Just days after wooing President Trump, policy differences have emerged among Gulf states.
Cracks have appeared in a Saudi-led, US-backed anti-terrorism alliance just days after US President Donald Trump ended a historic visit to Riyadh. The issues stem from Qatar’s long-standing policy differences with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) about Iran and the role of political Islam.
The cracks emerged following an anti-Qatar media and cyber campaign involving a spate of articles in US and Gulf media; the blocking of Qatar-backed media websites and broadcasters in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt; statements by prominent former US government officials; and a recent seminar by the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which has long asserted that Qatar supports militant groups.
Seemingly emboldened by Trump’s blanket endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s proxy war against Iran and the UAE’s visceral opposition to political Islam, Gulf states appear to believe that the time is right to again pressure Qatar to alter policies that it sees as key to its national security. An earlier attempt by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to force Qatar to align itself with the three states’ hardline positions failed in 2014, when Qatar refused to bow after they withdrew their ambassadors from Doha. The ambassadors returned to their posts after a 10-month absence with little, if any, change in Qatari policies.
The policy differences have rekindled a long-standing rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the regional association that groups Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. Qatar, unlike other Gulf states, shares the world’s largest gas field with Iran.
The differences reflect concern among many non-Arab members of the Saudi-led, 41-Muslim nation military alliance that the grouping is becoming an anti-Iranian bloc rather than one focused on combating jihadism. This also comes at a time that Saudi Arabia is attempting to destabilize Iran by fomenting unrest among the Islamic Republic’s ethnic minorities — a move that worries Pakistan and other coalition members.
THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD AND QATAR
Qatar’s ability to mediate in conflicts involving militant groups like the Taliban is a pillar of its troubled effort to project soft power. Its relationship with controversial groups like the Muslim Brotherhood is strategic and goes back to the founding of the Gulf state. The Brotherhood populated key educational and government institutions in Qatar and other Gulf states at a time that they did not have much needed professionals of their own.
For Qatar, a country sandwiched between regional giants Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of whom it views as potential threats, the Brotherhood offered something far more strategic: the ability to chart a course of its own. Looking at Saudi Arabia’s power-sharing agreement that empowers an ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim religious elite, Qatar used the Brotherhood to avoid falling into what it saw as a Saudi trap.
As a result, Qatar has no powerful religious establishment of its own. Its most prominent Islamic scholar, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, is a naturalized Qatari citizen of Egyptian origin who is associated with the Brotherhood. Qatar’s ruling al-Thani family retains absolute power that it does not have to share.
In one of many contradictions in its policy, Qatar, unlike other Gulf states and despite being an autocracy, supported the Arab revolts of 2011 and backed Islamist forces like the Brotherhood in Egypt. Its support explains why Egypt joined Saudi Arabia and the UAE in blocking broadcasters and websites like Al Jazeera and The Huffington Post’s Arabic edition.
Qatar, along with Saudi Arabia, has had strained relations with Egypt since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled Mohammed Morsi in a military coup and brutally cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi, a Muslim Brother, was Egypt’s first and only democratically-elected president.
The most recent GCC crisis erupted after Qatar charged that remarks attributed to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani that stroked with Qatari policy and were broadcast by state-run Qatar television, as well as carried by the Gulf state’s official news agency and various Twitter accounts, were the result of a cyberattack. Sheikh Tamim was alleged to have suggested that the Trump administration could be short lived because of problems at home, questioned the wisdom of increasing tension with Tehran, and defended the Islamist groups Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has said it is investigating the hack.
In a bid to tarnish Qatar’s already troubled reputation, Saudi and Emirati media gave prominent coverage to the alleged remarks. The two states’ media outlets rejected Qatari assertions of a cyberattack. They accused Doha of having ties to al-Qaeda and reported that Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani had met secretly in Baghdad with Qasim Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ notorious Al Quds Force.
Adding fuel to the fire, Robert Gates, a former US defense secretary and director of central intelligence, warned at a Foundation for the Defense of Democracies gathering on Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood that Doha risked losing its hosting of US forces at the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US military base in the Middle East. “[T]he United States military doesn’t have any irreplaceable facility,” Gates said. Ed Royce, the Republican chair the House Foreign Affairs committee, told the gathering that “if it doesn’t change, Qatar will be sanctioned under a new bill I’m introducing to punish Hamas backers.”
Doha has struggled to downplay the crisis and prove that the remarks attributed to Sheikh Tamim were fake news. Qatar’s problem is that it doesn’t matter whether the news was true or fake. The Gulf state is caught in a catch-22. It is confronting a concerted Saudi and Emirati effort to force it to align itself with the policies of the GCC. Qatar is doomed if it does and doomed if it doesn’t.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Georgia Court