Opinion: Long-simmering tensions over Qatar come to a boil

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani finds himself in a tight spot. To keep his throne and his dignity, he will likely have to accept some Saudi demands (source: dpa)

The current flare-up pitting Qatar against Saudi Arabia, its Gulf allies and Egypt is not just another episode in an ongoing feud that started a quarter of a century ago. For the first time, all of the little emirate’s closest neighbors – from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt – have severed diplomatic relations, closed their air space and shut down their land and maritime borders, imposing a blockade backed by a blanket boycott. Yemen and the Tobruk-based Libyan government, a close ally of Egypt, also joined in the measures.

This is tantamount to a declaration of war, and Qataris have begun stocking up on food and essentials. It took only a few hours before the Gulf-wide dispute became an international problem. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, known for his support of the Muslim Brotherhood, rushed to show solidarity with Qatar, his country’s only ally in the region. Ankara sent additional troops and armored vehicles to the small military base it has near Doha. Iran, rejoicing at the opportunity to drive a wedge between countries in the Sunni front, immediately dispatched a ship laden with food to the besieged people of Qatar and opened its airspace to Qatari planes.

President Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke later to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, promising their support. Meanwhile, the United States found itself trying to prevent a major crisis between two stalwart allies. Kuwait has offered to mediate, as it has done in previous disagreements between Qatar and its neighbors. It has found fragile solutions before, but the tension has remained.

Growing irritation

A compromise will be harder to achieve this time. The 13 conditions presented to Doha on June 23 by Saudi Arabia and its allies are nothing short of an ultimatum. In the end, Qatar will have to follow the lead of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states against Iran and Sunni terrorist organizations.

It will also have to abandon its independent foreign policy. In 2009, for instance, Qatar convened an extraordinary Arab League summit to discuss the “Cast Lead” Israeli operation in Gaza, inviting Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal and Iranian representatives in clear violation of the organization’s rules. This greatly angered not only Saudi Arabia, but also Egypt, which was trying to broker a cease-fire; the two countries held an alternative meeting in Riyadh.

Qatar backs Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, while giving full support to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas

Following the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013, Qatar launched a virulent campaign through its Al Jazeera news network against the new regime. Egypt recalled its ambassador from Doha, a move followed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. A chastened Qatar pledged to stop and the ambassadors returned, but the media attacks against Cairo resumed shortly after.

Then and now the roots of the conflict are the same: Qatar backs Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, sworn enemies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, while giving full support to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, Egypt’s bitter foes. A report that quoted Sheikh Al Thani saying as much appeared in Qatar’s official news agency in early June. The quotes were erased quickly thereafter, but it was enough to trigger the current crisis.

Qatar’s Foreign Ministry claimed the text had been planted to harm the country. CNN reported that U.S. officials believe Russian hackers were behind the report, but Moscow has denied any involvement. Doha is carrying out an investigation and is implying that the whole affair was orchestrated by the very countries now imposing the blockade. This was met with denials by Saudi Arabia and its allies, and the incident has now developed into a full-blown crisis.

Diverging policies

Why have Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states taken such apparently disproportionate retaliation now? It may be that they are flexing their muscles after President Donald Trump assured them of Washington’s unconditional support during his May visit to Riyadh. They are also increasingly worried by Iran: after establishing itself in Iraq, Tehran is now expanding its intervention in Syria with the tacit support of Russia and supporting the Houthi rebellion in Yemen against a Saudi-led coalition.

Bringing Qatar to heel would help present a unified front against Iran and terror organizations, and ensure American backing in the event of an armed conflict. During President Trump’s visit, Saudi Arabia pledged to set up a military unit of 34,000 troops for quick intervention operations.

The Gulf states and Egypt have good reason to isolate Qatar in the hope that it will mend its ways

The trouble with Qatar started with a palace coup. Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, father of the current ruler, pushed out his own father in 1995. Banking on his country’s enormous natural gas reserves – an estimated 25 trillion cubic meters, the third largest in the world after Russia’s and Iran’s – he embarked on an ambitious policy to develop gas production. This turned Qatar into one of the world’s richest countries and most important exporters of the fuel. He then set about investing his wealth far and wide – in department stores, hotels and multinational companies, including the prestigious Paris Saint-Germain soccer club and International Airlines Group (IAG), which owns British Airways.

Al Jazeera’s newsroom in Doha, Qatar
The Al Jazeera media group, which includes satellite TV stations and websites, is the jewel in Doha’s crown. Gulf states are now demanding that Qatar shut it down (source: dpa)

Qatar, a tiny country with a population of 2.3 million – only 300,000 of whom enjoy citizenship – was inconceivably chosen to host 2022 World Cup, despite the sweltering summer heat and lack of soccer prowess. Many saw the emir’s money behind this decision as well.

But the jewel in emirate’s crown is undoubtedly Al Jazeera, the media company launched in November 1996. Run under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Jazeera is mercilessly critical of Arab regimes, especially Egypt lately, and played a major role in the so-called “Arab Spring” that led to the rise of Muslim Brotherhood-backed regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco.

Saudi Arabia took umbrage at Qatar’s policies, and relations between the two countries cooled significantly. Riyadh forbade Saudi companies from advertising on Al Jazeera, taking a big chunk out of the outlet’s revenues.

Collision course

Worse was to come, including Doha’s increasingly friendly links with Tehran. The two countries share ownership of a huge gas field in the Strait of Hormuz. Saudi Arabia might have accepted that situation, but Qatar went further and developed political relations with Iran (as seen in Tehran’s invitation to the 2009 summit) and even defense ties: high-level Qatari and Iranian military officials have met on numerous occasions, and the countries signed a defense cooperation pact in 2010.

In other words, Qatar found itself on a collision course with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s archenemy. When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, he announced that he intended to export the Shia Islamic revolution first to the entire Middle East and then to the world. Sunni Saudi Arabia, custodian of the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina, was his first target. Khomeini died without achieving his aim, but his successors are still trying, developing their contacts with Shia minorities in Eastern Saudi Arabia and inciting the Shia of Bahrain, who make up most of the population there.

Qatar feels secure enough to follow an independent foreign policy because of the presence of those U.S. bases

Qatar grew closer still to the Muslim Brotherhood and began providing financial assistance to radical Islamic organizations based on their teachings, which permit the use of jihad against “corrupt Arab societies” to bring about a new Islamic caliphate. These doctrines are at the core of most terrorist groups’ philosophies, from al-Qaeda to Daesh (also known as Islamic State or ISIS), Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and others. Qatar also financed jihadist organizations such as Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood-backed militias in Libya and Syria, as well as pro-Iranian militias – moves that endangered Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf.

Stakes for the U.S.

The Gulf states and Egypt therefore have good reason to isolate Qatar in the hope that it will mend its ways; added pressure comes from the threat that the Gulf Cooperation Council could disintegrate if Doha does not change tack. Qatar’s moves also run counter to U.S. policy, and it has been reported that President Trump’s May meeting with Sheikh Al Thani was difficult.

Washington’s good relations with Riyadh are well-known; its special ties with Qatar less so. In 1992, the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement. In 2003, the Saudis asked the U.S. to evacuate all its bases in the kingdom to placate fanatic Islamic circles that opposed the presence of infidels in a country that hosted Islam’s holiest sites. Washington turned to Qatar, which was only too happy to oblige.

A map of Gulf Cooperation Council states, with Al Udeid Air Base
The Gulf Cooperation Council – a political and economic alliance of Arab states – risks disintegration if Qatar refuses to stop supporting terrorist groups and cultivating ties with Iran (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Three bases were set up (one was closed last year) along the Al Udeid dry inlet south of Doha, including a huge air base that hosts the U.S. Air Force Central Command’s forward headquarters. It is from that base that operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are conducted. Saudi Arabia now regrets asking the U.S. to leave, and has been consulting with the UAE to find an alternative location for American forces. However, such a solution is unlikely because of the prohibitive costs. Meanwhile, Qatar feels secure enough to follow an independent foreign policy because of those bases.

All this helps explain why Washington has not taken a strong stand on the crisis and why Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called for the sides to find a compromise – so far without success.

Deep ties

Why does Qatar so stubbornly stand by the Muslim Brotherhood? Why does it consider Iran a positive, stabilizing factor and insist on friendly relations despite the strong opposition of Saudi Arabia and Egypt? Though Qatar resents the Saudis for trying to twist the Gulf states’ arms, one must remember that the Muslim Brotherhood and its tenets are now part of the country’s fabric.

The Muslim Brotherhood arrived in Qatar in four waves: first in the 1950s, fleeing the wrath of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom they had tried to assassinate. Qatar was then a poor, underdeveloped country with a population of some 40,000 Bedouins. The newcomers, including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who was to become the movement’s leading theologian, were well-received by a population in awe of these Islamic scholars and intellectuals from Egypt. They soon took over, setting up a Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs, held seminars on Islamic thinking and slowly began to define Qatar’s identity. They enjoyed good relations with the emir’s family and soon exerted a powerful influence on foreign policy.

Given the history, the 13 conditions for ending the crisis that Saudi Arabia and its allies issued Doha seem fully justified

In 1982, a second wave brought members of the Muslim Brotherhood fleeing Syria after an aborted coup. In 2011, militants expelled from Saudi Arabia crossed the border into Qatar, and in 2013 a fourth wave carried Muslim Brotherhood members fleeing Egypt after the ouster of President Morsi. Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s first director general, was a member of the Brotherhood who had fled from Jordan. Mr. al-Qaradawi still hosts a weekly program on its satellite channel (“Sharia and Life”) that draws an audience of more than 50 million listeners worldwide. He also established the International Union of Muslim Scholars and the European Council for Fatwa and Research, tasked with guiding Muslim minorities on how to live in non-Muslim countries.

Qatar therefore has contact with all Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations in Arab countries. It has offered its hospitality to leaders of the movement from Libya and Algiers, to Hamas top brass, and to many others, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qaeda officer who orchestrated the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.

Demands and compromise

Given that history, the 13 conditions for ending the crisis that Saudi Arabia and its allies issued Doha seem fully justified. The list includes demands that Qatar downgrade its diplomatic ties with Tehran, expel representatives of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and limit commercial activities with Iran so that they do not violate the U.S. embargo or threaten the safety of Gulf states.

Qatar is also called on to stop financing all groups that the U.S. lists as terrorist organizations; cut off ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and Daesh; hand over terrorists who live in the emirate to other Gulf states and give them any information it may have on terrorist organizations’ actives in their countries, as well as compensate their victims. The demands also call for Qatar to shut down Al Jazeera and the recently established Turkish military base. The implementation of these terms would be closely monitored for the next 10 years and an annual evaluation held. These are very harsh conditions indeed – and deeply humiliating. Qatar was given 10 days to accept the conditions.

Doha will not be able to reject them all, because it could lead to an armed conflict and cost the emir his throne. Qatar is in no position to resist the combined might of its opponents. It is highly doubtful that its allies, Turkey and Iran, which themselves have conflicting interests in the region, will risk getting involved in open warfare.

Nevertheless, the conditions are only the opening salvo in the usual Middle Eastern back-and-forth. Somehow a compromise will be found to accept some of the demands while leaving the emir with his throne and his dignity more or less intact. Here, Washington will probably take the lead in finding a way to end the crisis as quickly as possible, while keeping on good terms with both sides. Then, hopefully, it will resume efforts to fulfill President Trump’s pledge to strengthen a united Sunni front against Iran and terrorist organizations.

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