Last week, I wrote about Henry McMahon, the British colonial official who engendered boundary disputes in two distinct parts of the world, West Asia and India’s North East. As the article went online, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain cut off relations with their tiny neighbour Qatar, a nation of around 3,00,000 citizens who currently enjoy the world’s highest average per capita income. Following up on the previous column, I am going to connect a few dots between McMahon’s time and the current crisis in West Asia.
To sum up the story so far, during World War I, McMahon promised the Sharif of Mecca an independent state in Arab-majority lands ruled by the Ottoman empire. Around the same time, diplomats Mark Sykes of Britain and Francois Picot of France plotted to divide up those same lands between their two countries. Not long after, the British politician Lord Arthur Balfour told the Zionist leader Baron Rothschild that a portion of what Britain stood to gain as a result of the Sykes-Picot bargain would be handed over to migrant European Jews.
Once the war ended, the Brits and French got down to the business of apportioning the spoils. They planned to dismember Anatolia and hand over chunks of it to Greece, but were foiled by a Turkish general named Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk. They were more successful elsewhere. Winston Churchill wrote of creating the nation of Transjordan, “with the stroke of a pen, one afternoon, in Cairo”. As a consequence of his candour, the inexplicable concavity in the border between Saudi Arabia and Jordan gained the name Winston’s hiccup, or Churchill’s sneeze.
‘Tribes with flags’
Churchill probably exaggerated how quickly Ottoman territory was carved up, but Europeans were certainly cavalier in their creation of new nations. Ever since, there has been no shortage of Arab individuals and groups seeking to erase those colonial borders, through force or consultation. Pan-Arabist leaders negotiated into existence the short-lived United Arab Republic and United Arab Nations in the 1950s and 1960s. A couple of decades later Saddam Hussein tried to erase the border dividing his country from Kuwait. Then, in 2014, the Islamic State rode out from its stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa and overran Mosul in Iraq, a first step in its attempt at recreating an imaginary Golden Age of Islam with a Caliph at its head.
Though the patchwork of ethnicities and denominations cobbled together as nations by imperialists were pretty arbitrary, the alternatives put in place by Arabs have proven worse. The urbane Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Basheer once said, “Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world. The rest are just tribes with flags.”
The only option to tribes with flags we have witnessed in the decades since decolonisation has been tribes without flags. To understand better what I mean, one only has to glance at the current situation in Libya.
There is one nation in West Asia that cannot be described as a tribe or group of tribes with a flag. It nearly rivals Egypt’s culture in antiquity and far exceeds it in richness. I speak, of course, of Iran. Iranians, like Turks, are not Arabs. In 1979, Iran transited from a monarchy to the only formal theocracy among the world’s major nations. The faith that Iran’s leaders espoused was the “Twelver” version of Shia Islam, centred on Mohammad’s son-in-law Ali and his descendants.
The Ayatollahs, as the world has known at least since the death sentence pronounced on Salman Rushdie, are not liberals. But the version of Sunni Islam practiced and proselytised by Saudi Arabia is considerably harsher, and implacably opposed to Shia beliefs.
The Saudis and Iran have been at loggerheads for decades, and of late things have gone badly for the Jeddah gang. George Bush’s war in Iraq left behind something like a democracy in Iraq, which put the majority Shias in power for the first time, greatly enhancing Iran’s influence. Dubya’s successor Barack Obama sought to bring Iran in from the cold by sealing a deal restricting its nuclear ambitions. That agreement infuriated the Saudis, as did Obama’s support of democracy in Egypt.
For some reason, the Egyptian public, having overthrown a military dictatorship, handed the keys of power back to the Army for safekeeping. The Saudis watched the Cairo Spring’s hara-kiri with a mixture of disbelief and jubilation. Once Egypt was back in line, they could concentrate on Shia-Sunni conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen. To their chagrin, tiny Qatar refused to get on board.
The Qatar crisis
The rulers of Qatar share the Saudis’ Wahhabi belief system, but have used it to different political ends. They supported the Muslim Brotherhood, which briefly ruled Egypt after winning free elections, and also support the Hamas movement in Palestine. The Saudis do not get along with either of the two.
Qatar has also stayed friendly with Iran. The two share the largest gas field in the world. Qatar developed its side of the field earlier, but refrained from drinking Iran’s milkshake. This was only wise. Iran has 250 citizens for every Qatari passport holder, and would not have taken kindly to having its milkshake drunk. Qatar has a US military base as protection, but the Americans could leave tomorrow, and 80 million annoyed Iranians would still be next door. The Saudis might offer security, but who would trust the Saudi army to win a war? When was the last time an Arab army won a war? Victories have been thin on the ground since the Mongols sacked the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 CE, and have gotten so sparse in the last century or so that the Arab street celebrates if it gets as close to a win as Britain’s Labour party did to a majority in last week’s election.
Qatar’s infractions finally got too much for the Saudis and their allies and, encouraged by Donald Trump, who obviously did not understand the ramifications of what was going to unfold any more than he understands the theological differences between Salafis and Ithna’asharis, an Arab coalition announced an embargo. Iran and Turkey promptly came to Qatar’s aid, and so the equation in West Asia is something like this: Turkey, Iran and Qatar are allied against Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as far as the embargo is concerned. In Syria, Turkey and Qatar support forces that fight Bashar al-Assad and Iran supports Assad. Russia also supports Assad but seems on Qatar’s side in its dispute against its fellow Arab states. Saudi Arabia supports the same groups that Qatar does in Syria. The US considers these groups terrorists but maintains a base in Qatar and sells Saudi Arabia lots of weapons. India, in keeping with its status as a leading global power, has no position on any of these matters.