The larger picture behind the Sunni confrontation with Qatar

Rubin Center:
An alliance of pro-US Sunni Arab states is emerging

The decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen to cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar is the latest step in the re-emergence of a clearly defined US-led Sunni Arab bloc of states. The task of this alliance is to roll back Iranian influence and advancement in the region, and to battle against the forces of Sunni political Islam.

Little noticed by western media, this conservative Sunni alliance against Iran and Sunni Islamism has been under construction for some time.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the first to recognize the new regime of General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi following the military coup on July 3, 2013. Financial support from both countries has been crucial in ensuring the avoidance of economic disaster in Egypt.

The Saudis and Emiratis were the moving force behind the interventions into Bahrain in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. In both cases, the intention was to prevent the advance of Iranian interests.

Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates maintained high levels of military spending over the last half decade, in spite of low oil prices. The two countries have sagely invested in air power and special operations forces – the areas most relevant to the type of wars being fought at present in the Middle East.

The results have been visible over the last two years.

The intervention to prevent the advance of the Iran-supported Ansar Allah militia toward the strategically crucial Bab el-Mandeb Strait was the first real ‘outing’ for Gulf Arab non-proxy military power (Operation Peninsula Shield into Bahrain in 2011 was a police action against popular unrest).

The results in Yemen have been mixed, but by no means constitute the debacle that the intervention has been presented as in some quarters. The Houthis remain in control of Tsana’a, the Yemeni capital. But the nightmare scenario in which an Iran-supported force acquired control of the narrow Bab El-Mandeb strait, through which all shipping between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea must pass, was avoided. Emirati and Saudi special operations forces played a key role in the fighting.

In Libya, Emirati air power, employed in support of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, has played an important part in Haftar’s fight against Islamist militants. The Emiratis built a forward air base, al-Khadim, in Marj province 100 km from Benghazi. AT-802 light attack aircraft and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters operate from the base, according to satellite imagery published by IHS Jane’s.

However, the election of Donald Trump appears to have sharply increased the scope and ambitions of the pro-US Gulf Arab states. It is clear that they identify a similar regional outlook to their own in Trump and key figures around him. This raises the possibility of a more assertive and clearly defined strategy regarding both the Iranian and Sunni Islamist adversaries.
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There is more.

The Saudis are thinking strategically and they seem to have a firm grasp of the geography and Iran's attempts to in circle the Sunni states and cut off their trade lifeline.  Those critical of new alliance don't seem to grasp what Iran is up to and the role Qatar plays in Iran's plans.

One of the ways you can tell how important Qatar is to the Iranian scheme is their food shipments to Qatar after the Sunni coalition put an embargo in place.  Even the US has tried to lift the food embargo rather than break out MRE for the 10,000 or so US troops in Qatar.  Trump seems to have a better grasp of the strategic significance of the move than the hand-wringers at the State Department.

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