The Qatar Crisis

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On June, 5th 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt released coordinated statements, announcing a diplomatic break with Qatar. But what are the underlying reasons behind it.

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Narration: Just two weeks after Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are in the grips of an unprecedented regional crisis.On the first Monday of June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt released coordinated statements, announcing a diplomatic break with Qatar. They cut air, sea and land links and ordered Qatari officials and nationals stationed in their countries to return home.

On the surface, the reason for such move was straightforward enough: The Persian Gulf states accused Qatar of helping extremists, including Daesh. But in the opaque world of Arab diplomacy, things are never quite as they seem.

When Trump was in Saudi Arabia, he joined with General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and King Salman to place his hands on a glowing orb at the newly created counterterrorism center. The Egyptians and the Saudis suggested in the margins of this meeting that Qatar was a funder of terrorisem. What was amusing at that time about these statements is that Saudi Arabia has been implicated, alongside Qatar, for its role in the financing of terrorists. In her leaked e-mails, Hillary Clinton, had already identified Saudi Arabia andQatar both as sponsors of Daesh though the US has arguably sponsored it as well by sending weapons to Salafi-Takfirs who opened up space for Daesh to operate.

Perhaps the main reason behind this move is rooted in five/six years ago. In the wake of Islamic Awakening or the so-called Arab Spring, which witnessed the brief resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE had identified such forces as potential threats to their own regimes, not only because the Brotherhood enjoyed much support amongst their own populations, but also because it offered the region an alternative Islamic governance model that dispensed with the need for hereditary monarchies. Long on the lookout for a counterweight to Saudi dominance over the Arab world, Qatar had been bankrolling the Brotherhood in Egypt and – through its influential Al-Jazeera network – providing its leaders with consistently favorable international coverage. The 2013 coup d’état in Egypt which led to the ouster of democratically-elected President Mohammad Morsi was supposed to have put the Brotherhood and Qatar back in their places but with Doha continuing to harbor Brotherhood and other such exiles, this remained a bone of contention.

But why has the escalation in hostilities within the Persian Gulf happened right now?

To many political observers, the answer lies in a strengthening relationship between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, especially after Trump’s visit to the Middle East and their common goal of cutting off Qatari assistance to Hamas, the de facto governing authority of the Gaza Strip. Certainly, Qatar’s hosting of a Hamas conference last month did not go down well; and perhaps helps explain why – according to the leaked emails of the UAE’s ambassador to the US – a recent high profile anti-Qatar symposium was staged by a major Washington-based, pro-Israel think tank.

The more heinous sin for which Doha is being punished is its willingness to acknowledge that Iran occupies a position as an important regional power.Much has also been made of its apparent dealings with Iran. Over the course of the past several decades, Qatar has developed closer ties to Iran. The two countries share the world’s largest natural gas field of 9,700 sq. Kms.

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Narration: What Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif recently twitted as “Neighbors are permanent; geography can't be changed” refers to the proximity of Qatar with Iran, and the shared natural gas field, and the fact that Qatar cannot afford to fully break with Iran, as Saudi Arabia would like it to.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Fouad Izadi, Political Analyst: “Qatar's close relation with Iran was clear over the past years. The Syrian issue challenged Qatar-Iran relations to some extent. In my opinion, the Qatari state has realized that its policies in Syria have not been very proper as it has realized that its policies towards Iran have to be better.

Qatar is Iran's neighbor. There is no reason for Qatar to have tension with Iran as there is no reason for Saudi Arabia to have tension with Iran; such kind of policy is wrong. Now Saudi Arabia has become unhappy why Qatar has not followed this wrong policy. This is an unjustified demand.”

Narration: Close ties between Iran and Qatar have long been an irritant to the Saudis. They have now decided to increase the pressure on their small neighbor in order to break those ties.

While such issues may have been contributing factors to the current crisis, however, the more likely catalyst has been the role played by the new US administration. Even if the Donald Trump team has clearly been trying to fleece Saudi Arabia out of its remaining assets by getting the kingdom to buy up weapons it can hardly afford, there has nonetheless been a strong feeling in Riyadh that the new White House is a going to be a much firmer ally than the previous US presidency.

SOUNDBITE [English] Allison Wood, Consultant, Control Risks: “This is particularly the case off the back of the recent Riyadh Summit that they had with President Trump when he visited the Saudi Arabia and recent meetings that have happened between the leaders of both the UAE and Saudi Arabia with the US, I think they probably felt like they were in a position of strength and had certain levels of endorsement from the US around some of these issues such that they can use this as the opening to pressure Qatar into coming more and more in line with their policy positions.”

Narration: Shattering America's public neutrality over the Persian Gulf crisis, Donald Trump backed the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar in a series of tweets: in one of them, Trump wrote:

"So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!"

From Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s perspective, this has at last given them the carte blanche they need to act against their troublesome neighbor and put an end to Doha’s adversarial foreign policies.

Surprisingly enough, even the threat to topple the head of Qatari state - a fellow GCC member – is being heard. Salman al-Ansari, the president of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, has recently tweeted:

“To the emir of Qatar, regarding your alignment with the extremist government of Iran and your abuse of the Custodian of the two sacred mosques, I would like to remind you that Mohammed Morsi did exactly the same and was then toppled and imprisoned.”

Perhaps, crushing Qatar, as a dissenting Arab state in the eyes of the Saudis, can give them a hope to cement their domination of the region and a chance to re-establish their reputation after failure in Syria and a poor country like Yemen.

The current crisis is the worst to hit Persian Gulf Arab nations since the creation of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, grouping Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.

SOUNDBITE [English] Shafeeq Ghabra, Professor of Political Science, Kuwait University: “If this continues, that will be the end of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) as we know it, with new divisions and new alliances. And it's very sad to end the GCC over such a difference that has to do more with a man in the White House, who is - I believe - there for a temporary period and will not run for another period (term). I think the longer (US) President (Donald) Trump stays in the White House, the more conflict in the world.”

Narration: To many political analysts, the rift is just the tip of the iceberg and cannot be healed even with all Saudi petro-dollars. The 2017 Riyadh summit which meant to unite over 50 Arab countries under the leadership of Saudi Arabia has failed so prematurely. 


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