Saudi-Qatar rift is old theme with Trumpian twist

Part of the flag of Qatar is seen in this picture illustration June 5, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s whistle-stop visit to the Gulf has emboldened Saudi Arabia to settle an old score. The kingdom and its closest allies have cut ties with Qatar and accused the gas-rich sheikdom of supporting terrorism and sidling up to Iran. It is a dramatic escalation to a lingering feud in a region that meets a fifth of world oil supply.

Tempers fray easily between Riyadh and Doha. The latest prompt was a speech by Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani – published on state media but later officially rebutted – which supported Iran’s role in the region and branded Trump as weak. After a failed attempt by Kuwait to mediate, Saudi and three allies including the United Arab Emirates said they would impose what is effectively a blockade.

Qatar has frequently put Saudi Arabia’s nose out of joint – most obviously by backing causes its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members don’t. Doha backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt when Saudi supported the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It is also close to Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and unwilling to completely cut off Iran, which Saudi sees as a pariah state. Qatar denies supporting terrorism.

Border disputes have also erupted sporadically since the 1970s. In 2006, Riyadh tried to block the opening of a $3.5 billion gas pipeline running from Qatar to Abu Dhabi, claiming it breached the kingdom’s sovereign rights.

If Doha decides to fight back, that pipeline, known as Dolphin, is its most likely recourse. It supplies the United Arab Emirates with just over a quarter of its natural gas, which is used for power and to desalinate seawater. If that supply is cut off, Abu Dhabi would need to divert its own liquefied natural gas, or burn oil to produce electricity. That could boost crude oil prices above their current level of $50 per barrel, if only for a while.

The GCC, which unites the six Gulf countries in a trade, defence and economic policy, is at best weak. But it is also useful as a bulwark against Iran. Its existence also ensures that oil basically flows freely out of the region via the Strait of Hormuz. No side, other than Iran, has an interest in seeing it collapse altogether – but Trump’s indirect inflammation of an old wound has slightly raised the odds.


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