For almost as long as I have been writing this particular blog–almost seven years at this point–I have found the problem of the cohesion of the Sunni Arab world to be a subject that comes up over and over again . As someone who pays attention to the Arab world with a certain degree of alertness, I find it interesting to note that the tiny nation of Qatar is facing a diplomatic crisis because its actions have not been suitably anti-Iranian to suit many of its neighbors. As of writing, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Bahrain, and the Maldives have all suspended diplomatic relations with Qatar, which hosts the largest American military base in the Middle East at present , and there have been calls for the citizens of those nations to leave Qatar within the next 48 hours to two weeks.
Without desiring to inquire into the particular causes of this contretemps in great detail, it is worthwhile to note what sort of line is being drawn in the Arabian peninsula and in the Middle East as a whole. Any democratic solution in Syria would involve a dominant role by the nation’s Sunni population, in contrast to its present Shi’ite supported government. Just like the nations of the Arabian peninsula have supported various rebel groups in Syria in order to increase the power of Sunni Arab states, the nations along the Persian Gulf have a vulnerability in that there are large numbers of local coastal Shi’ites not unlike those of Southern Iraq who could very easily look to Iran as a defender of their interests in light of their common religious beliefs as opposed to their Sunni Arab rulers. The rising power of Iran and their interest in projecting that force in the Middle East hits Arabian nations in a vulnerable place and encourages them to be more cohesive and united in the face of a civilizational boundary against an enemy that could potentially threaten the existence of their regimes. In the presence of such states, the attempts of Qatar to play a mediating role in the middle of Iran and Qatar’s Sunni neighbors appear to be earning it no friends on the Arabian peninsula.
Does anything make Qatar particularly vulnerable to the need to make peace with Iran? For one, Qatar’s journalistic infrastructure, like Al Jazeera, has had a role in inflaming trouble and has been accused of various leaks and hacking with the purpose of destabilizing neighboring states. For another, Qatar’s location, a small peninsula jutting out of the larger Arabian peninsula into the Persian Gulf makes it an Arab salient on the fault line with Iran running through that troubled region. Additionally, the nation of Qatar is unusually weak in terms of demography, with only about 300,000 Qatari citizens and somewhere around 2.3 resident aliens. This weakened demography suggests that the legitimacy of Qatar requires more support than most nations do, even if the nation often punches considerably above its weight thanks to its oil wealth. The attempts of the nation to engage in a neutralist approach where they work with Iran and the Taliban on one side and the United States on the other, and where they donate a great deal of money to the Muslim Brotherhood around the Middle East, appears to have gained it a large amount of enemies who have different political approaches and worldviews.
What will Qatar do about this? It is unclear. Previously, several nations severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and the result was that some Muslim Brotherhood members were asked to leave the country, after which relations were normalized. Qatar has already been removed from various Saudi-led initiatives, and the stance against the Muslim Brotherhood taken by Saudi Arabia led to a lucrative arms deal with the United States last month. At this stage it is not clear what Qatar would be able to do that would help to build trust with its neighbors. Perhaps Qatar simply has to deal with the consequences of being on the wrong side of the line without a great deal it can do about this state. This is not a pleasant place to be, but sometimes a long chain of offenses reaches the point where one can no longer apologize away a problem and one simply has to face the fact that none of one’s neighbors want to be friendly anymore. Coming back from that kind of hostility requires time and the replacement of bad memories with good ones; this is not the most straightforward of tasks, and we will see how Qatar manages this task.
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