When Saudi Arabia says jump, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain ask “how high?”
That’s essentially what happened Monday, June 5, when Riyadh decided to cut diplomatic ties with its former puppet Doha, officially because an uppity Qatar was not coming down hard enough on Islamic terror groups, but unofficially because it was playing too nice the Tehran.
(And this time around, Egypt joined in the hopping bout, mainly because Saudi Arabia invoked that touchstone topic of the Muslim Brotherhood to ruffle Cairo’s feathers.)
To understand the rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar — and the four-nation (five, if you count Yemen, which has the ultimate yes-man government when it comes to kowtowing to Saudi Arabia) announcement to severe relations with Doha just 10 days after U.S. President Donald J. Trump visited the Saudi capital calling on Muslim nations to stand united against armed militant groups — you have to factor in the mounting tensions between Shi’ites and Sunnis, an unholy rivalry that dates back centuries and is passed down from generation-to-generation like a precious family heirloom.
The sectarian schism that is the dividing line between the Sunnis and Shi’ites began in 632, shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammed, and is at the crux of the eternal militarized tug-of-war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
About 80 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis, and Saudi Arabia has spearheaded a Sunni coalition through Wahhabism, an ultraconservative, fundamentalist brand of Islam that has become Riyadh’s engine for territorial and political expansion.
Although Qatar is a predominantly Sunni nation, it has long maintained relations with Iran, the headquarters of the Shi’ite movement and Saudi Arabia’s archenemy.
That friendship between Doha and Tehran has long been a source of irascibility for Riyadh.
So when Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani telephoned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week to congratulate him on his re-election, it stuck in the craw of Riyadh.
To some extent, Saudi Arabia’s move to ostracize Qatar can be blamed on Trump’s anti-Iran (and, by implication, anti-Shi’ite) rhetoric during his visit to Riyadh last month.
There is no denying that the U.S. president’s spiel emboldened Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, which may have caused Uncle Sam’s new Middle East teacher’s pet to believe that he could do no wrong in the eyes of Washington.
After all, Saudi Arabia did agree to a lucrative $300 billion arms deal with the United States during that meeting.
But what Salman may be forgetting it that the United States has its Al-Udeid Air Base and almost 10,000 U.S. troops stationed in Qatar, which means that Washington is not likely to take kindly to newly escalated tensions between the two energy-rich Goliaths.
So far, Qatar has steadfastly denied allegations that it supports militant groups in the region.
However, it has been supportive of the bloody terror group known as the Muslim Brotherhood, which was spawned by none other than Adolf Hitler and has been responsible for countless deaths in Egypt, including the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and a plot to kill President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954.
Qatar has also endorsed and financially backs Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States, as well as several other countries.
Consequently, air base or no air base, Qatar is pushing its luck with Trump and his take-no-prisoners anti-terrorism team.
For now, Washington seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the situation, hoping the calmer heads will prevail (which is not always the case in Middle East affairs).
There is some hope that the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional intergovernmental political and economic entity composed of all Arab states in the Persian Gulf, will step in and try to mediate the problem between Saudi Arabia and Qatar before it metastasizes to engulf other countries such as Turkey and Iran.
If not, an already dicey diplomatic situation in the Middle East may soon balloon to become an even more dangerous one.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.