Amid Regional Rift, Qatar Faces Worst Diplomatic Crisis Since Independence
On 5 June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Bahrain, the Yemeni government-in-exile and the Libyan government based in the eastern part of the country cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. The tiny gas- and oil-rich country, which for years has been punching boxing above its political weight, saw itself facing its most severe diplomatic crisis since it declared its independence from Britain on 3 September 1971.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain added that they would halt land, air and sea traffic with Qatar, eject their diplomats and order their nationals living in Qatar to leave.
This was with the exception of Egypt, which has around 250,000 expats living and working there. Moreover, Qatar was expelled from the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The crisis expanded days later, when Mauritania, the Maldives and Mauritius also announced they were cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar.
The coordinated move, which escalated a longstanding dispute over Qatar’s alleged support of Islamist groups, created uncertainty in the country, which shares its only land border with Saudi Arabia and imports an estimated 40 per cent of its food from the kingdom.
Photographs of Qatari supermarkets with empty shelves and long queues of people stockpiling food flooded social media and news websites. Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the measures were unjustified and based on fake news, a reference to claims that the website of its state-run news agency had been hacked in late May 2017. As the Qatari stock market tumbled and oil prices rose, Qatar accused other Gulf states of violating its sovereignty.
On 30 May 2017, the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news website published a series of demands that diplomatic sources said would be ‘binding’ in any agreement reached between Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). These demands include:
According to Emirati political analyst Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, Gulf states no longer trust Qatar since it reneged on its side of the Riyadh Agreement of 2014. Instead of ceasing media coverage and support of Islamist groups, as it had promised, Qatar found ways to circumvent the agreement, he said. As a result, he believes the Gulf states might demand the complete shuttering of al-Jazeera and other networks funded by Qatar, including al-Araby al-Jadeed, originally set up to compete with al-Jazeera and headed by former politician and Israeli Palestinian Azmi Bishara.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain last cut ties with Qatar in 2014, prior to the Riyadh Agreement, withdrawing their ambassadors from the country for nine months. This latest stand-off is the worst to hit the Gulf since the formation of the GCC in 1981.
In addition, the main problem that triggered the rift was never healed. Even though the Qataris toned down al-Jazeera’s coverage, closed the al-Jazeera office in Cairo and evicted a few Muslim Brotherhood members from the Qatari capital Doha, its ambition to be a regional actor never wavered, neither did its links with a host of political Islamists across the region, enraging the UAE, which has zero tolerance for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many analysts linked the most recent escalation to the visit by US President Donald Trump to the Saudi capital during the Riyadh Summit on 20-21 May, when he ardently embraced a Saudi narrative of being a partner in the fight against terrorism and countering Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
In a series of tweets, Trump appeared to take credit for the decision by Saudi Arabia and its allies to cut diplomatic relations with Qatar, an important American ally, approving the move even though the Pentagon and State Department attempted to remain neutral.
“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look,” he tweeted. He later changed course, ringing the Emir of Qatar and offering US help in finding a solution to the crisis.
Qatar hosts the US Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at al-Udeid Air Base, which provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and 17 other nations, and has played a vital role in the US’ so-called war on terror.
In 6 June, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani spoke to CNN’s Becky Anderson, saying that Saudi accusations that his country supports terrorism were “full of false information”.
“With all due respect, this statement is full of contradictions because it is saying that we are supporting Iran and on the other hand supporting the extremist groups in Syria; and we are supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi or in Yemen and we are supporting the Houthis from the other side. In all battlefields, there are adversaries,” al-Thani said.
According to an article in the Financial Times, Qatar recently paid a ransom of $1 billion to an al-Qaeda affiliate and Iranian security officials to release members of its royal family who were kidnapped in Iraq while on a hunting trip.
This was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, according to one Gulf observer, who asked not to be named. The Saudis and Emiratis seem determined to use this as evidence of Qatar’s policy of fuelling both sides of the conflict.
Doha has a history of reaching out to controversial groups and figures. From Taliban leaders and rebels in Sudan to Hamas leaders and even Hezbollah, it usually positions itself as neutral player that acts as an intermediary in regional conflicts through its diplomatic backchannels.
However, according to Doha’s harshest critics – mainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE – Qatar uses such policies to play both sides in order to fund radical Islamist groups. The hostage deal was further evidence of that role, they say. Similar accusations are frequently aimed at Saudi Arabia itself.
The Emirati’s main concern is the Muslim Brotherhood, which it regards as a terrorist organization that poses a threat to its system of hereditary rule. However, for Saudi Arabia, the Atlantic’s article titled ‘Qatar: The Gulf’s Problem Child’ best explains the relationship between a regional power and a small state wanting to play a big role.
Qatar agreed for the US to send an FBI to Doha to help the Qatari government in its investigation into the alleged hacking incident that contributed to the crisis. On 7 June 2017, CNN reported that the intelligence gathered by the US security agency indicate that Russian hackers were behind the breach.
According to the state-run Kuwait News Agency, Kuwaiti ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah spoke with Qatar’s emir on 5 June 2017 and urged him to give efforts aimed at easing tensions a chance and refrain from escalating the diplomatic rift. The Kuwaitis and Omanis are well aware that a failure to resolve the crisis could eventually undermine the interests of all six GCC members. Many analysts believe that a potential collapse of the GCC is already a reality.
Nevertheless, Abdel Bari Atwan, veteran Arab journalist and editor-in-chief of the Kuwaiti Rai al-Youm newspaper, said in a televised interview with Euronews that Qatar has paid the price for attempting to pursue an independent foreign policy to Saudi Arabia. If it does not concede to Saudi and Emirati demands, it faces the real prospect of military invasion and regime change, he said.