Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have punished Qatar. The real target is not the small, gas-rich emirate but the regional powerhouse that is Iran.
The “crisis” enveloping the tiny Gulf state of Qatar is a classic case of that regional diplomatic specialty: misdirection.
Just as an experienced magician engages onlookers with the flourish of the right hand while the left surreptitiously reaches for a rabbit, so Saudi Arabia and its allies have made a grand show of punishing Qatar amid accusations that it supports the Islamic State and Islamist extremism in general.
Don’t be fooled. The real target of the Saudis, along with its partners Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Egypt, is not the small, gas-rich emirate but the regional powerhouse that is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
On the face of it, the Saudi-led grouping is punishing Qatar by imposing an economic and diplomatic blockade on the emirate, which sticks out like a thumb into the Persian Gulf. Reasons given include claims Qatar shelters extremists and funds their operations worldwide.
This is a bit rich, even by the standards of Gulf rhetorical obfuscation, for all regional states play the extremist patronage game to protect their own interests and to keep rivals in check. Other irritants include Qatari funding of al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab news channel whose reporting alarms its neighbors despite a pullback in its editorial independence, as well as Qatar’s support for recent popular uprisings, the so-called Arab Spring.
Qatar sees Iran as a potential partner in regional issues.
However, hidden behind the curtain lies the real source of the Saudis’ anger, their longtime geopolitical and sectarian rival Iran. Qatar’s real sin, if it can be called that, is its refusal to demonize the Islamic Republic.
This means a willingness on the part of Qatar to see Iran as a potential partner in regional issues, as well as a recognition that Iran-backed movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah are legitimate players in regional affairs. Here, Qatar is not alone among Gulf states — Kuwait and Oman maintain good ties to Tehran — but it is the most vocal and effective.
None of this sits well with Riyadh, which sees itself as the arbiter of Gulf political and military matters. Then there is the religious dimension. The Saudis, adherents of a severe Sunni reading of Islam, deeply distrust predominantly Shia Iran, and some Saudi-backed Salafi preachers question whether the Shia are true Muslims.
So why now? None of this is new, or newsworthy. For the answer, we must look further afield, to a newly emboldened Israel, Saudi Arabia’s de facto anti-Iran ally, and beyond that to an inexperienced, isolationist White House that has farmed out its regional policy to Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
Few foreign states have been as emboldened by the election of U.S. President Donald Trump as Israel, which believes it is finally free of American skepticism toward its Middle East policies.
Likewise, the Saudis have determined that Trump’s lack of interest and knowledge about the world outside U.S. borders frees their hands to pursue longstanding ambitions to dominate the Gulf. For both Israel and Saudi Arabia, this means ratcheting up the pressure on Iran, as well as its supporters.
We may never untangle the complex web of diplomatic calculations, secret deals and hidden interests that led to the boycott of Qatar. But the immediate aftermath of the affair has perhaps provided a hint.
On June 7, suicide bombings and gun attacks killed 17 people in Tehran. ISIS moved to claim responsibility, but Iranian officials wasted no time in airing suspicions that inspiration for the attacks came from Saudi Arabia, a charge the kingdom has denied.
Jonathan Lyons, PhD, served as a foreign correspondent and editor for Reuters for more than two decades, much of that time in the Muslim world. He is the author of, among other titles, Answering Only to God: Faith & Freedom in 21st-Century Iran and Islam through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism. He lectures frequently on the relationship between Islam and the West.