A huge crisis in the Middle East exploded last week. A campaign of sanctions and threats against Gulf state Qatar showed up tensions among competing Middle Eastern powers—and confusion among the US ruling class.
The blockade came after a Qatari state news website published comments attributed to the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
They described Saudi rival Iran as “a regional and Islamic power that cannot be ignored” and which it “is unwise to face up against”. “It is a big power in the stabilisation of the region,” they said.
Qatar, supported by US intelligence agency the FBI, claims the comments were fake and the result of a hacking attack.
Nevertheless they brought to the fore tensions from the longstanding competition between the Gulf’s two biggest powers—Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Saudi Arabia uses its strength and large oil reserves to establish itself as the political leader in the Gulf, an important centre of global capitalism.
It is backed by the US and together with other Gulf states leads a bloc against Iran.
Qatar is sometimes part of this bloc. For instance it was part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting a proxy war against Iran in the ongoing Yemeni civil war.
But it tries to stay independent by backing groups Saudi Arabia opposes such as Hamas, also backed by Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
It also runs a news channel, Al Jazeera, that built a reputation for reporting on movements during the Arab revolutions challenging the status quo outside the Gulf.
Now Saudi Arabia is demanding that Qatar cut its ties with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran in an effort to bring it in line.
This comes as Saudi Arabia’s attempts to block Iran’s influence, mainly through the proxy war in Yemen, have foundered.
At the same time the crisis has shown up the problems faced by the US. Saudi Arabia’s move against Qatar seems to overlap with US president Donald Trump’s plans to be more confrontational with Iran and renew attempts to isolate Hamas.
In a speech in the Saudi capital Riyadh last month Trump said that Arab countries had to “drive out the extremists”.
Tweeting as the crisis developed in Qatar last Tuesday, he encouraged Saudi Arabia. “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” he said.
He later added, “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
Yet senior officials in the US defence department scrambled to make Trump backtrack on his comments.
Within hours Trump was reportedly trying to “help the parties resolve their differences”.
Qatar is home to the US’s largest military base in the Middle East, from which it launches its bombing raids in Syria and Iraq.
More broadly though, US generals and security officials worry about their ability to keep dominating the Middle East.
Letting allies such as Saudi Arabia confront Iran means there’s less need for the US—which is damaged by the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—to intervene directly.
But that also leaves more space for jostling and manoeuvring among the regional powers in the Middle East that can end badly for the US.
It can lead to endless wars such as in Yemen, or crises such as this one over Qatar.
The US ruling class would still rather leave Saudi Arabia space to act against Iran. But with Trump at the top the situation is explosive.