stripe. Doha has welcomed Saddam Hussein’s family, one of Osama bin Laden’s sons, the iconoclastic Indian painter MF Husain ...” (Qatar opens its doors to all, to the dismay of some by Declan Walsh, New York Times, 16 July 2017)

It must be remembered, however, that this apparent liberalism on the part of Qatar’s rulers is designed to preserve the status quo: to stifle (by buying off) all demands for (a) bourgeois democratic rights and (b) an end to subservience to US imperialism (especially as evidenced by failure meaningfully to support the Palestinian cause and eagerness to overthrow regimes opposing US imperialist control), to say nothing of any threat to existing property relations.

This is a type of ‘liberalism’ that Qatar’s rulers share with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is why they have been happy to back the latter in all their misadventures – strictly outside Qatar, of course, as the Muslim Brotherhood does represent the interests of a section of the bourgeoisie and prefers republican as opposed to monarchical forms of rule. Muslim Brotherhood exiles are welcome in Qatar, but woe betide them should they start agitating there for domestic changes!

As far as Qatar is concerned, Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to bend with the times is endangering the very survival of middle-eastern clientelism, not only in Saudi Arabia but throughout the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, considers that Qatar’s ‘liberalism’ will simply result in reformists demanding more and more until one day they overthrow the ruling elites.

Saudi’s rulers are especially scared of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is able through extensive charitable works to spread its influence among the masses, whose pressure would be impossible to withstand were the Muslim Brotherhood to be given free rein. In recent times that fear has become a veritable panic, as falling oil prices have left the kingdom unable to distribute as much largesse among the population as it used to, necessarily fuelling discontent that is a mounting threat to the regime.

These differences of approach have been strongly reflected in the sides the respective parties have taken in the ‘Arab spring’ and in the subsequent efforts by US imperialism and reactionaries in general to bring popular discontent under control. Whereas Saudi Arabia backed the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes’ attempts to stifle the popular uprisings of the masses there, and to block Sisi’s return to power in Egypt, the Qataris supported the Muslim Brotherhood government that briefly emerged in Egypt, as well as that dominated by the Ennahada movement in Tunisia, which has some similarities with the Brotherhood.

In Libya, of course, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar opposed Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s government, which was a fly in the ointment for US imperialism, but while the Qataris supported the Muslim Brotherhood-backed ‘Libya Dawn’ party (which, having lost elections of dubious validity, proceeded to set up its own government in Tripoli and to chase the ‘elected’ government out to Tobruk), Saudi Arabia, hiding behind its UAE sidekicks, is backing General Haftar (as a strong man comparable to Sisi, to bring ‘peace’ to Libya by force).

In Syria, both the kingdom and the sheikdom were naturally eager to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s secular, anti-imperialist government, and even supported the same terrorist groups for quite some time, be it the wahhabist Isis, the slightly less extremist salafist al-Nusra, or any others.

For a long time neither of them cared which murderous gang they supported so long as it was fighting Assad. One of Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails shows quite clearly that the US government was aware both states were funding jihadis in Syria, even after the groups in question had been officially branded ‘terrorists’. Although Saudi Arabia is now claiming, alongside US imperialism, to be fighting Isis and al-Qaeda rather than supporting them, neither of them is to be believed.

Whatever used to be the case, Qatar’s support these days is reserved for a single rival jihadi gang, Ahrar-al-Sham, which is a Muslim Brotherhood-aligned outfit. And now, al-Nusra (which has rebranded itself as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham [HTS]) has routed Ahrar al-Sham from Idlib and removed from its control of the Turkish border crossing. (See Jihadis entrenched in northern Syria by Richard Spencer, The Times, 24 July 2017)

Even before the eruption of the Arab spring (ie, in 2011), differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar erupted in Yemen, where the former was backing the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh while Qatar supported the protesters seeking to force him to stand down.

The view has been expressed that “Qatar’s soft power approach is based on the realisation that no matter what quantity of sophisticated weaponry it purchases or number of foreigners the Gulf state drafts into its military force, it will not be able to defend itself, nor can it rely on Saudi Arabia. The approach also stems from uncertainty over how reliable the United States is as the guarantor of last resort of its security.

“That concern has been reinforced by the United States’ economic problems, its reluctance to engage militarily post-Iraq and Afghanistan, and its likely emergence by the end of this decade as the world’s largest oil exporter.” (James A Dorsey, op cit)

In other words, Qatar is reflecting the changing balance of forces in the world, which is seeing US imperialism declining under the weight of its own contradictions, notwithstanding all the wars it is waging directly or by proxy to try to maintain its standing.

The Iran factor

A core feature of Saudi wahhabism is to consider shia muslims to be non-believers, worse than christians or jews, implying that it is not haram [forbidden]to kill them. The Saudis hold fast to this particular tenet of their religion, both because of their traditional hegemonic rivalry with Iran (in reality not a religious or ‘regional power dispute’ but a struggle between the imperialist-aligned and anti-imperialist forces in the Middle East) and because it is a cause with which to unify the various domestic sunni factions that are only too keen to fight among themselves.

As is well known, Saudi Arabia was as distraught as Israel when, under the Obama administration, US imperialism brokered the nuclear deal with Iran, promising to lift its trade embargo in return for Iran’s promise not to develop nuclear weapons. Qatar, on the other hand, has no problem in doing business with Iran. No fewer than 30,000 Iranians are resident in Qatar, and, most importantly, its wealth derives to a considerable extent from a gas field it shares with Iran.

“Qatar has just announced its plan to raise liquid natural gas capacity by 30 percent, increasing production from its North Field, which it shares with Iran. US gas producers may struggle to compete. Iran, as oil magnates know all too well, is ready to increase production on its side of the North Field. No wonder the Saudis are outraged.

“And perhaps, soon, the Americans. Even more so if a post-war Syria permits Qatar to run a pipeline across its territory to the Mediterranean and to Europe. Qatar, in other words, now needs Iran more than it needs Saudi Arabia.” (The Qatar crisis has nothing to do with Al Jazeera and everything to do with the war in Syria by Robert Fisk, The Independent, 6 July 2017)

It has been reported that one of the triggers of the Saudi embargo came in June, when Qatar handed over some $1bn to organisations connected to Iranian militias in Iraq. This enormous sum was apparently paid in order to secure the release of various Qatari hostages who had been held in Iraq since 2015. The hostages included 26 wealthy Qataris, including members of the Qatari royal family (apparently kidnapped when on a falconry hunting trip!), along with as some 50 militants captured by jihadis in Syria.

According to the Financial Times: “Around $700m was paid both to Iranian figures and the regional shia militias they support, according to regional government officials.” (The $1bn hostage deal that enraged Qatar’s Gulf rivals by Erika Solomon, 5 June 2017)

Of course, in the case of the payments to islamist groups in Syria, the complaint is not that payments were made to organisations seeking to overthrow the Assad government, but that they were made to the ‘wrong’ terrorists, which can only mean those opposing Isis, which Saudi Arabia and US imperialism are covertly supporting.

This is made clear by the fact that the Financial Times actually quotes a ‘rebel’ commander complaining about the payments: “According to two opposition figures with close contact with the groups paid, Qatar used the evacuation arrangement to pay $120m-$140m to Tahrir al-Sham. Another $80m, they said, went to the islamist group Ahrar al-Sham. ‘The Qataris pay anyone and everyone, to what end? They have only brought about our ruin,’ said a Syrian rebel commander, who gave details of the payments but asked not to be identified.”

Interestingly, the Financial Times ‘identified’ neither the rebel commander nor his organisation. However, payments for the release of hostages, particularly if they come from wealthy and influential families, can hardly be interpreted as willing support for the terrorists in question. Tahrir al-Sham has in fact recently been involved in driving Ahrar al-Sham, which Qatar does support, out of Idlib and out of border areas with Turkey.

That hostility to Iran is far from being the main preoccupation of the Saudis in this affair is shown by the fact that although it is demanding Qatar break all its links with Iran, there is nowhere any suggestion that the UAE will be required to break their much greater ones.

The pipeline factor

The real reason for Saudi Arabia’s moves against Qatar, and for Donald Trump’s rather shortsighted support for them, must be sought in economic and geopolitical factors far removed from sectarian ideological spats.

Qatar’s gas has the lowest extraction costs in the world, and its gas fields are the largest in the world. In the 1990s, with the emergence of the technology needed to liquefy the gas for sea transportation, Qatar became for the first time independent of its big brother in Saudi Arabia and free to market its gas to the highest bidder.

“In the 1990s, technological and economic developments created a global market for liquefied natural gas, which can be loaded onto ships, bypassing pipelines that would run through Saudi territory. Qatar controls some of the world’s largest gas reserves, so its economy expanded from $8.1bn in 1995 to an astonishing $210bn in 2014.” (How the Saudi-Qatar rivalry, now combusting, reshaped the Middle East by Max Fisher, New York Times, 13 June 2017)

The sheikhdom’s newfound wealth brought it for the first time the power to act on the world stage independently of Saudi Arabia. All the Gulf states have a high demand for gas to fuel the cooling systems that make their territories habitable in summer, and it is only very grudgingly that they pay the higher prices that Qatar demands (though it is thought that the UAE does still receive gas at something of a discount on the world price).

Currently, besides the Gulf states, the most important customers for Qatari gas are in the far east, with China, for instance, paying for its imports in renminbi, rather than dollars, to the great annoyance of US imperialism.

However, Qatar would like to be able to be able to supply the European market at competitive prices, and has recently been exploring the possibility of agreeing terms with Russia (which currently has 80 percent of the market) that would allow Qatar and Iran to build a pipeline to Europe across Syria, which Russia had previously opposed. To that end, Qatar last year invested $2.7bn in Rosneft, Russia’s majority state-owned gas company. Thus a Russia-Syria-Iran-Qatar axis would seem to be emerging that is little to the liking of US imperialism.

Mohamed Hineidi wrote in International Policy Digest: “It is likely Qatar wants to hedge its bets in Syria, since its objective of ousting Assad has failed. Securing its stake in a post-war Syria would likely require pumping money through Damascus, thereby strengthening the government and providing it legitimacy. It can, however, continue to maintain relations with the multitude of rebel groups under its patronage; even acting as a guarantor between those groups and the government for a permanent peace.

“Qatar reportedly already maintains backchannel contacts with some elements in the Syrian government. Although these claims are hard to prove, it has a history of previously brokering hostage releases and other deals across Syria, most recently the four-town deal that involved the release of its own royals captured in Iraq.”

For US imperialism and its Saudi puppet, such a scenario is completely unacceptable. “Qatar may move towards accepting Assad covertly by circumventing the government and providing funds through an intermediary, such as Iran.” (Will Qatar lead Syrian reconstruction efforts?, 29 June 2017)

One can imagine the dismay of US imperialism in contemplating the possibility that Qatar might be manoeuvring to free itself from US imperialist domination, just as yesteryear it freed itself from Saudi domination.

It is in this context that we should consider the demands being made on Qatar, which amount to nothing more nor less than complete surrender to Saudi Arabia and to US imperialism.

The demands being made on Qatar

The original 13 demands were:

1. Curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close its diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade and commerce with Iran that complies with US and international sanctions will be permitted.

2. Sever all ties to ‘terrorist organisations’, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Formally declare those entities as terrorist groups.

3. Shut down Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations.

4. Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.

5. Immediately terminate the Turkish military presence in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside Qatar.

6. Stop all means of funding for individuals, groups or organisations that have been designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, the US and other countries.

7. Hand over ‘terrorist figures’ and wanted individuals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain to their countries of origin. Freeze their assets, and provide any desired information about their residency, movements and finances.

8. End interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Stop granting citizenship to wanted nationals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Revoke Qatari citizenship for existing nationals where such citizenship violates those countries’ laws.

9. Stop all contacts with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Hand over all files detailing Qatar’s prior contacts with and support for those opposition groups.

10. Pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other, financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies in recent years. The sum will be determined in coordination with Qatar.

11. Consent to monthly audits for the first year after agreeing to the demands, then once per quarter during the second year. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.

12. Align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially and economically, as well as on economic matters, in line with an agreement reached with Saudi Arabia in 2014.

13. Agree to all the demands within 10 days of it being submitted to Qatar, or the list becomes invalid.

(Quoted in Qatar given 10 days to meet 13 sweeping demands by Saudi Arabia by Frank Wintour, The Guardian, 23 June 2017)

The 10 days passed without Qatar having succumbed to a single demand. It has expressed a willingness to negotiate, but the Saudis flatly refused this offer.

Consequently, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain held a meeting at which they agreed to drop certain specific demands, including the closure of Al Jazeera, and substituted instead a six-point list of demands so broadly phrased that they could cover anything, including curbs on broadcasting and giving asylum to dissidents. The change of demands has not at the time of writing resulted in Qatar succumbing to their pressure.

The UAE is in a difficult situation. Its component states are heavily dependent on Qatari gas: “Qatar’s exports of 2bn cubic feet per day of gas via the undersea Dolphin pipeline comprise about a third of the UAE’s total gas demand. Qatari gas is crucial to generating the electricity powering the air conditioners that keep Abu Dhabi and Dubai liveable in smothering heat that can reach 120F.

“The possibility that Qatar could retaliate for its land-border closure by halting gas exports to the UAE ought to be focusing the minds of policymakers in Abu Dhabi right now. Without gas from Qatar, the UAE would find itself burning very expensive diesel fuel in its power plants and maybe even rationing electricity for some customers.” (Why the Qatar feud is a nightmare for natural gas importers by Jim Krane, The Hill, 6 July 2017)

It follows that the UAE is in no condition to impose any kind of embargo that would prevent Qatar from exporting its gas through the Dolphin pipeline. Which therefore continues to flow. Moreover, it has already broken the embargo on broadcasts from Qatar, by continuing to air its sports channel in order to avoid sparking civil disorder through having deprived its citizens of the diet of football to which it seems they are addicted!

In the meantime, Qatar has been receiving help from Turkey, Iran and Oman to help it withstand the blockade. These countries have sent food, and in Turkey’s case even troops, to assist Qatar. It may turn out that the measures Saudi Arabia and America are taking to try to force Qatar back into the fold will simply end up driving it ever more firmly into the arms of Iran, and a Turkey which seems also to be increasingly distancing itself from US imperialism.


Postscript

As we go to press, economic figures have been published revealing the extent of the damage inflicted on Qatar’s economy by the sanctions. On seeing these figures, Saudi Arabia at once withdrew its ‘conciliatory’ six-point list and returned to the original 13 demands. (See Qatar crisis is back to square one as economy shows the strain by Ahmed Feteha, Fiona MacDonald and Tarek El-Tablawy, Bloomberg, 30 July 2017)

Qatar’s reserves may have been somewhat depleted, but it is clear that the sheikhdom has both the will and the ability to hold out for far longer than the Saudis ever expected, and that the latter’s flip flops, far from being a sign of strength, are an indication that it is thrashing around for answers having failed to achieve the quick and easy victory it expected.

This falling out between two key allies of US imperialism can only be good news for the oppressed people of the world, and for those of the middle east in particular.
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