Analysts who have made so much of a Sunni-Shiite division as the key to politics in the Middle East must be scratching their heads, as a conflict between two hard-line Sunni (actually Wahhabi) states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is now roiling the region’s politics. The Saudi-led boycott of Qatar requires that small Persian Gulf principality to respond to a list of 13 demands by July 3, but there is no sign that Qatar’s government has any plans to accede to them. At the same time, Shiite Iran and largely Sunni Turkey have come to Wahhabi Qatar’s defense. Is Saudi Arabia only managing to strengthen Iran’s hand in the Gulf?
The Saudi demands include cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran, ceasing support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and closing down the emirate’s main claim to fame (besides its fabulous natural gas riches), the Al Jazeera satellite network. Saudi Arabia has cut the Qatar peninsula off from overland food supplies that used to go by road from the Levant through Saudi Arabia to Doha. Riyadh and its allies (including Egypt) have denied Qatar Airways overflight and landing rights (which is illegal in international law). And the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is now saying that Qatar could be permanently shunned and economically boycotted by the Gulf Cooperation Council. These moves will likely destroy the six-nation GCC, formed in the early 1980s from Sunni and Wahhabi Gulf emirates and monarchies, to which both Qatar and Saudi Arabia belong, along with the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman. Oman has not gone along with the boycott of Qatar, and has itself long had lines into Iran.
Iran President Hassan Rouhani called the young Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Sunday to reassure him that Iran’s airports and air space are open to Doha, and that Iran would like to expand economic ties, especially with regard to the private sector. Iran has also sent several planeloads of food to the small emirate. Although the wealthy Qatari citizens, some 300,000 people, are in no danger of not being able to afford food imported expensively by sea and air, high grocery prices could provoke an exodus by the some 2.5 million guest workers. That outcome would devastate that small part of the Qatari economy not dependent on hydrocarbons and make the emirate even more demographically exposed (Qatar has about the same citizen population as Iceland; Saudi Arabia’s is more like that of Romania).
Qatar points out that the Saudi demand that it cut off Iran makes no sense for Doha, given that the two countries share an enormous underground natural gas field that stretches under the Gulf. Qatar has been able to develop its fields and to export using the technique of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which can be put in canisters and shipped by sea. Iran was not allowed to have this technology while under sanctions. Qatar is thus way ahead of its partner in developing the fields, which has produced sore feelings in Tehran in the past. That is, while Qatar needs to talk to Iran, it is because of a long-running dispute, not because Qatar sides with Iran on most issues.