The decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and a few other nations to cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism, has ramifications across the Middle East, not least in Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi delayed his visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud by a week so as not to be seen as taking sides.
However, even as Baghdad and Riyadh announced a “quantum leap” in bilateral relations according to statements, their relations, which have been lukewarm in recent decades, remain overshadowed by the dominant Iranian influence in Iraq.
Iran is a supporter of Shia militias in Iraq, while several Shia political parties enjoy strong historical ties to Tehran.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia has previously criticized the Iraqi Shia militia Hashd al-Shaabi for being a “sectarian organization which threatens Iraq’s unity.”
Baghdad has been more suspicious of Saudi meddling in Iraq for fear of inciting its restive Sunni population.
Saudi only reopened its embassy in Baghdad after a 25-year hiatus in 2015. By then, Tehran’s footprint was firmly established in Baghdad.
Also on Abadi’s Middle East tour was Iran, whose jockeying for regional supremacy with Saudi ultimately led to the Gulf standoff with Qatar.
Tally Helfont, Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Kurdistan24, “No matter how much the Saudis try to woo the Iraqis, Iran’s talons are firmly sunken into Baghdad, enabling the Iranians to operate unfettered throughout Iraq.”
“This state of affairs continues to divide Sunni from Shia, keeping the Sunnis aligned with Da’esh and Iraq’s traditional Arab allies at bay,” she added, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
The growing influence of Iran in the region has startled Saudi and its Gulf neighbors, as Iran seeks to consolidate a Shia corridor from Tehran to Beirut.
If Iran can muster some control over the Iraq-Syria border, then it will have an effective land route for military supplies and to stamp its authority.
The diplomatic stand-off has led to an economic embargo on Qatar as land and sea routes were severed. Qatar labeled the accusation of supporting terrorism as “unjustified.”
Ironically, each of the concerned countries has been supporting various proxy groups and enhancing their agendas.
The Saudi-led Gulf discontent with Qatar is not new. There was a similar diplomatic impasse in 2014, although it did not lead to the assertive actions of today.
Qatar may be a small state, but its regional influence belies its size, owing to its economic might that allows it to influence conflicts and geopolitics well beyond its frontiers.
It is this geopolitics that has often been contrary to the Saudi agenda, such as Doha’s support for the Arab Spring, Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas.
Qatar has mediated many conflicts, including Eritrea’s border conflict with Djibouti, demonstrating an influence that extends to the Horn of African.
It has somewhat struck an independent foreign policy tone, especially in its cordial relation with Iran, that has annoyed Riyadh and opened cracks in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The bold moves by the Saudi alliance may ironically push Doha closer to Tehran.
With Turkey, who have their first military base in the Arabian Peninsula in Qatar, enjoying strong relations with Doha and even dispatching troops as well as food supplies in support, the standoff could lead to the powers of Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Russia on one side and a Saud coalition on the other.
Saudi has counter moves of its own, such as support for Iraqi Kurds in their bid for independence as well as Syrian Kurdish autonomy.
The reaction to the diplomatic standoff places many countries in a difficult predicament. For example, the US has expressed a contradictory stance so far.
On the one hand, US President Donald Trump initially backed Saudi in a series of tweets.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been much more conciliatory, urging Saudis to ease the “blockade.”
Tillerson’s spokeswoman recently issued a statement underlining his impatience with the Saudi-led alliance and stating the US was “mystified” by their failure to list demands for Doha.
Qatar hosts Al-Udeid, the largest US airbase in the Middle East.
Saudi has been the traditional US ally in the region, but Washington can ill-afford to let Qatar slip into the hands of Iran and Russia, making a peace settlement in Syria, as well as regional conflicts much more tenuous.
According to Helfont, even at its boldest, Qatar has struggled to “shrug off the yoke of the Al-Sauds.”
“The intertwined nature of the strategic fates, militaries, and economies of the Gulf States will prevent Qatar from breaking away in any meaningful manner,” Helfont added.
“It is more likely that the Qataris will once again be brought back in line by the Saudis, if for no other reason than to retain a unified Gulf in the face of the looming threat of Iran,” she concluded.
An agreement to end the embargo looks out of sight for now, but as much as Qatar seeks to avoid the shackles of the Saudis and exert its influence, they can ill-afford long-term isolation.
First Published: Kurdistan 24