This article was published on openDemocracy.
In “Morbid Symptoms“, Lebanese academic Gilbert Achcar argues that the Arab uprisings that started in 2011 took the form of a “triangular conflict between one revolutionary pole and two rival counter-revolutionary camps”.
As the democratic revolutionary components of the uprisings were unable to effectively organize and take the lead of the opposition, Achcar writes, they were relegated to the margins, while the Gulf-backed Islamist and jihadist organizations took over, dominating the opposition.
Thus, the situation that emerged in many countries was one of a clash between two reactionary camps: the national governments on one side, and the various counterrevolutionary opposition groups on the other, both “equally inimical to the emancipatory aspirations of the “Arab Spring””, which squeezed and marginalized the groups asking for freedom, democracy, and equality.
Within this framework of analysis, which I think is a relatively accurate interpretation of the Arab uprisings, the recent Gulf crisis represents an internal feud among counterrevolutionary actors.
The recent schisms between Qatar and other important regional players, led by Saudi Arabia, were caused, chiefly, by a Saudi-led settling of scores with Qatar. Doha’s independent foreign policy (in particular, its support for the Muslim Brotherhood), its ties with Iran, and its regional influence through Al-Jazeera and other news organizations, which gave a platform to activists and intellectuals sympathetic towards the Arab uprisings, were difficult to tolerate for the Saudis.
In particular, Qatar’s ambiguous role and multiple alliances during the Arab revolts since 2011 irritated Saudi Arabia, which was staunchly opposed to any alteration of the regional balance of power.
Therefore, emboldened by Trump’s visit, and led by the reckless bin Salman, the Saudi regime, supported by other surrounding countries, decided to reaffirm its authority and put Qatar in line through an abrupt and violent set of sanctionsand a list of unreasonable demands.
Dutch-Palestinian scholar Mouin Rabbani argued that Trump (knowingly or unknowingly) “effectively extended [King] Salman carte blanche to remake the region in accordance with their joint vision of durable security and stability”, giving Saudi Arabia a boost of confidence to “reassert its leadership role”, which in the “immediate term … meant bringing Qatar to heel.”
How the crisis will unfold is still very much uncertain at this time. According to Rabbani, “the situation is sufficiently tense that a rash move or miscalculation could have unforeseen consequences”. As Washington gives contradictory signals, the Qatar crisis could be “headed for either catastrophic escalation or speedy resolution.”
However, the internal rift between Gulf States should not obscure their ultimate shared goals: to maintain the political and economic status quo in the region. As academic and activist Adam Hanieh writes, Gulf countries’ “interest in preserving their regional position and their long-standing political structures … outweigh[s] the potential benefits of fracturing the project”.
Despite the real tension and rivalries, whose potential consequences and further escalation cannot be underestimated, there is far more that unites Qatar and surrounding countries than what separates them: they have similar, regressive political and economic systems controlled, in large part, by family dynasties and religious clans, and have been fully integrated into the US (and Israeli) regional arrangement for patrolling the region.
In fact, Hanieh notes, “the West and Israel want to see the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] hold together, as it has served their interests so well over recent decades”.
Also, Qatar never embraced the aspirations of the protesters in the Arab world. It supported the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya and the US-backed Saudi massacre in Yemen, as well as the brutal repression of protests in Bahrain.
In Syria, Qatar played a key role in hijacking of the uprisings in 2011 by funding extremist jihadi factions. In Tunisia and in Egypt, Qatar backed the Islamist factions of the opposition whose ideologies and programs converged with Doha’s strategic interests, supporting them in their transition to power.
Overall, “there are no principled political positions involved in these alliances”, Hanieh continues, but only “a pragmatic assessment by each state of how best to further their regional influence, always within the framework of reordering the region in a way amenable to their collective political and economic power”.
Like other actors in the region, Qatar, while it jailed protesters domestically, worked to capitalize on the protests since 2011 to advance its political and economic interests and to increase its influence in the region.
The Gulf crisis can be seen as a consequence of a broader consolidation of power in the region led by a ruthless Saudi-Israeli-US axis, aimed at reinforcing the status quo, isolating Iran, and fending off the threat of future popular mobilizations, rather than an ideological or genuine political struggle over principles or long-term objectives.
As Hanieh puts it, “each state had a common interest in this counterrevolutionary process, but their responses differed”, and “contradictory and rapidly changing constellation of alliances formed around the GCC’s common interests and their internal rivalries.”
While the Saudi-led boycott campaign of Qatar should be opposed and its hypocrisy exposed, and Al-Jazeera, with all its flaws (like any other news outlet), defended, those who support the progressive values of the Arab awakening must not put their trust in the hands of Qatar as a champion of democracy and human rights.
Qatar’s alignment with Western ambitions of control of the region, its repressive political order and exploitative economic system, and its foreign policy record, certainly do not represent a way forward for the emancipation of the populations of the Middle East.
Despite occasional, opportunistic support by the region’s governments, the peoples of the Middle East can only rely on themselves to bring about change and to challenge the region’s autocratic governments, reactionary opposition groups, and imperialist powers.
© Tommaso Segantini