07.12.2017 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

How Trade & Diplomacy Undoing the ‘Arab NATO’


The Saudi Arab led Islamic Military alliance had its first meeting in Riyadh on November 26, kicking-off Saudi Arabia’s larger ‘counter-terrorism’ agenda in the region. Despite Saudi Arabia’s repeated claims that this alliance isn’t against any particular country, the fact remains that Saudi Arabia’s previous ‘anti-terrorism’ activity has only focused on countering Iran’s increasing regional influence. As it stands, Saudi Arabia’s entire involvement in Syria has been anything but counter-terrorism. An important question to be asked in this regard is: how come the demand for ‘Assad must go’, coupled with huge funding to the so-called jihadi groups to topple Assad, be considered counter-terrorism? Conversely speaking, how can the Syrian army’s fight against the Saudi sponsored groups be called ‘terrorism’? Similarly, how can the Houthi rebellion in Yemen be called terrorism when the Houthis are only resisting Saudi expansionism and fighting for protecting their country against a foreign invasion?

Given the topsy-turvy Saudi conception of terrorism, it is not difficult to assess who the House of Saud considers as terrorist. There are already reports that indicate that Israel will be sharing anti-Iran intelligence with Saudi Arabia, and there is every likelihood that Saudi Arabia would disseminate this information to the group’s 39 other members, thereby forcing on these members recognition of Iran as their actual enemy and the real terrorist to be countered.

But this is not going to happen in just as smooth a manner as it looks on paper. Besides the fact that the Islamic military alliance still remains un-operational due to the myriad challenge of first assembling and co-ordinating forces of 40 countries, Iran’s own counter-manoeuvers are likely to render it a lot more meaningless in the overall matrix of regional geo-politics.

As such, just when the alliance was having its first official meeting in Riyadh, Tehran was finalising its commercial deals with as important regional players as Turkey and Qatar. While the deal was made to look like in the Western media reports a low-profile event, its substance tends to illustrate how a de-facto counter-alliance is already taking place against the Islamic military alliance. Unlike the Saudi alliance, which is nothing more and nothing less than a manifestation of Saudi approach of throwing money at a problem to shoo it away, this counter-alliance is not premised upon a false sense of security and enmity. On the contrary, its logic is consolidation of a regional geography of trade to undo the impact of hegemonic moves, such as blockade of Qatar and imposition of embargos on Iran.

The agreement between Iran, Qatar and Turkey, signed by largely obscure commerce ministers of the three countries, thus made its first anti-blockade move when it was announced that part of its purpose was to establish a “joint working group to facilitate the transit of goods between the three countries” in order to tackle the deliberately erected “obstacles to sending goods from Iran and Turkey to Qatar.”

What makes this largely un-noticed move really important is the fact this agreement is one potential Turkish step towards facilitating a potential undoing of Saudi attempts to isolate Qatar and force it to give in to Saudi Arabia as the regional hegemon. This, however, hasn’t happened and stands no chance of happening, thanks to Iran’s trade diplomacy and Turkey’s gradual shift away from Riyadh, which in turn is rooted in its shift away from the US/NATO, and its newly discovered convergence of interests with Iran and Russia.

Iran, utilising its entente with Turkey that was built as a result of their sustained cooperation in Syria through Sochi and Astana peace processes, has been able to woo Turkey into bringing a shift in its erstwhile pro-Saudi foreign policy. Since the blockade, trade between Iran and Qatar has increased by 117 percent. Figures released by Iran’s customs administration show Iran exported 737,500 tonnes of non-oil goods worth $67.5m to Qatar over five months – an annual increase in growth by 30.8 percent in volume, and 60.57 percent in terms of value.

But Turkey’s involvement in anti-Saudia moves isn’t just due to Iran’s successful diplomacy. As a matter of fact, Qatar’s investment in Turkey is over $20bn, the second highest in terms of value by any country. This was bound to force Turley to up its support for Qatar. In an extraordinary session on June 7, two days after the start of the Gulf crisis, Turkey’s parliament ratified two earlier agreements allowing Turkish troops to be deployed in Qatar and another approving an accord between the two countries on military training cooperation. This ratification was followed by the arrival in Doha on June 18 of five armoured vehicles and 23 military Turkish military personnel with plans to increase the number of troops to 3,000 and keep a brigade in the Gulf country.

A crucial reason for Turkey’s eagerness to support Qatar and Iran is the gas-factor. Russia, Iran and Qatar account for around 55% of the world’s proven gas reserves, and they are leading players within the Gas Exporting Countries Forum. Tukey, with its gas imports rising by 22 per cent in September 2017, does stand to benefit greatly from this alliance in terms gaining access to a huge reservoir of gas resources and thus keep its economy running. Not surprising, Turkey’s natural gas imports from Russia increased by 14.6 percent to 2.27 bcm in September 2017 compared to 1.98 bcm in September 2016. And, already Turkey has signed an agreement with Qatar, according to which Qatar will deliver 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas equivalent LNG, thus indicating the strengthening of mutual dependency between the two countries, and particularly enabling Qatar to defy Saudia’s hegemonic moves.

It is obvious that the counter-alliance thus taking shape between Iran, Qatar and Turley is likely to have far reaching consequences for the Saudia led ‘Arab NATO.’ It has already undone Saudi’s plans vis-à-vis Qatar, and it is likely to do a lot more damage to Saudi’s high ambitions once mutual relations between the Islamic alliance’s members and Iran (most IMCTC members maintain friendly relations with Iran) start figuring in determining the Islamic alliance’s policies, regional strategy and tactics. Even Pakistan, which maintains deep ties with Saudi Arabia, is ambivalent vis-à-vis Saudi policies, and instead is itself eager to improve ties with Iran. Already, Pakistan is reported to have become one of the countries, apart from Turkey and Iran, which have increased their exports to Qatar. These developments are only going to turn the Islamic alliance into a Saudi albatross around its own neck and will force the alliance to seriously fall short of achieving its objectives—that is if it ever becomes fully operational.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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