WEST ASIA

Qatar in crisis

Print edition : July 07, 2017

Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani in Doha, Qatar. Kuwait’s Emir travelled to Qatar to help mediate an end to a crisis that has seen Arab nations cut off ties with the tiny energy-rich nation. Photo: AP/kuna

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud with the King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, in Jeddah on June 7. Photo: AFP/Saudi Press Agency

U.S. President Donald Trump and Qatar's Emir at a bilateral meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 21. Photo: AP

The Combined Air Operations Centre at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The centre provides command and control of air power over Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and 17 other nations. Photo: The New York Times

A handout graphic provided by Flight Radar shows how Qatar Airways flights are managing bans on flights through the airspace of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, by flying over Iranian airspace. Photo: AP

A tripartite alliance of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel, with the blessings of the U.S., seeks to isolate Qatar accusing it of sponsoring terrorism and supporting Iran, but its real grouse is that the Gulf state backs groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

THE ongoing attempt by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the region to isolate and undermine the Emirate of Qatar has the blessings, at least for the time being, of United States President Donald Trump. Behind the scenes, Israel is encouraging Saudi Arabia in its dangerous game of provoking a war against Iran. The immediate trigger for the latest crisis involving Qatar was an alleged speech made by the country’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in which he questioned the wisdom of a confrontation with Iran. In his speech, which Qataris claim was hacked, the Emir is said to have praised the role of resistance movements such as Hamas and Hizbollah.

Qatar’s support for Hamas is well documented, but Hizbollah and Qatar are on opposite sides in the war in Syria. Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, adheres to the conservative Salafi version of Sunni Islam, which considers Shias as apostates. Hizbollah, a Shia political party, is part of the government in Lebanon. Qatar was accused of paying “ransom money” to the so-called Shia terror groups in Iraq. In the second week of June, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that the $500 million ransom Qatar paid to secure the release of 25 Qatari hostages was lying in the Iraqi Central Bank. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies had insisted that the money was paid directly to a Shia militia.

The main charge against Qatar is that it is not faithfully implementing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) line on isolating Iran. The other charge is that the tiny emirate continues to provide assistance and succour to terrorist groups. But the real grouse of Saudi Arabia and its main allies in the region is that Qatar continues to back political movements and parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and a few other countries consider them terrorist groupings. On a visit to Paris in the second week of June, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adil al-Jubeir, once again raised the demand that Qatar should cut off all relations with the Muslim Brotherhoood and Hamas. Hamas, which won the Palestinian legislative elections held in the Gaza Strip and West Bank in 2006, is in power in the Israel-blockaded Gaza, and affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood are active in the politics of Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and other Arab countries. Most of the top leadership of the Brotherhood in Egypt are incarcerated, with many of them facing the death sentence.

Saudi Arabia was particularly unhappy with the Qatari government’s support to the short-lived Mohamed Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and Brotherhood-affiliated parties after the success of the Arab Spring revolution there. The Muslim Brotherhood was voted to power in Egypt in 2012 but was ousted from power soon after. Political observers maintain that if free and fair elections are held once again, the results will be the same. The Brotherhood has explicitly forsworn terrorism. The previous Barack Obama administration in the U.S. had done business with the Brotherhood.

The other major demands Saudi Arabia has made on Qatar include its immediate severance of diplomatic relations with Iran, expulsion of Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood operatives from the emirate, and suspension of the Al Jazeera network. Qatar and Iran share the giant South Pars gas field, the biggest in the world. Cooperation in the hydrocarbon sector is crucial for both the countries. Besides, many of the Gulf emirates such as Oman, Kuwait and, for that matter, Dubai would like to have good relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, which controls the UAE with its immense oil-generated wealth, are currently driving the GCC’s foreign policy.

Saudi Arabia and its allies in the GCC made their move against Qatar soon after Trump’s visit to the region. The move to isolate Qatar, at least on the surface, appeared surprising as the country hosts one of the biggest U.S. military bases in the region. More than 10,000 U.S. servicemen are based there. The Al Udeid airbase is the biggest U.S. Air Force base in the region. The forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) is also located in Qatar. The Pentagon has maintained that the base has been crucial to the U.S. military in its operations in Syria and Iraq. Even as the U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was busy trying to effect a truce among the Gulf kingdoms, issuing statements on the need for a negotiated settlement to the stand-off, Trump undercut him by tweeting a second time that Qatar was guilty of aiding terrorists.

Trump, it seems, has bought the Saudi view hook, line and sinker that Iran is the principal sponsor of terrorism in the region and that Qatar is not far behind. In fact, Trump gave a good character certificate to Qatar after his meeting with the Emir during his visit to Riyadh in May. “Our relationship with the country [Qatar] is extremely good,” he declared. Trump said he had good discussions with the Emir, and high on the agenda of discussions, according to him, was the sale of “beautiful American-made weapons”. Qatar, which is already brimming over with weapons of all kinds, did not sign a multibillion-dollar deal with the U.S., unlike Saudi Arabia. Immediate ostracism followed, with Trump discovering that Qatar was in fact an aider and abetter of terrorism all the time.

In 2011, Trump described Saudi Arabia as the “world’s biggest funder of terrorism” and added that it was using “our own petrodollars to fund terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them”. After Saudi Arabia inked the $110-billion arms deal during his visit to Riyadh, it has suddenly become a good guy in the eyes of the multibillionaire President.

The former Vice President, Joe Biden, had in a speech at Harvard said that “the Saudis, the Emirates, etc. were so determined to take down [Bashar al-] Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war that they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tonnes of military weapons into anyone who could fight Assad, except the people who were being supplied were Al Qaeda and al Nusra and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from all over the world”.

The U.S. State Department has been arguing that an alliance of the Gulf states is important for the goal of combating Iran and defeating the Daesh in Iraq. But Trump seems to be of the view that Qatar, the world’s biggest gas exporter strategically located near the Straits of Hormuz, is of no real consequence. In fact, he issued two back-to-back statements that Qatar was aiding and funding terrorism. The last presidential statement was issued immediately after Tillerson urged calm and the easing of the economic blockade imposed unilaterally against Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Qatar has a population of around three million, of which more than two million are foreigners, most of them workers from the Indian subcontinent. The gas-rich emirate is completely dependent on food imports to feed its populace. With its land borders sealed by Saudi Arabia and its neighbours prohibiting the use of their airspace for transportation of goods, Qatar has been pushed to a corner. Almost all its food and other basic necessities used to come through Saudi Arabia. Now Qatar is forced to airlift food from Turkey and Iran.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has been forthright in his criticism of Trump’s role in the new crisis in the Gulf. He attributed the escalation of the dispute to the dangerous “Trumpification” of regional politics. “Such a Trumpification of relations with one another is dangerous in a region that is already rife with crises,” he said in an interview with a German newspaper. Germany, along with Turkey and Iran, is openly supporting Qatar in its stand-off with Saudi Arabia. Germany and Turkey are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The U.S. and the United Kingdom, the two major arms suppliers and backers of Saudi Arabia, are also part of the military alliance. Any military move against Qatar could create serious ruptures not only in the Gulf alliance but also in the Western military alliance. Turkey has a small military base in Qatar and is rushing additional troops to the emirate.

Egypt is angry with Qatar for its continued backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al Jazeera network, which Egyptians claim is a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood. Interestingly, even the Maldives has broken diplomatic ties with Qatar and is supporting Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has invested heavily in the tourism industry in the country whose present government is pursuing an Islamist agenda. Israeli policymakers are happy with the latest developments in the Gulf as Saudi and emirati policies in the region have now started working in tandem with theirs. Iran is now their common enemy along with Hamas and Hizbollah.

After the terror attack in Tehran in the first week of June, the White House did not even have the courtesy to send a straightforward message of condolence to the people of Iran. Its statement instead implicitly blamed Iran for the act of terror. “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote,” the statement said. The attack was the first of its kind since the late 1980s to hit the Iranian capital. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the White House statement “repugnant”. The Daesh claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Iranian authorities pointed out that the attacks had taken place after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

The Qataris, like Saudis and the emiratis, have vehemently denied any links with terrorist groups. Most of the kingdoms in the Gulf region, barring Oman, have been active players in the efforts to undermine the secular governments in the region. All the three countries supported terrorist groups in Libya, though many of them are on opposing sides now. Saudi Arabia and its allies prefer groups linked to the al Nusra Front while Qatar and Turkey prefer to route their money and weapons to the Daesh and groups associated with it. Qatar is not the only state challenging Saudi Arabia for influence in the region. The UAE, though a staunch ally of Saudi Arabia in Syria, Libya and other places, is trying to carve out its own zone of influence in Yemen, Libya and the Horn of Africa.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are, however, united on the question of seeking regime change in Qatar. They are apparently on the lookout for somebody from the royal lineage to replace the current dynasty. An abortive attempt was made in 1996. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani said his country “will never surrender” to the demands made by its Gulf neighbours. He has visited Russia, Germany and other countries to mobilise support. He said Qatar had more friends, “more than others think”. The senior counterterrorism adviser to the Qatari Emir reiterated that the “policy of domination and control” of the country’s neighbours would not succeed. The spat within the GCC shows no sign of abating, especially after Saudi Arabia and its allies released a “terror blacklist” of 56 individuals. Figuring in the list were senior Qatari royals and former Ministers along with exiled leaders and clerics sympathetic to organisations such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Arab street will not have much sympathies for any of the protagonists involved in the latest Gulf crisis. The key players involved are to a large degree responsible for the dire humanitarian situation in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The Saudi bombing and blockade of Yemen has led to the worst humanitarian crisis the world is facing today. In Syria and Libya, Qatar was in the forefront of arming and funding extremist groups. Qatar was the first to cosy up to Israel. Now its finds itself a target of Israeli machinations. Ten U.S. legislators, who received more than $1 million for more than a year from a lobbying firm having links with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, sponsored a piece of legislation that threatens to impose sanctions on Qatar for supporting the “Palestinian terror”. Pro-Israeli groups such as the Foundation for Promoting Democracy have now started openly campaigning for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This tripartite alliance could come out in the open if Qatar falls.

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