*** In the Middle East, a friend of a friend can be an enemy, and an enemy of an enemy can also be an enemy. It is like an Opium Den in which every participant accuses others of breaking the law. ***
A Powder Keg
The showdown over Qatar triggered tension over two ongoing processes that will affect global stability for some time to come. They are:（1）the geopolitical contest over the Persian Gulf divide, and （2）the unfinished business of Arab Spring.
Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest offshore liquefied natural gas (LNG) reserves between them in the Persian Gulf. Qatar is Sunni Arab. Iran is the largest Shiite nation. Qatar has begun production of LNG on their side of the Persian Gulf. Iran is awaiting investment dollar and technical assistance. It is common sense for Qatar to maintain amicable relations with Iran.
LNG is increasingly substituting oil as the preferred fossil fuel in the world. Besides the Middle East and Russia, the US is also a leading producer (although not yet an exporting nation, it is negotiating a deal to export to China). China’s priority with environmental concerns has made it the major and increasing buyer of natural gas. Saudi Arabia, the traditional oil producing leader, has been caught off balance by this trend and other socio-political changes.
As with the strategic resource of petroleum (the black gold), LNG (the liquid gold) has become increasingly important to the maintenance of the status of the US dollar currency. For example, if major exporters Qatar, Iran and Russia were to accept RMB instead of US dollars when selling their LNG to China, the Saudi Arabia-led OPEC commitment to exclusively tie the world’s energy transactions to the US dollar would be rendered less effective, if not moot. Therefore, for Western financial capital, the liquid gold in the Persian Gulf is no laughing matter. It is a big piece in the shaping of America’s new world order.
Fortune And Misfortune
Qatar enjoys the higest GDP per citizen in the world. It has a population of 2.5 million, of which only 300,000 are Qatari Arab citizens. The rest are mostly employed there to provide services to their hosts! If you divide its GDP by the 300,000 Qatari citizens only, it comes to more than USD 500,000 per citizen per year! That is why any Joe Mohammed from Qatar would own multiple properties in London and Manhattan. Qataris are also major buyers at the world’s top art auctions. It is by far the most progressive and enlightened modern Arab state (for example, it has the highest women representation in its civil service, and more than half of its university students are women). It is also the home of Al Jazeera, the CNN of the region, and the dominant international media source in the Middle East and much of the Islamic world.
Qatar has been one of the staunchest allies of the US. In fact, the US military command in the Middle East is based in Qatar. In addition, Al Jazeera helped the US propagate its pan-democracy agenda during Arab Spring. In the process, it has engendered powerful influence, perhaps too much for its own good. True to its Western-inspired values, Qatar has been relatively open to political dissidents, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, and allowed representation of political antagonists such as Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. It is a modern-day Casablanca guarded by US guns.
Qatar’s relatively independent stance in regional and global affairs had caught the ire of Saudi Arabia for some time. During Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia felt threats both to its domestic stability and regional leadership. As soon as Obama was gone, it sought to “buy” US back on track to the grand oil stratedy. It could not wait to settle scores with Qatar and assert its strength in the bigger standoff against Iran for regional hegemony. But it can easily over-play its hand and open a Pandora’s Box.
After Donald Trump received, in his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, a US $ 110 billion deposit for military equipment, and an additional US $ 200+ billion pledge for future purchases, the Saudis acted as if they had a “blank cheque” to settle its scores with Qatar. Whatever the agreement might have been between the Saudis and Trump (and there likely was one), the surprise move by the Saudis to cut off ties with Qatar led many astute analysts to understand why Rex Tillerson, Chairman of Exxon, was picked as Donald Trump’s Secretary of State. There is indeed an energy play in the Middle East that is part of an updated US grand strategy. To defend the status of the US dollar, it makes sense for the Americans to secure both oil and LNG markets, playing all sides as it were. At this time, the US holds all the cards, or at least most of the strong ones. Of course, it is not without risks and uncertainties and it can backfire severely if not handled properly.
In any case, it is Qatar’s turn for misfortune. To possess such a delicious bone of others’ contention as well as contempt, it will no longer be allowed to be as “free and independent” as before. If not careful, its misfortune can reach devastating proportion.
Potential Contagion Effects
We have to be mindful of the contagion effects of this standoff, which is unlikely to be settled soon. (a) It will complicate the ongoing universal war in Syria, as it enters the complicated and delicate phase of scrambling for post-ISIS territorial divisions among umpteen countries and groups, including the delicate issue of Kurdish statehood. (b) It is likely to trigger family feuds and domestic discontent in Saudi Arabia that will hasten the destined demise of the antiquated House of Saud. (c) It can become another catalyst for violent Islamic caliphate movements to gain recruits and spill over to other parts of the world. (d) Any sudden outbreak of hostility between Saudi and Israel on one side, and Iran on the other side, may set off a dangerous domino for the delicate global balance, bring the US and Russia to a head-to-head, and shuffle the pieces from Syria to Turkey to Ukraine, and from Yemen to Somalia to Egypt to Sudan to Lybia and the rest of northern Africa.
Meanwhile, Qatar has shown no sign of relenting. It went straight to Russia, Iran and Turkey, and even got Pakistan’s pledge to send 20,000 troops to Qatar. Turkey has already landed additional troops and fighter jets and setting up its military base in Qatar. Trump sold another US$ 12 billion F-15 fighter jets to Qatar, in what many characterized as “ransom money” for dispute resolution. Two days ago, rumors floated that Israel had, for the first time ever, moved fighter jets into Saudi Arabia. Even if unconfirmed, it is foretelling an imminent historic breakthrough in the forging of a Saudi-Israel rapprochement, that will be the center-piece of the new Middle East strategy of the US.
Here, we should mention the entries of two thirty-something individuals onto the center-stage — Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and the newly-appointed 31-year old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of the Saudi King. Their roles in the Big Game are dangerously fragile. (More details about the duo in another email.)
Significantly, three Chinese warships visited Iran last week and conducted a one-day military exercise with Iran at the Strait of Hormuz, at the strategic mouth of the Persian Gulf. It is a very explicit gesture to the Americans not to forget China’s interests in whatever actions thay may undertake in the region. Coincidentally, the top cabinet-level Diplomatic and Military Strategic Dialogue between China and the US took place last week in Washington. It is fortunate that high-level communication is regularly ongoing and swift between the two countries. (An update on US-China relations will follow.)
Lesson Of World War One
In 1917, when Germany gave Austria-Hungary what the latter took as a “blank cheque” to settle its score against Serbia after the assasination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, one thing led to another. The standoff and threat of a showdown soon embroiled everybody into the First World War.
Today, the supposed Arab family feud between Saudi Arabia and Qatar draws in Iran and Russia. It automatically upsets the balance beyond the Arab world. It is bringing in Turkey, which has designs of its own. With a dissonant Turkey involved, NATO is automatically yanked into the potential fray. It is also bringing in Pakistan, which is situated right at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and deems it a Muslim family duty to intervene. Wherever Pakistan is involved, naturally India will be involved on the other side.
We must revisit the lesson of the First World War, when everybody preparing for “just in case” eventually triggered a whole series of “just-in-cases” that plunged the world into a general war that nobody really intended. The danger of the Middle East today is its domino nature, as amply demonstrated in recent years with what-used-to-be Syria. I had called Syria a Hornet’s Nest, before all the troubles started. Today’s Qatar is a potential center-piece that may glue or unglue a much bigger global Jigsaw. The Jigsaw revolves around two geopolitical processes that will last for some time to come.
（1） The Persian Gulf Divide
George W. Bush’s war on Iraq replaced a minority Sunni regime under Saddam Hussein with a Shiite-dominated one, and a country littered with armed tribal groups and ethnic divisions. Worse, it created a power vacuum regionally that was naturally filled by Shiite Iran, which extends through Iraq into a Shiite minority-controlled Syria under Assad. That alarmed the Sunni Arabs in the region, and Israel, creating today’s Persian Gulf Divide.
If you draw a middle line in the Persian Gulf today, you more or less have marked out the confrontation locked between two geopolitical blocs, and a fault-line that could be the origin of global earthquakes. On the north are the mostly Shiite-controlled areas anchored by Iran, sweeping like a crescent westward down parts of Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah-controlled portions of Lebanon, and into Palestinian Hamas territories. Since three years ago, Iran, Iraq and Syria formed a coalition with Russia to combat ISIS and other Sunni opponents. Internally, they also have Kurdish rebel minorities fighting against the Shiite regimes, and ISIS controlling vast-but-dwindling territories. On the south are the predominantly Sunni regimes headed by Saudi Arabia and the Arab emirates, with fellow Sunnis in Egypt, Libya, etc. forming a more populous bloc, with Israel temporarily sharing with them common enemies. Of course, they have the US behind them (but wait, not really, because the US plays all sides).
There is one other party here we must not overlook – China. China is not apparently embroiled in the conflict. But China is an important friend to everybody, and welcomed to do business by every party. Besides, China’s One Belt One Road initiative cannot bypass the region. Naturally, she desires peace and stability in the region more than anyone. It is also the biggest potential buyer and investor of the Persian Gulf LNG for both Qatar and Iran. China never likes to get involved with other people’s feuds, especially among familiy. Hopefully, it can bring some balancing effect to the disputes through its developing cooperative partnership relations with the US.
（2） The Unfinished Business Of Arab Spring
If George W. Bush’s policies inadvertently created the Persian Gulf Divide, then Obama’s policies opened up a Pandora’s Box by riling up socio-political discontent and populist movements in the Muslim world that fermented into far wider and deeper breeding grounds for extremism and answers to calls for armed struggle.
During Arab Spring in the early 2010’s, popular unrests erupted and, aided by Twitter, Facebook other cyber-weaponry and propaganda warfare, initially toppled many regimes in the region. Some of them were desired by the US, others turned out to be not so convenient. What was called Arab “spring” felt more like the “autumn” for the region’s autocrats and medieval monarchs. It sparked the “summer” of youthful fury against global and local oligarchs, who are perceived to be the progenitors of exploitation, subjugation and humiliation of the Muslim world. The subsequent reactionary restoration of many ancien regimes, largely according to US selective criteria, served to drive a lot of people and activities underground, and perpetually refill the batteries for violent Islamic combatants and terrorism. The introduction of not-so-precise bombings by drones in the region hastened the “winter” of despair in the masses who were already tormented and displaced by ISIS, and now becoming refugees.
Arab Spring resulted in anarchy and roving bands of militia and armed combatants in some countries, such as Lybia and Syria, and repression in others, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It provided fertile soil for the call to Caliphate, a menacing prospect for the world for the long haul. Critically, it taught the extremists how to use the new powerful transfinite tools of warfare — the cyber network.
We must be careful of what different people call “the terrorists”. Indeed, combatants marshalled under the call to Caliphate from all over the world have become real forces to be reckoned with. Now that ISIS is being broken up in Syria and Iraq, they are potentially more menacing as they disperse. Like toxins and mutating viruses running through the lymphatic channels, they are now forced to spread all over the regions and faraway parts of the world, to North Africa, Europe, the Philippines, Indonesia, parts of China and elsewhere. They have now morphed into a guerilla warfare mode and hibernating in real and virtual cells across the world. Recently, they might have secured a new base, as government forces decided to vacate Marawai in southern Philippines to the rebel forces claiming to pledge allegiance to ISIS.
The label “terrorists” are being used by all sides against targets under their immediate agenda – for example, Qatar is being ostracized because, according to the Saudis, it allegedly provides support for ISIS. But everybody knows that the biggest money support for ISIS had always come from Saudi Arabia, which used ISIS as surrogates to undermine the regimes and opponents in the Shiite Crescent. Ironically, every antagonist in the universal war around Syria had supported terrorist combatants at one point or another. It matters only which side they are fighting against, and when.
A Black Swan Footnote
In addition, a time bomb is ticking away that could send the region and the world into a tailspin — the collapse of the arcane and medieval House of Saud, and the prospect of a war on Saudi succession. The CIA should already have this issue well under its purview and orchestrated control, but there is no telling how things will turn out.