Middle East Crisis: Pawns in the New Great Game
The current claustrophobic squeeze imposed on Qatar is part of a larger game being played out between the coalitions led by Saudi Arabia and Iran
The Arabs are not given to diplomatic niceties when it comes to dealing with countries they consider client states. During Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit to Riyadh, the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 81, testily asked him, “Are you with us or Qatar?” Sharif, who normally takes out a cheat-chit from his pocket to respond to complicated policy queries, was taken by surprise by this direct question from the Saudi king. Though India has also asked for a constructive dialogue to resolve the crisis in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s decision to isolate Qatar, it is a matter of time before Prime Minister Narendra Modi is asked the same question.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate (UAE) are the pivots of Modi’s Middle East engagement. He has had a fairly successful trip to Saudi Arabia where India was promised a whopping sum of $30 billion in infrastructure investment and related areas. The Saudis also promised India energy self-sufficiency of a kind that would not allow New Delhi to look elsewhere for support. The UAE, which is part of the Saudi coalition against Qatar, too has promised $75 billion to India to build ports, airports and other civilian infrastructure. In every which way the two countries promised India the much-needed fund infusion that would give impetus to Modi’s attempts to transform the country. Since then Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, has made two trips including one as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade, but the Emiratis have not shown the money as yet. In fact, in the last visit to Delhi, $75 billion investment from the Sovereign Fund was not on the table for discussion for a reason. What has happened since then?
The UAE has begun to tilt towards India after Pakistan refused to send troops to fight the Saudis’ war against Houthis in Yemen. Islamabad’s refusal to commit troops – on the persuasion of the Chinese – took the Saudis and Emiratis by surprise. They never expected that a country that had provided ready security all these years would show moral indignation over a Muslim country attacking another one. It was at this stage that the UAE suggested greater diplomatic and financial investment in India. The question that was never answered, but discretely discussed in diplomatic quarters and the strategic community, was: will India provide troops to secure Emirati and Saudi interests in the region? Many in the strategic community believe that the reason the promised investments have not materialised is the insistence from these kingdoms on troops. India, as of now, is not playing ball, but the kind of pressure that has been brought to bear from different quarters to lend its professional armed forces to serve regional interests will take some effort to keep doing that.
The problem lies in the circumstances under which this anti-Qatar coalition came about. Though US officials are trying to make light of it, the Saudis were emboldened to squeeze tiny Qatar after US President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh. Very plainly, President Trump endorsed the Saudi narrative on Iran and Qatar as the financiers of terror. Trump was so taken in by the young deputy Sultan and the Grand purchase of armaments worth $140 billion that he was willing to say anything about Qatar. One wonders whether he knew that the country has a US military base that houses 8,000 of its troops. After his Saudi trip, it became clear that Trump was truly a transactional president. There is a video going around that shows him raving and ranting about these Gulf monarchies that exist due to US support. He is telling his audience in the US that he would be getting trillions of dollars from these Gulf States and creating jobs in his country. His trip to Riyadh, where Trump ended up opening new fault lines in the Arab world and reordering the balance of power in the region, was just his first foray into the outside world to raise funds for a struggling US economy. A few days later, true to his won't, a new deal was struck to sell $12 billion worth of F-16s to Qatar. This does not mean that Qatar is free from the claustrophobic squeeze imposed by Riyadh and the UAE.
In this decision to isolate Qatar, besides Trump, the Saudis and the UAE also enjoy the support of Israel. On the face of it, all these countries are perceived by the Modi government as close allies. Modi, who will be visiting the US later this month and soon thereafter Israel, could be drawn into this new power game that has violent implications. What will Modi do when confronted with tricky formulations that have floated around for a while in the strategic community: India should send troops to protect the interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE that not just employ seven million Indians but also provide the bulk of oil imports. Besides, there is also the promise to give billions of dollars from their sovereign funds to India to improve infrastructure and so on. Trump could make a compelling argument – as he did with Germany’s Angela Merkel – that as India needs the oil from the Gulf it should also take care of its security. Modi could also come under enormous pressure from Trump to back off too from the burgeoning ties with Iran. In these circumstances what will be his response? Not just that, Trump could demand Indian troop presence in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban or Islamic State and also to limit Pakistan’s spread to Central Asia. Again, would India bite that poisoned apple?
This is not the first time such a demand has been made on Indian troops. When Atal Behari Vajpayee was the PM, US President George Bush was able to convince the visiting Indian deputy PM of the urgency of sending Indian troops to Iraq. LK Advani, who had also visited Langley, the CIA headquarters, had tentatively agreed to such a demand. When Vajpayee got to know of how his deputy had committed thoughtlessly to putting Indian troops on the ground, he reportedly invited the CPI(M) leaders to his residence for tea and told them what was coming and then wondered what the Left thought about it. A few days later, there were big demonstrations against the Iraq war, allowing Vajpayee to convey to his deputy and Washington that such a move would cause intense internal strife so it was not possible. India never sent troops after that. What needs to be seen is whether Modi has the similar guile or he would find nothing wrong in using our Army to accomplish some nebulous regional objectives.
There is a view in Gulf countries that Indians have been swayed by what they call “imagined interests” rather than “real interests”. According to this thesis, India’s real interests lie in the Gulf where our millions of Indians are employed. “India should just concentrate on this region rather than trying to go to Central Asia or even Iran where there are no Indians,” articulated a Saudi diplomat. It is with this region that India should improve its connectivity and interactions. It is possible that this trip to the US and Israel could reset India’s foreign policy in a manner not imagined yet.
It is an open secret that the Saudis hate the Qataris for punching above their weight. One of their ministers had called them a country with a TV station (Al Jazeera) and 200 people. Its population, though, is four lakh. The Saudis’ grouse was that the Qataris were in cahoots with not just Iran, with whom they share a giant gas field, but also supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis’ hatred for them was also stoked by the Egyptian government that has been fighting a bloody civil war with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State in the Northern Sinai. Egypt has been deeply upset with Qatar and Al Jazeera and how it was used to grant legitimacy to Muslim Brotherhood after the Tahrir Square protests. The Egyptian Army overthrew the government of Muhammad Morsi, which was getting active support from Qatar and Turkey, but since then the country is facing violence and instability. Egyptians are going through a financial crisis and need the Saudis’ help. In lieu of this help, the Egyptians also gifted two islands in the Red Sea to the Saudis.
The Qataris have been accused of funding terrorists. This charge is not entirely wrong. In the early days of the Arab Spring, they armed, funded and provided logistical support to violent armed groups to dismantle the Syrian State. They also gave legitimacy to the variants of Al Qaeda who were looking for new patrons and new theatres of war. The Qataris also unleashed their most potent weapon, Al Jazeera, on the Syrian State and helped in magnifying a small uprising many times over. Although this was fairly well known, it has found corroboration through an interview of a Belgian priest who said that Syrian activists were paid by Al Jazeera when they uploaded videos of protests. The investment that Qatar made in destabilising Syria was prompted by various considerations including building a gas pipeline to Europe. Qatar has one of the biggest gas reserves in the world.
However, the Saudis disliked the Qataris following an independent foreign policy on the back of the US and the UK and decided to strike it down. They not only forced the exit of Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani but also forced them to stop interfering in the Arab region. Qatar under the new Khalifa Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani decided to back off for a while, but they did not really jettison many of the assets that they had created like the Hamas in Palestine or the Taliban.
The Saudis, who are seen to be leaders of the Sunni world, were most uncomfortable with Qatari swagger and decided to come down heavily on it after they found Trump happy to do anything at their bidding once he had the cheque in his hand. Ostensibly, the reason for isolating Qatar was a piece of “fake news” that showed the tiny country supporting Iran, but the truth is that the Saudis too wanted to shake off any allegations about the monarchy being complicit in funding terror. Just a few days before the British elections, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn had requested PM Theresa May to release an explosive terror funding report which allegedly blames Saudi Arabia for supporting Islamic extremism in the Middle East. Trump before his change of heart had been extremely critical of the Saudis during the election campaign. He had promised to sort them out if he was elected but decided to do it differently – by pauperising the Gulf monarchies in lieu of support.
Qatar’s isolation is creating new power equations. Turkey’s parliament passed a resolution to set up a base in Qatar. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stepped up his support and that is nothing to sniffle at as it is a major military force. Erdogan is desperate to exercise influence similar to that of the Ottoman Empire. Though the Saudis and Turks jostle for influence in the Sunni world, history shows the Wahabbis were used by the British to bring down the Ottomans. Though a lot of water has flown in the Bosphorus since then, these animosities have a way of showing up at different times and ages.
It is happening again with the rise of Erdogan who has Islamised his country and was very keen in the early days of the Arab Spring that Syria’s Basher al-Assad should accommodate the Muslim Brotherhood, but he was turned down. Assad told him that his secular country would not have anything to do with a religious party that had been blamed for so much violence in his country. Turkey, that shares the border with Syria, was accused by Assad of supporting Islamic State terrorists. After the Russian intervention in Syria, Turkey’s involvement became more nuanced as it displayed anxiety less about who ruled Damascus and more about how much space the Kurds will get when the guns fall silent. They have managed to sneak into Syrian territory and established their bases there.
Even Iran has come to the rescue of Qatar. President Hassan Rouhani decided to extend support to Doha and has been sending supplies there. With two major military powers on the side of Qatar, it would not be easy for the Saudis and the UAE to snuff out a small nation, which has been an engine of growth in the region as well as in places like Palestine. Iran benefits enormously due to cracks that have emerged in the Sunni coalition. It has realised the fear that resides in the Saud regime after its failure to quell the Houthis in Yemen despite marshalling troops from all over the world. Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, has been bombed many times over, but the Houthis have not capitulated before Riyadh. Instead, they have been bombing cities and airbases of the Saudis, causing high casualties. The Saudis have been blaming the Iranians for supporting the Houthis and arming them with missiles and so on, but that does not take away the fact that the Kingdom is extremely vulnerable to terror attacks as well as the belligerence of the Houthis.
Iran, which is unsure of how Trump will behave in the coming days, is conscious of the contradictions in the Sunni sect that are contributing to this realignment. It realises the limitations of the Wahabbi influence that grew exponentially post the 1979 Iranian revolution. As Iran, after the nuclear deal returns to the international order, it will inevitably gain in influence and affluence. The Saudis and Israel fear Iran’s rise and justifiably so. Israel’s militaristic leadership has been raising the bogey of Iranian threat whereas Iran has not been associated with any terror attack. They realise that if Iran manages to wriggle out of US sanctions and the pressure the Saudi-led alliance has been putting on it, the power equations in the region will change dramatically. The birth of this new order in the Middle East, true to its history, will be nasty, brutish and violent.