PARIS – This June, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, the Maldives, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar. This Gulf crisis will, one way or another, come to an end. But whether that end will be good for the chief instigator of the crisis, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), remains to be seen.
An extreme but unlikely solution to the crisis could come in the form of military-enforced regime change, whereby the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, would be replaced by a more pliant member of the Al-Thani family. In a more likely scenario, Qatar may stop providing sanctuary for a few members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and discreetly promise to rein in Al Jazeera, its state-funded television network, which broadcasts throughout the region.
In the latter scenario, diplomats from Kuwait and Oman, who are mediating the dispute, would hold themselves up as peacemakers, and MBS would claim to be a statesman. Western governments worried about the price of oil and the future of America’s Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar would rest easier, at least until the next Gulf crisis. But if MBS continues to pursue headstrong policies, and Qatar keeps using its oil wealth to punch above its weight in regional politics, such a crisis may not be all that far off.
The latest Saudi-Qatari contretemps is hardly an example of the “Thucydides trap,” in which an incumbent hegemon is tempted to suppress a rival whose power is approaching its own. Saudi Arabia is host to around 32 million people, one-third of whom are foreign workers; Qatar is host to just 2.6 million people, 90% of whom are foreign.
Instead, at the heart of the matter is a semi-paranoid conviction among Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Arab leaders that Iran – which is predominantly Shia and non-Arab – is vying for superpower status in the Middle East. The Saudis are convinced that Qatar is aiding Iran in this quest, even though Qatar’s leaders share the Saudis’ Wahhabi brand of Islam.
Of course, Saudi Arabia has some grounds for suspicion. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini advocated revolution throughout the Muslim world. A generation later, Iran has a foothold in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, where it is helping Houthi rebels disrupt MBS’s ill-considered foray into that country. And now that Saudi Arabia has imposed a blockade on Qatar, Iran has come to the country’s aid, delivering food and allowing Qatar Airways to use its airspace.
It is worth asking whether MBS is misreading political and economic realities. Having been invested with unprecedented powers as the favorite son of King Salman, has he bitten off more than he can chew?
MBS has been Saudi Arabia’s minister of defense since January 2015. But Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, now two years old, has become a humanitarian disaster, complete with a naval blockade that has led to widespread famine and 500,000 cases of cholera.
Meanwhile, in the civil war in Syria, the Saudis (and the Qataris) have backed several unsavory Islamist groups, but still have not managed to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In the region’s balance of power, the Saudi-sponsored anti-Assad alliance – with America providing air support – pales in comparison to the alliance that Assad’s Shia-affiliated Alawite regime has made with Iran and Russia.
MBS is facing even greater challenges at home. As the world’s petro-state par excellence, Saudi Arabia has long mollified the Saudi populace with dollops of welfare spending. Meanwhile, it has sustained the Wahhabi clerical establishment’s loyalty by keeping social changes to a minimum. But with oil prices remaining relatively low, the Kingdom can no longer rely on its traditional policy of buying friends and buying off enemies.
To his credit, MBS recognizes that things must change. Saudi Arabia’s financial reserves are diminishing, and younger Saudis – whose numbers have quadrupled in the past 30 years – want more freedoms, and will need jobs outside of the oil sector. To address these issues, MBS came up with “Vision 2030,” a bold but not necessarily realistic plan to diversify the economy, privatize part of the national oil company, Aramco, and expand the private sector. In addition, MBS apparently has a plan to create hedonistic tourist resorts to rival those of Dubai.
Given the problems abroad and grumbling at home, where some in the Saudi royal family resent his meteoric ascent, MBS now needs to prove that he has the maturity and experience to lead. Here, he may receive help from an unlikely source. At the end of July, MBS hosted Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of Iraq’s most powerful Shia militia, for his first visit to Saudi Arabia since 2006. And earlier this year, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi paid a visit to Saudi Arabia, just after the Saudi foreign and energy ministers made trips to Baghdad.
These trips – the first such delegations between the two countries in decades – suggest that Iraq and Saudi Arabia might be forging a new, mutually beneficial relationship. With closer ties to Saudi Arabia, Iraq’s leaders could free themselves from Iran’s overbearing grip on their decision-making, leverage Saudi Arabia’s influence over Iraq’s Sunni tribes, and procure Saudi investments to rebuild Mosul following its recapture from the Islamic State (ISIS).
Saudi Arabia, for its part, stands to gain from Iraq’s success against ISIS, a sworn enemy of the House of Saud, and from its help in calming Shia dissent in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern province. At the same time, MBS would be able to portray himself as a strategic thinker who is capable of bridging old Arab divides, and limiting Iran’s influence in the region.
Still, many questions remain. It is unclear when the disastrous operation in Yemen will end, or whether Iran and Turkey will continue undermining the blockade on Qatar. And it remains to be seen if Qatar will cave to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states’ demands – especially the call for Al Jazeera to be shut down.
In any case, none of these developments seems imminent, so the 31-year-old crown prince will have to learn to temper his impetuosity. As the Arab proverb puts it, patience is the key to happiness. John Andrews is the author of The World in Conflict.
By John Andrews