Saudi-Qatari crisis may signal further regional flare-ups

While de-escalation looks possible, there is a risk that tensions rise further, with implications for the global economy and financial markets.

The move by Saudi Arabia and its allies to cut diplomatic relations with Qatar and impose a de facto blockade of the country abruptly deepens a key line of fracture in the Middle East. There is a risk that tensions rise further. If Qatar turns to Iran for support, a direct escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be possible. A de-escalation, with concessions by Qatar is more likely, with the latter distancing itself from Tehran, as well as from the Muslim Brotherhood and other movements opposed to regimes in the region. But the current crisis could well be a prelude to further regional flare-ups.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar are long-standing, notably over Qatar’s cordial relations with the House of Saud’s arch-enemy, Iran, and its offering of asylum to Islamist opponents of the regimes in Saudi Arabia and its allies. Donald Trump’s recent statement of US support for Saudi Arabia’s strongly anti-Iranian position has given Saudi Arabia leeway to seek to rein in Qatar. Bolstered by this support, the Saudis could feel free to move on to a new round in their confrontation with Tehran, following the defeat of their allies in Syria and the stalemate in Yemen.

Unless mediation allows the Syrian and Yemeni crises and, more generally, the tensions between Riyadh and Tehran to be calmed, the Qatari crisis could prove to be the prelude to new rounds of confrontation. The policy of counter-offensive against Iranian influence by the Saudi leadership team, supported by the Trump Administration, is not without dangers.

Setbacks or lack of results would weaken the regimes of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are crucial to the stability of the Gulf region, and hence hydrocarbon prices, the global economy and financial markets. Rising tensions with Iran could escalate out of control and potentially lead to US intervention. Even if the Qatari crisis subsides, the upsurge in tensions in the Middle East in recent months is likely to create further flurries of instability.

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