(music for reading)
Hello and welcome back to Undercurrents. Having taken a week off for various reasons, I am back to provide you with the necessary materials to fully convert you into cynical bastards. This week, we turn our eye to the Middle East, a land known for its food, culture and intractable political, economic and religious conflicts that will in all likelihood last for centuries to come. As with anything dealing with the Mideast, this article’s going to be a long one.
If you get your news solely from American news sources (a terrible idea really), then you are perhaps not fully aware of the ongoing Qatar Crisis. Like many Middle East crises, this Qatari variant is remarkably complex, possibly explosive and all around dumb (coincidently, that’s the description on my Tinder account). To fully understand what is currently happening in the Persian Gulf, you would need 600 pages, fluency in several languages, a degree in political science, and a high tolerance for bullshit. As I only have the poly sci degree, I’ll only be able to give you a brief, incomplete and all around useless background.
On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (as I call them The Three Dick-migos) suddenly and unexpectedly cut off all ties with the peninsular nation, accusing it of supporting terrorism, having too-friendly ties with regional Shia power/Satanic Puppet State (take your pick) Iran and letting Al-Jazeera say mean things about other Arab states behind their back. In the following days, several more Sunni majority nations in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and the Indian Ocean joined the boycott, which is quickly devolving into a siege. Despite overtures by Kuwait, Pakistan and the United States to mediate, the crisis continues, involving ever more regional powers and ensuring that the Middle East will continue to not get a break.
Now, the reasons for this fuckery are complex and interconnected with the many other intractable conflicts which swarm the region like malaria-carrying flies. Historical Saudi-Qatari rivalry, the Shia-Sunni division (and its real world surrogate, the Saudi-Iran rivalry), Islamic fundamentalism, arguments over oil resources, the civil war in Yemen, nationalism, the Syrian conflict, and probably Israel-Palestine (because why not) all play a part in continuing what is essentially a bitchy spat between two oil rich autocracies with no accountability and little to no long-term thinking ability. Add in Trump’s ignorance (his reverential visit to Saudi Arabia in May no doubt led the Saudis to conclude they could get away with this) as well as a new Saudi leader who has taken his brothers’ and father’s cautious foreign policy and tossed it into the Indian Ocean, and you have the ingredients for ever greater escalation.
Of course, anyone with even a little bit of Middle Eastern knowledge will know that this spat is heavily hypocritical. Saudi Arabia’s claims that Qatar is supporting terrorism in the Middle East is probably on point, but seeing as that Saudi Arabia is one of the top exporters of terror in the region, that argument comes off less chivalric and more as some actualization of guilt and self-hatred (or more likely, naked hypocrisy built out of political opportunism). The Saudi supported branch of Islam known as Wahhabism is an extreme form of dogmatic fundamentalism, providing fanatical recruits to the regions many extremist organizations, including ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda. By Saudi Arabia’s logic, we should be walling off the Arabian Peninsula as a whole until the Saudi government stops its whole “let’s fuck up the Middle East so bad that our anachronistic monarchy can continue to resist any kind of reforms in the name of ‘security’”.
With all that out of the way, let’s get to the main story this week (a dumb story within the broader dumb story: a nesting doll of idiocy if you will). Last week, as the siege wore on, Turkey, a country which really has no place in interfering in the spats of Arab dictators, decided it needed attention and thus promised to send 3000-5000 troops into Qatar to help with internal security. Because what is more useful in defusing a tense situation than sending in a bunch of armed dudes with little knowledge of the local language or political situation? Probably not sending in a bunch of armed dudes with little knowledge of the local language or political situation actually. On a side note, these will be the first Turkish troops to enter the Gulf since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago, so congrats Saudi Arabia, at least something historic is coming out of all this.
Guess whose back, back again. Turkey’s back, tell T.E. Lawrence or a friend.
The reasons for why Turkey decided it needs to interfere are not completely certain. The Turks had previously offered to mediate on behalf of both sides but that was met with a silence equivalent to the sound of one hand clapping, so it was pretty clear their presence wasn’t needed. Economically, Arab investments in Turkey are small, at least compared to European investments. And when one breaks down those limited Arab investments, one finds that Turkey’s ties to Qatar’s opponents are just as important as its ties to Qatar. So money-wise, taking a side in this conflict is foolish. Politically, Turkey has ties to the Qatari regime, but they are not deeply established outside of the relationship between Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Turkish President/Putin-lite Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It makes more sense politically for Turkey (which since the Syrian crisis has increasingly turned its eye southward) to remain neutral and let the plutocracies hang themselves.
This irrationality and uncertainty of Turkey’s position in this mess appears to be at least partly reflected by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). During an AKP-sanctioned protest in support of Qatar, Turkish citizens accidentally flew the Bahraini flag instead of the Qatari flag (extra hilarious, because Bahrain is supporting Saudi Arabia). Online, where AKP-backed trolls dominate social media websites like Twitter, the blame for the crisis has not been, as one would suspect, on the Saudis, but instead on the Americans, and specifically President Trump. Now, I for one am totally fine with blaming most things on Trump, especially since he walked into the Middle East with the grace of a drunken bull. But America does not have much do with this crisis (at least directly); in fact, the United States has a large military base situated in Qatar and is anxious to not let the conflict escalate between its two allies. Commentators suspect that this anti-Americanism is really just a cover so that Erdoğan can switch sides at his convenience, which I believe, though there would be no need for this nonsense if Turkey hadn’t gotten involved in the first place.
Always google the flag of the country you are arbitrarily supporting before going out on your party-appointed protest, or you’ll end up with egg on your face bigger than this dude’s mustache.
Turkey is not the only outsider involved in the Qatar crisis. Iran has pledged support for Qatar and is leveraging the crisis to its advantage in Syria. Trump tweeted support of Saudi Arabia (this crisis is gonna end terrorism forever guys!!) despite the almost certain scolding he received from his intelligence and military advisers. Israel made the conflict about itself. I focused on Turkey’s interference because it seems to me that its actions were the most nonsensical in both what it sought to achieve and in its all-around making things worse. In such a complex crisis, every action taken has unforeseen results elsewhere. For example, when Qatari peacekeepers pulled out of a disputed corridor along the Djibouti-Eritrean border over East African support of Saudi Arabia, Eritrea immediately sent troops in to fill the vacuum. Now, as a result of diplomatic squabbling across the Red Sea, renewed fighting between the two nations is a real possibility. In the modern age, dick-swinging contests between autocratic leaders have consequences far beyond the suffering of their own citizens.
The lesson from all of this is that humanity remains stubbornly consistent in its short-term thinking, astonishing pettiness and love of pointless drama. The Qatar crisis is, as Bruce Riedel terms it, an utter farce “combin(ing) American incompetence, Saudi bullying and Qatari game-playing with Iranian meddling and subversion.” It is a cornucopia of bullshit, surrounding important issues of security and regional stability. Unfortunately, like most things today, that bullshit is seriously hurting people, and raising the prospects of even greater instability and whole new constellations of war. It is times like these that patient, nuanced and capable adults need to come together and resolve things in a peaceful manner. In 2017, the adults have vanished, and instead we are stuck with a bunch of man-children skipping absentmindedly towards Armageddon. Isn’t politics fun?
Well, on that bleak note, it’s time to wrap up this overlong edition of Undercurrents. Maybe next week I’ll do something simple, something involving puppies. Puppies are fun. Come back Wednesday for a new poem and Friday for a new edition of Specters.
The header photo is “Turkish Calvary, Wady Guzzeh, 1917” and can be found here. The other old photo is “Muster on the Plain of Esdraelon, preparatory to the attack on the (Suez) Canal, 1914” and can be found here. The Library of Congress is an excellent source for World War I era photos of the Ottomans, though finding pictures from Ottoman Arabia is surprisingly tough. The Twitter screenshot of pro-AKP protesters waving the Bahraini flag is from here.