The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt, which started over a longstanding dispute allegedly revolving around the state-sponsorship of terrorism, can be interpreted two ways. One, it shows Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt are finally serious about addressing state-sponsored terrorism. Two, it shows Saudi Arabia’s willingness to abuse any influence and power it enjoys to assert its interests across the region. In the West, the former resonates better than the latter. Elsewhere, particularly in the Middle East, the latter resonates far better than the former.
The biggest issue less powerful nations have with the US is America’s willingness to exert its military muscle and economic influence to coerce others into catering to US interests. It is the same issue that resulted in backlash against Russia over the Ukraine Crisis and China in the face of the South China Sea Crisis. When more powerful nations opt for military or economic coercion over diplomatic means, there is always some level of resentment-fueled backlash. In exercising power, leadership becomes a target for criticism and opposition. Given the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen and Syria, the Qatar blockage fits into an emerging anti-Saudi narrative.
Saudi Arabia is a regional power, but Iran is also a regional power. Because it is willing to be the alternative pole to Saudi Arabia, Iran is a more powerful regional power than Turkey or Egypt that revivals Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia does not enjoy unquestioned influence within its regional sphere of influence. Consequently, Saudi Arabia risks overextending its influence by utilizing such forceful methods. Despite massive social welfare spending, which the Kingdom is attempting to reduce due to budgetary constraints, the monarchy of Saudi Arabia thoroughly dominates its territory and its People. In attempting to extend its autocratic rule into the kingdoms of others, Saudi Arabia is sure to provoke backlash.
Recognizing the medieval culture that still greatly defines Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom continues to utilize beheadings and amputations to punish criminal acts. While reserving moral judgment on the Saudi-penal code, the Kingdom does appear to be fairly heavy handed when it comes to violating the will of the King. Within its borders, Saudi Arabia has successfully been able to maintain order with these heavy handed tactics for decades. Since the Arab Spring Revolutions, however, the Kingdom has been consumed by a fear that that this very means of maintaining order could lead to revolution. In 2011, Saudi Arabia crushed protests within its own borders to stem the risk of revolution then turned to Bahrain.
During the 2011 Bahrain Crackdown at the hands of Saudi forces, the US remained largely neutral about the Kingdom’s actions. As Bahrain is home to the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the United States Fifth Fleet, a lack of US condemnation was interpreted by the world as American support for Saudi Arabia. For America, direct criticism of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain was a choice between standing for democratic values or securing America’s military presence in the Middle East. For Saudi Arabia, it was an experiment in exerting the Kingdom’s regional influence through military might. Unchecked, it appears to have incorrectly learned a terrible lesson that will someday come back to haunt the House of Saud. In outsourcing their attempts to suppress the spread of revolution, Saudi Arabia risks sparking opposition and revolution.
With Qatar, America faces a dilemma like the one it faced in Bahrain, yet the current situation may well force the US to take a position against Saudi Arabia, if tensions escalates. Maintaining the forward headquarters of the US Central Command in the massive Al-Udeid airbase, the US military’s attempt to remain neutral this time might be interpreted to mean the US condones state-sponsored terrorism. In turn, President Donald Trump’s vocal support of Saudi Arabia can be interpreted to mean the US is excreting its will through Saudi Arabia, i.e. the US is coercing Qatar to maintain a US presence within Qatar. Either scenario, requires the US to distance itself from the conflict. Moreover, Saudi-led attempts to pressure Qatar are only likely to result in backlash for the Kingdom and those who support this action.
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