The visit of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin may be considered by some to be unexpected, but it is hardly surprising.
Although the two countries maintain considerable trade ties to the tune of half a billion dollars a year, they have for more than a decade been erstwhile adversaries.
As two of the greatest gas exporters, they rarely agree on production quotas, vying for control of this essential market. In the past 20 months, Russia has been highly critical of Saudi Arabia and Qatar for refusing to curb oil production output as global prices plummeted.
A major oil exporter, Russia – already reeling from EU and US sanctions – has suffered considerably as prices drop to the $30 mark.
The rhetoric between both countries peaked after Russian fighter bombers and naval vessels began pounding Islamist extremist groups fighting to remove Moscow’s Syrian ally President Bashar Al Assad.
As the Sunni-funded campaign to remove Assad appeared to reach a stalemate, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have since May 2015 significantly increased their support (financially, logistically and with materiel) to Wahabist Islamist factions in Syria.
The increase in support came as both countries realized that Washington was unable – or unwilling – to provide such groups as Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army with the upper hand to turn the tide against Assad.
When Russia moved to reinforce its bases in Syria and presence in the Mediterranean, the Qataris in late October 2015 announced they could militarily intervene in the civil war there to aid their Islamist allies.
“If a military intervention will protect the Syrian people from the brutality of the regime, we will do it,” Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah said at the time.
If such bravado was meant to nudge Washington to up the ante against Assad, it failed.
Russian diplomacy moves forward
A week later, the US appeared to cave in to Russian pressure to bring together senior representatives from Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, as well as the UN’s special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to meet in Vienna to resolve the Syrian civil war.
It marked the first time rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran joined discussions on Syria. The two countries have backed opposing sides in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts.
The armed Syrian opposition – classified as moderates by the US – did not participate in the talks.
By expanding the number of countries meeting on the crisis – and bringing Assad’s critical backer Iran to the table – Russia effectively minimized Qatar’s and Saudi Arabia’s influence in the conflict.
In late November, on the sidelines of the third summit of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) in Tehran, Putin thanked Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei for his help in Vienna.
Moscow and Tehran have supported Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad and insisted that he be part of an interim political process and future elections.
“All this is done, of course, in agreement with the Iranian partners … I think that without them it would be impossible,” Putin said in comments carried by Russian news agencies.
Russia also played a critical role in ensuring that Iran and the other permanent Security Council members (and Germany) sign a deal which would curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of debilitating sanctions.
If it wasn’t clear yet, a rising Russia was increasingly flexing both its military and diplomatic muscles in the Middle East.
Even Egypt, which has been financially sustained by Saudi Arabia, defied its Riyadh benefactors and backed Russia’s approach to resolving the conflict.
On December 18, Russia and the US agreed to a UN Security Council resolution “to convene representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition to engage in formal negotiations on a political transition process on an urgent basis, with a target of early January 2016 for the initiation of talks, pursuant to the Geneva Communiqué, consistent with the 14 November 2015 ISSG Statement, with a view to a lasting political settlement of the crisis”.
A week later, the previously chest-pumping Qatar Foreign Minister al-Attiyah was in Moscow where he praised his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov for Russia’s efforts to stabilize the Middle East.
The two diplomats agreed on the need to move the UNSC resolution forward.
“We discussed in detail what’s necessary to be done to implement the agreements on the Syrian settlement,” Lavrov said at the time.
In early January, Russia’s BRICS ally China, which is also increasingly playing a political role in the Middle East, separately hosted members of both the Syrian government and the opposition. It encouraged the latter to drop its preconditions to meeting with Syrian government representatives.
In less than six months, the momentum to bring Assad down has shifted toward ensuring that a political peace process get off the ground.
So, what changed?
Qatar’s ambitions to become a regional and global player have in recent months been tamed.
Its ‘soft power’ approach to controlling the Middle East have backfired as it rushed head on against countries that have for centuries been well-versed in the art of Machiavellian empire-building and proxy manipulation.
At the same time, Russia’s aggressive immersion in the Middle East muddle has altered not only the narrative in the region but physical realities on the ground.
Anti-Assad forces have been losing significant territory to the Syrian military and its Hezbollah allies.
As Russia pounds and destroys the weapons bought by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the US appears to have retreated despite Arab Sunni protestations.
As Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani himself likes to point out, Qatar is a peace-loving member of nations that will work with the US and Western allies to bring the Middle East back from the brink of chaos and collapse.
He has blamed the international community for not supporting Arab youth in their drive for democracy, justice and economic security. That is really a scolding of the US and the West for not doing more to bring the Assad regime down.
Iran rising, Russia to stay
New realities have been forming in the Middle East.
The Iran nuclear deal, which has alarmed Washington’s Sunni allies, will not only be a moral and propaganda boost for Tehran but also allow tens of billions of dollars to flow into its cash-strapped coffers.
Iran is soon expected to flood already saturated oil markets with an additional one million barrels – a day.
Iran has successfully ‘managed’ its new ally Iraq, kept Assad in power, and maintained its proxy Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon.
With Iran and the US appearing to be at the very least cordial now, Tehran’s influence is only set to grow.
For Iran to grow as a geopolitical power, other players must first retreat.
Backing the wrong horse
By continuing to back Islamist factions in Libya, Syria and Egypt, Qatar misread and miscalculated the response of erstwhile allies in its own front yard.
Nowhere has that been more evident than in Qatar’s commitment to Egypt following the 2011 uprising which resulted in President Hosni Mubarak stepping down and the Muslim Brotherhood eventually winning power through the ballot box.
Qatar backed the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist factions in Egypt.
Egyptian hardline cleric Yussuf Al Qaradawi, who was a vociferous critic of the Mubarak government, returned to Cairo from his home in Doha just a week after the president stepped down.
Qaradawi, who is close to Qatar’s ruling family, is also a strong advocate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
When the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi was forced from power, many in Egypt felt that Qatar’s Al Jazeera was biased in favor of the Islamist group and openly belligerent against the new government.
According to prominent Middle East commentator Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Al Jazeera was used by the Qatari leadership to the service of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Even after Morsi was imprisoned and put on trial, Al Jazeera continued to support the Muslim Brotherhood despite the advice to the contrary and objections of many of its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the latter having been directly threatened by Brotherhood officials in 2012 and 2013, urged Qatar to back away from supporting the group.
After failing to persuade Qatar to terminate its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and in the wake of Saudi Arabia classifying the group as a terrorist organization, key GCC states turned on Qatar.
They accused Doha of failing to live up to a 2013 GCC security agreement to end support for the Muslim Brotherhood and stop providing sanctuary to its leaders and members.
GCC, oil and Al Jazeera America
In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha.
This was unprecedented among the usually unified and resolute GCC.
The diplomatic rift indicated that there were significant fissures within the GCC and marked a shift in Qatar’s fortunes. How could it influence the region like it once did if it was becoming a pariah among its closest friends and allies?
As Europe, the US, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE declared support for the new Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah El-Sissi, Qatar was growing increasingly isolated.
The drastic fall of global oil prices has also delivered a debilitating blow to GCC countries, Qatar included.
Brent Crude was at nearly $110 in 2013; on January 15, 2015 it closed below $30 a barrel – more than a 75 per cent drop.
Funding a civil war that is not paying dividends is not the best of financial decisions given the current oil glut.
Some media analysts have speculated that the drop in oil prices played a role in Qatar deciding to shut down its media operations in the US – Al Jazeera America.
Having lost leverage, Qatar is adopting a more pragmatic approach to carefully chart a way back to international cooperation.
Ahead of his trip to the US last year, Sheikh Tamim said in a New York Times editorial that Qatar sees itself as a force of good. It aggressively seeks to resolve conflict and enjoys playing the role of mediator and arbiter.
Russia has in recent months made significant overtures to several Arab countries, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Qatar cannot afford to be left out. When Sheikh Tamim arrives in Moscow this weekend he will likely discuss current gas and oil crises with his Russian counterpart as both seek ways to raise global prices.
Qatar could also offer to mediate between Russia and Turkey, one of its strongest allies in the region, following the diplomatic spat between Moscow and Ankara in the wake of the downing of a Russian fighter jet over Syrian air space.
Middle East commentator Camille Otrakji, however, cautions that “one can expect Qatar’s ruler to talk to Russia, without necessarily being ready to stop financing and arming the Jihadists”.
“[The] Qataris show interest in any promising investment, and Russia is today looking very attractive,” he added.
In 2006, then Secretary of State Condi Rice said that the Middle East map was being redrawn.
She likely could have never predicted the Qatar-Russia detente we see today.
By Firas Al-Atraqchi for The BRICS Post