A century ago, it was Gertrude Bell who helped empower Saudi's first king. Now, as Saudi continues living in its colonial bubble, it's Ivanka Trump
Shortly after the heavy guns of the Emirati and Saudi-controlled media fired their salvo at Qatar, their Gulf neighbour lay in a smouldering ruin, unable to host anyone or anything, let alone a World Cup. At least, that was how they fondly imagined it.
The claims were hysterically inflated: Qatar funded all the terrorists; Qatar could not be allowed to “sabotage the region”; Qatar must choose sides over Iran. Finally, the emir of Qatar was reminded of the fate of Mohamed Morsi.
The threat to topple the head of state of a fellow GCC member was not even made anonymously. It was made by the man whose job it is to represent Saudi interests in the US. Salman al-Ansari, the president of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, tweeted: “To the emir of Qatar, regarding your alignment with the extremist government of Iran and your abuse of the Custodian of the two sacred mosques, I would like to remind you that Mohammed Morsi did exactly the same and was then toppled and imprisoned.”
This is an interesting thing to say to an ally providing troops to protect Saudi’s southern border with Yemen. Egypt, for one is not. Or to a government that extradited a political dissident to Saudi on the same day as it was attacked as being pro-Iranian. It's interesting, too, after King Salman visitedQatar and danced with the emir.
But perhaps the king is no longer aware of what his 31-year-old son is doing in his name.
The hacking of Qatar News Agency on 24 May was just the starting pistol. Within minutes of the hack at 12:14 am, Al Arabiya TV and Sky News Arabia quoted the text of the fake material. Within 20 minutes, the networks ran analyses, implications, quotes and tweets.
According to the Qatari authorities, between 12:51 am and 3:28 am, the networks managed to find 11 politicians and analysts to interview on-air. Fast work for a duty editor “reacting” to a story in the middle of the night. He deserves a raise.
Another strange coincidence: all of this was preceded by 14 different op-ed pieces in the US press about the danger to regional stability that Qatar represented. This, again, is puzzling because it has been years since anyone bothered to write opinion pieces about Qatar in the US media.
So it's clear what happened. This was a premeditated assault. What is less clear is why, and why now ?
Qatar’s support for Egypt’s political exiles, secular and Islamist, is long-standing. It has housed the former political leader of Hamas since he left Damascus. Al Jazeera is also a known quantity, albeit one that became, under pressure like this, a pale shadow of the network that covered the Arab Spring.
Al Jazeera’s coverage of Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh was, if anything, cringeworthy. So too is its coverage of the war in Yemen. This is carefully vetted so as not to annoy the Saudis. What specifically then stirred this hornet’s nest?
There are several possible motives for doing this.
Motive one: Finish the job
The first motive is that both Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince of Saudi, and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, see Trump as an opportunity to finish the job started in June 2013 when Morsi was toppled. The counter-revolution against freely elected governments has not been going that well. Egypt still has not stabilised after the billions of dollars spent on it. Three different governments vie for power in Libya. The Egyptian and Emirati place man Khalifa Haftar is taking his time marching towards Tripoli and the Houthis are still in control of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a.
Nor is the alliance between Bin Salman, Bin Zayed and Sisi that stable. These men could easily fall out with each other again, as they did when a Nasserite furore erupted in Egypt over the surrender of uninhabited islands to Riyadh. Bin Zayed and Bin Salman are also backing rival Yemeni groups over the control of Aden.
But this alliance is stable enough to unite all three men in a common mission to crush all dissenting Arab states.
Motive two: Buying insurance
The second motive is a personal one. By launching an attack on Qatar, they aim not only to silence external opposition, but internal forces as well. In Bin Salman’s case, silencing opposition within the royal household is a crucial step he has to make, before he can displace his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince.
By hitching themselves so firmly to Trump’s wagon, Bin Salman and Bin Zayed think they have bought themselves an insurance policy. This, however, depends on Trump completing a full term as president. Not many in Washington who are awaiting the testimony next week of the former FBI director James Comey to the Senate Intelligence Committee, or who are waiting to see how long ambitious Republicans like Senator Paul Ryan will stay loyal, would be so sure.
Turkey, too, is still around as a rival regional power centre although for a few hours on 15 July last year, it looked as if it was not. The same Saudi and Emirati-controlled media outlets which targeted Qatar this year crowed with delight when it looked as if Erdogan had been deposed by a military coup.
So it would be logical to assume this is their motivation now for wanting to see the emir of Qatar toppled: he is the man who funded the popular revolutions that Saudis and the Emiratis are still fighting.
Motive three: Disappearing act
The third motive for attacking Qatar goes further than that. They could actually want to see Qatar itself disappear as an independent state. This sounds, and is, deranged in the century we are living in. For one thing, Qatar houses the forward command base of US Central Command. That may explain why the UAE is campaigning hard in Washington to move the US base out of Qatar.
But the thinking behind this campaign may have little to do with events happening in this century. A series of tweets have emerged from officially sanctioned bloggers in Riyadh, dragging up events over 100 years old. They dug up the role of the British in selecting the al-Thani family as the chosen rulers of this part of the Arabian peninsula.
Without any intended irony, they ascribe Qatar’s current troubles to the agreement of Mohammed al-Thani made with the British in 1868, which paved the way for the family to impose its political authority over the other tribes.
The Saudi newspaper al Eqtisadiah tweeted that the tradition of transferring power in Qatar was from father to preferred son, rather than from father to eldest son. It further tweeted that 40 percent of the oil revenues were shared out among the al-Thani royal family.
Histories and boomerangs
Exhuming this stuff is mind-bogglingly dangerous for any thinking member of the Saudi royal family. Where, for instance would the House of Saud be without British Imperial endorsement? Just one floor up from the place in the museum of King Abdul Aziz where Trump performed his sword dance, stands a picture gallery in which a British woman is featured prominently with the founder of the kingdom himself.
That woman is Gertrude Bell. An archaeologist, explorer, the greatest woman mountaineer of her age, and a talented political officer for imperial Britain, Bell played a major role in establishing the state of Mesopotamia, now Iraq, and in selecting the tribal leader to back in Arabia.
Bell travelled to Ha’il, the base of rival al-Rasheed tribe, and was familiar with the Hashemites in the west. She concluded that Ibn Saud, then aged 40, was the best bet. This is her description of him:
“Among men bred in the camel-saddle, he is said to have few rivals as a tireless rider, as a leader of irregular forces he is of proved daring, and he combines with his qualities as a soldier that grasp of statecraft which is yet more highly prized by the tribesmen. To be ‘a statesman’ is perhaps the final word of commendation. ”
Praise indeed. But this is what the House of Saud carries in its baggage.
Transfer of power from father to preferred son? Mohammed bin Salman is not the eldest son of Salman, but he self-evidently is the preferred one. Heaven forfend that such a charge against a neighbour could return like a boomerang on the worst practises of the House of Saud.
The Kingdom of Two Faces
Nor has modern Saudi Arabia overcome its addiction to foreign women. If King Abul Aziz needed the recommendation of Gertrude Bell, it seems that his grandson needed the recommendation of another foreign woman, Ivanka Trump.
The Riyadh newspaper, one of bin Salman’s tools in his current media war, got an exclusive interview with Ivanka, in which they were interested in one main question: what did she think of him?
She called the deputy crown prince an “effective role model” for Saudi, Arab, and Muslim youth, because His Highness displayed “leadership, ambition, and love for his people and country”. He was also charismatic.
Of course, neither Bin Salman, nor Ivanka are of the same calibre as their forbears, Abdul Aziz or Gertrude Bell. But a common theme emerges in these vignettes, separated as they are by over 100 years: the ruler’s need for foreign approval.
This, however, does not apply to women generally, least of all Saudi women. While Ivanka was seated centre stage, Saudi women were kept in the shadows.
Nothing really had changed. If dealing with women is haram in the kingdom, so should dealing with Bell and Ivanka be. If its halal to talk with them, why then should Saudi women not be equally represented at these gatherings? Once again, the kingdom has two faces, one for a Western audience, another for a domestic one.
Bin Salman and Bin Zayed are stuck firmly in the colonial era. They are tribal rulers, paying for protection, and draining the region of resources. They can plot, and they can topple, but they cannot govern and they cannot stabilise. They do not have a vision for the region. They have eyes only for themselves. That is why I remain optimistic that out of the havoc they are wreaking, a new, autonomous and modern Arabia will, eventually, emerge.
- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.