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Taking sides

The Qatar crisis will soon test UK policymakers

In the maelstrom that is the Middle East, the UK can be tempted to avoid taking sides. Britain sells arms to Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in the destruction of Yemen, one of the world’s poorest states. It also enjoys close relations with its former protectorate Qatar, a country of 300,000 citizens, against which Saudi Arabia has enforced a land, air and sea blockade.

Qatar’s supposed crime is that it supports terrorists, a charge that could easily be levelled at its accuser. The real source of Saudi ire is the tiny statelet’s independent foreign policy and its ownership of Al Jazeera, the nearest thing the Middle East has to independent media.

In less than a week’s time, the temperature in the region is set to rise even further. Saudi Arabia has given Qatar until 4 July to comply with a list of demands that include closing down the media group, scaling back relationships with Iran and Turkey and sending home any Saudi citizens, who it believes are being contaminated by Qatari policies.

A defiant, though clearly nervous, Qatar says it has no intention of complying—even Donald Trump’s State Department thinks the demands are unworkable. But unless Qatar changes its mind, Saudi Arabia may decide to up the ante and military action cannot be ruled out.

The reason for this sudden ratcheting of tensions is the leadership transition that is underway in Saudi Arabia. The ruling Saud family’s ailing second generation is handing over to the third. In a country where reclusive ministers are typically in their 70s and 80s, social media savvy 30-year-olds are taking positions of power. Surprisingly, a few of them are turning out to be way more hawkish than their parents.

Take the new crown prince, 31-year-old Mohammad bin Salman. Carefully placed puff pieces proclaim him to be the great moderniser. Not long ago, The New Yorker gushed about his “Vision 2030” to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy. But as the present defence minister, he is also the architect of both the Qatar and Yemen campaigns.

So what should the UK do? Any attempt to mediate would require involvement at the level of foreign secretary Boris Johnson, which is unlikely given the government’s preoccupation with Brexit. Anyway, mediation is likely to be futile, only the United States (and possibly Nato) has Salman’s ear.

Equally important is to reassure Qatar that it isn’t alone. Fortunately, the UK’s science diplomacy organs have strong links to Doha, forged during the past two decades while Qatar has been building its science and education infrastructure. The British Council, the Foreign Office’s science and innovation network and the Royal Society should all redouble their efforts, keep channels of communication open and support initiatives that promote scholarship and critical thinking.

What everyone needs to understand is that Salman (or MBS as he is known) is about as much of a moderniser as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Once hailed as the voice of a new generation, Assad soon reverted to type when faced with the prospect of giving up power.

Salman will one day face the same test and, when he does, the UK must be on the correct side of history.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight