Qaiser: Middle East Conundrum: Saudi Jitteriness – Sanctifying Sectarianism


Thomas White/Reuters


CDA Institute Research Associate Adnan Qaiser with a distinguished career in the armed forces and international diplomacy examines the Saudi-Qatar row and the ill-effects of an Islamic military alliance.


In my paper this spring: Radical Islamism: Understanding Extremist Narrative and Mindset, I had postulated that all Middle East’s ills lie in its oppressive monarchies and autocratic regimes. The malice and lust for regional dominance of these uncommitted rulers with their populace remains a scourge for the Muslim world. While the recent Saudi-Qatar spat is all about Qatar’s insubordination (for maintaining links with Iran) and challenging Saudi hegemony; the targeting of a Shiite Iran through a Saudi-led 41-nation (Sunni) military alliance essentially ‘sanctions’ Muslim bloodshed by fellow believers.

Being the custodian of holy sites of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has always imposed its supremacy over the Islamic world. However, its propagation of hardline Wahhabi-sect doctrine has not only distorted the faith, but also created Salafist terror-groups like al-Qaeda, its several offshoots and Daesh. In his talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in January 2016, US Senator Chris Murphy shared some “uncomfortable truths,” blaming Saudi Arabia for having “funneled over $100 billion into funding schools and mosques all over the world with the mission of spreading puritanical Wahhabism … the only sect of Islam that can be perverted into violence.”

Saudi Arabia remains jittery about its regional dominance – as well as its pre-eminence in the Muslim world – which comes from several factors. First, having found legitimacy as a sole leader of Muslim Ummah (community) through US support in the past, the Saudis saw their clout diminishing after President Obama took a step-back in their relations. Besides (half-heartedly) supporting the Arab Spring (to bring democracy in the region) and its preoccupation with a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration also remained worried about Saudi support to Syrian rebels going awry; it was the same time-period (2013-14) when Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh took deeper roots. Secondly, the release of 28 classified pages of 9/11 commission report certifying official Saudi links with the incident further unnerved the House of Saud (one wonders if the mysterious deaths of three Saudi princes in just one week in July 2002 had also some connection to 9/11). Third, Saudi Arabia remains edgy due to a ‘Shiite crescent,’ comprising of Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Shiite-communities in Iraq, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Yemen, encircling it from the East. Finally, the botched war in Yemen against Shiite Houthis, ongoing since 2015, keeps adding to Saudi anxieties.

Being devout adherents – and proponents – of Wahhabism, both Saudis and Qataris dispute on their forefathers too; claimed by both, Saudi Arabia continues to protest against naming Doha’s state-mosque on Muhammad ibn-Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92). Furthermore, a greater Qatari offense was the prediction by former Qatari prime minister, Hamad-bin-Jassim, that Saudi Arabia would be wiped-out from the map of the world (in a leaked 2003 recording that came to light in 2014 leading to some ten-month long diplomatic standoff).

The current accusations leveled by Saudi Arabia and its cohorts against Qatar are no less than preposterous. Instead of coming out with some tangible charges, terror-sanctioning 12 organizations and 59 other people; simply making 13 demands left Qatar with no choice but to reject them. The real problem for Saudi Arabia is Qatar’s close ties with Iran. A further source of friction is Qatar’s support for Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood. However, by denouncing both these organizations, Saudi monarchy has demonstrated its apathy towards the Palestinian solution and Sunni Islam. This is unhelpful for the region as notwithstanding its strategy, Hamas still represents genuine aspirations of the Palestinian people and the Muslim Brotherhood has generally stood for political Islam and not militancy (leaving-aside odd runaways like al-Qaeda’s Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri).

While Turkey, Kuwait, Oman, Morocco and Tunisia have wisely stayed out of the affray, Egypt, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates toe the Saudi line, first, to suppress the remnants of Arab Spring and second, to counter the growing Shiite and Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in their countries. Libya, Maldives and Mauritania, siding with Saudi Arabia, add numbers but carry no significance in reality.

Here one must acknowledge Qatar’s positive role in the region too. Besides housing US CENTCOM, a forward-looking – and moderate – Qatar also eyes towards hosting the FIFA-2022. It was negotiations in Doha which had facilitated a UN brokered ceasefire in Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006, followed by a 2008 “Doha agreement” that ended an 18-month long political crisis in Lebanon. Finally, Qatar has been facilitating Afghan talks by opening Taliban’s office in Doha since 2013.

Saudi condemnation of moderate media channels like Al-Jazeera, Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby, Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye comes from its fears of fanning the Arab Spring sentiments; to Saudi chagrin, these channels (objectively) present Saudi military action in Yemen as a bungled undertaking. It is ironic that despite his failures and butchery in Yemen, the Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammad-bin-Salman – popularly known as MbS – has been elevated in the House of Saud succession. Reporting 1,310 deaths due to cholera epidemic, UN has already warned of a famine in Yemen in 2017.

While the “Vision 2030” (reducing dependence on oil) of this 31-year-old prince looks fanciful, it is MbS’s arrogance towards Iran, which is worrisome. His belligerent threat of taking the battle to Iran, has already been rebuked by Iran’s defence minister, General Hossein Dehghan: counselling against carrying-out “such a stupidity” because in that case, nothing would be “left in Saudi Arabia except Makkah and Madina,” the two holy cities. Little wonder, other Saudi princes taunt MbS as al-walad (immature boy). Furthermore, the abrupt change in the succession order doesn’t come without invoking the peril of internal resentments and palace intrigues. Prince Nayef, who has been (unceremoniously) relieved of his duties, had deservedly won international acclaim for his successful counter-terrorism operations, eliminating al-Qaeda from the country. It must be remembered that King Faisal was assassinated by none other but his own nephew in 1975.

President Trump’s approval of Islamic Military Alliance against Terrorism (IMAAT) has further propelled the Saudis into recklessness. IMAAT’s sectarian undertone – wrongfully stigmatizing a Shiite Iran as the sole source of terror in the region – is fraught with danger. A former Pakistani army chief commanding the IMAAT further complicates matters; Pakistan remains a sectarian battleground with no less than 148 Shia-Sunni factions. Meanwhile the anti-Shia Daesh, Jundullah, Lashkar-e-Jhangavi-al-Almi and Jaish-ul-Adal have also expanded their tentacles into Afghanistan and Iran, as witnessed through latest terrorist attacks in Kabul and Tehran.

Even with having a Sunni IMAAT at its disposal, Saudi Arabia must realize it has little military capacity to challenge the Iranian might; despite boasting, Saudis never had the audacity to send their ground forces into Syria or Yemen. Notwithstanding Iran’s present restraint – following Napoleon’s dictum of not interrupting your enemy when it is making mistakes – were Saudi Arabia to militarily prick Iran, the retaliation would result in some serious broken crockery in the region.

It is unfortunate that Islamic heavyweights like Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council have not come forward to iron-out Saudi-Qatar differences. Worse, their silence gives credence to the notion of painting an outcast Iran as a pariah state, further widening the Shia-Sunni chasm.

Amid US receding power in Middle East, the international community, especially Canada, must step-in to instil some sense to Saudi Arabia and its allies. Left to their own devices these autocratic regimes are otherwise bent upon exterminating Muslim civilization.

 Adnan Qaiser can be reached at:

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