THE LEVANT EXCLUSIVE — By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD — If you want to understand how things are done in the Arab world, the inner working of Arab politics, you have to keep your ear close to the ground. You can access to little titbits of information, raw data, that you’d never find in mainstream journalism in a million years. More than that, by conversing with normal people, you learn how to read into those little items of raw data that’s going on behind the scenes – how decision makers perceive the world around them and the priorities they set themselves.
Shortly after September 11th, for instance, I had the good fortune to bump into a young Saudi who told me an interesting story about a relative of his who was in the same university football team as Osama bin Laden. He said that the young Osama was exceedingly polite and as modest and humble as can be, and a consummate ‘loner’. And that’s only the half of it. The Saudi went on and extolled the virtues of the Bin Laden family and how he’d had teachers at school from the clan, and how they were all so, so modest and of sterling character.
I understood, in an instant, why the Saudi regime was so terrified of old Osama in his mountain hideaways. It wasn’t so much him that worried them, or even Al-Qaeda as an organisation, but what he ‘represented’ – a rival royal family. They wanted him out of the way, almost as part of popularity contest. In a country where family is seen as a necessary stepping stone to success – political or economic – the Bin Ladens could be taken up for their modesty and piety, taking the place of the Al Sauds.
The same holds true of the surreal situation in the Arabian Gulf, with the threat to boycott if not blockade Qatar if they don’t shut down Al-Jazeera, stop ‘allying’ themselves with Iran, stop financing terrorism, etc. Such requests resulted, apparently, from a leaked phone conversations between top officials in Qatar that supposedly revealed these insidious plans. But if you go online you’re loath to find details of what exactly was said in mainstream media outlets, English or Arabic. (The Qataris insist the leaked information was all lies perpetrated by either freelance hackers or fellow Gulf states). I had the good fortune of listening in on a conversation myself that filled in the gas, between a couple of literary Egyptians talking about the situation in the Gulf. (One of them had just come back from Saudi Arabia). Turns out the crisis is storm in a teacup. The Saudi regime was angry, furious, over comments made by certain officials in Qatar – without naming names – made over the phone about Saudi Arabia and whether it counts as a ‘Gulf’ Arab country. (Comments that everybody has heard in Saudi Arabia, apparently).
This is insulting to the national pride of the Saudi regime, understandably, but there was more to it than that. The comments also went to great length about the Eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, which the Qatari officials are willing to admit are Gulf Arab, and how these provinces are Shiite majority. By pure coincidence, these locales are also where most of Saudi oil is located.
That’s probably what frayed the nerves of the Saudi regime. Like Jordan’s king they’re worried about a Shiite crescent in the Gulf, with a possible territorial dismemberment of Saudi Arabia, at the behest of (naturally) Iran. They probably ‘intuited’ that Qatar would spearhead this effort on account of these comments, and on account of its joint gas reserves with Iran. Whether such a plot is afoot is neither here there. (Qatar claims about cyberattacks do have credence given what’s happened to the Ukraine and before that the attack on the British parliament). It’s how the decision-makers make sense of what’s being said that counts – politics is perception.
Remember that Saddam Hussein made the (stupid) mistake of beseeching the Saudi people not to support an American-led war against him, during his occupation of Kuwait, by calling on the people of ‘Najd’ and ‘Hijaz’. (Please see Muḥammad Ḥasanayn Haykal’s book on the Gulf War, Illusions of Triumph). The Hijaz is the Western and traditionally more urbane part of what is now Saudi Arabia, while Najd is where the country bumpkins come from, in popular lore, before the landmass was united into a single country by the Al-Sauds who are from Najd, after all. In Arabic political-speak that’s a call for national disunity and foreign interference, sealing Saddam’s fate in the process.
I don’t happen to think that Qatar is part of some diabolical Iranian plot but, in politics, illusion often becomes reality. Qatar could be left with no choice but to throw its lot in with Iran since Iran has been offering to help Qatar out in the face of the blockade. Along with Turkey and Russia, of course. People said Camp David was a diabolical plot to get Egypt out of the Arab world and into the US-orbit. And what did those same talking heads do in the end?
They boycotted Egypt to the point that it had no choice but to become part of the US strategic orbit. Qatar isn’t Egypt but Iran has enough strategic pull in the region as it is. Or else things really could turn diabolical if other regional and world powers start hopping onto the bandwagon.