Gulf Pulse

In wake of Trump visit, Saudi-led Sunni bloc already splintering

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Article Summary
Less than two weeks after Trump's summit in Saudi Arabia, "Arab NATO" is showing signs of division due to fears of widening the regional political divide and doubts over Washington's reliability.

The Saudi-orchestrated bloc of Sunni Muslim states celebrated at US President Donald Trump's visit to Riyadh is splintering less than two weeks after the summit. There is growing unease with the summit's intense animosity toward Iran and increasing concerns that the Saudis are inflaming the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites. Trump's domestic troubles are also raising doubts over whether Washington is reliable.

The most acrimonious split is in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which held its own private summit with the president. The Qatari emir allegedly told an audience at home just after the summit that the Saudis were placing too much trust in a president in deep political trouble at home. He also criticized the virulent rhetoric castigating Iran at the summit. Emir Shaykh Tamim bin Hamid Al Thani has publicly said the Gulf states need to engage Tehran, not isolate it. He called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on his re-election. In response, the Saudis and Emiratis blocked Qatar's Al-Jazeera network. The Qataris said the emir's remarks had been hacked by unknown sources and misinterpreted, but they provided little evidence to support their claim.

The Saudis next escalated the dispute with Qatar considerably. The Saudi media reported May 28 on an open letter from the Al-Shaykh family, the descendants of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The letter is signed by all 200 of the male descendants of the founder of Wahhabism in the kingdom. The al-Shaykhs are the al-Saud's critical partners in the ruling of the kingdom and provide its religious legitimacy. The minister of Islamic Affairs and the grand mufti both signed the letter.

The letter accuses the emir of an unidentified Gulf emirate of falsely claiming that he is a descendant of Wahhab. This false claim is not only "fabricated" but it also is allegedly being used to misinterpret Islam. The letter demands that the bad emir change the name of the largest mosque in his country, currently named the Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque. (The largest mosque in Doha, Qatar, is in the only other Wahhabi state aside from Saudi Arabia).

The letter is from the heart of the clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia and amounts to an indictment of the legitimacy of the Qatari ruling family. It is unprecedented in GCC politics for one state to dispute the legitimacy of another's royal family. It's also a quarrel within Wahhabism.

The Saudi media has also accused the Qatari foreign minister of meeting secretly with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qasem Soleimani in Iraq to cooperate against American and Saudi interests in Iraq. There is no independent verification of this information.

The Qatari quarrel is highly visible and has gone on before. It's a repeat performance of the "uppity" Qataris' challenging their bigger brother. More quietly, Oman has also distanced itself from the Saudi bloc. Sultan Qaboos did not attend the Riyadh summit and his representative did not get a short bilateral meeting with Trump, as did all the other GCC representatives. Oman has stayed out of the Saudi war in Yemen and has kept open its ties to Iran.

Both Qatar and Oman have economic ties with Iran that constrain their approach to Tehran. But the emir and sultan are also very troubled by the growing sectarian tensions throughout the Islamic world.

Doubts have also surfaced in Pakistan, which shares a long border with Iran and has a large Shiite minority. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif received an apology from King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud for not arranging a bilateral meeting with the president or allowing Sharif and other Muslim leaders the opportunity to speak after Trump addressed them about Islam.

Saudi relations with Pakistan have been troubled since the start of the war in Yemen, which Pakistan decisively refused to join despite repeated Saudi requests. The Pakistani parliament even voted unanimously to keep out. Pakistan is the Muslim world's biggest military power and the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons.

The Pakistani media is now criticizing the Riyadh summit relentlessly for exacerbating sectarian tensions. One commentator called the Saudi-led coalition "dangerous" while another lambasted Trump's "bluster." The Riyadh summit was labeled "theater of the absurd" in the country's leading newspaper. Calls are growing for the Pakistani commander of the Saudi-based Islamic Military Alliance and former army commander Gen. Raheel Sharif to come home and quit his job as the leader of the so-called Arab NATO.

Saudi largesse will ensure the Sunni alliance does not completely unravel. A core group of states share Riyadh's hatred of the Iranians or are prepared to indulge Riyadh. But many more states are eager to avoid fanning the sectarian divide. They blame both Riyadh and Tehran for stoking tensions. For all of them, their own national interests trump Islamic or Sunni unity.

Correction: May 31, 2017. An earlier version of this story misspelled Gen. Raheel Sharif's name. 

Found in: sultan qaboos, pakistan, salman bin abdul-aziz al saud, tehran, nato, wahhabism, riyadh, gcc

Bruce Riedel is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Gulf Pulse. He is the director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. His new book "Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States Since FDR," will be published later this year.

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