Thursday,16 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1134, 7 - 13 February 2013
Thursday,16 August, 2018
Issue 1134, 7 - 13 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Collusion or conflict of interests?

Though formally an ally of the United States, Qatar’s attempts to position itself as a leading player in regional affairs could lead to conflict with its powerful patron, writes Nicola Nasser

Al-Ahram Weekly

In his inaugural address on 21 January this year, US President Barack Obama made the historic announcement that “a decade of war is ending” and declared his country’s determination to “show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully”. However, his message remains words that have yet to be translated into deeds, and it has yet to reach some of the US’s closest allies in the Middle East, which are still beating the drums of war, like Israel against Iran and Qatar against Syria.

In view of the level of “coordination” and “cooperation” that has existed since bilateral diplomatic relations were established in 1972 between the US and Qatar, and the concentration of US military power on this tiny Gulf peninsula, it seems impossible that Qatar could move independently apart from, in parallel with, away from or on a collision course with US strategic and regional plans.

According to the US State Department’s online fact-sheet on the country, “bilateral relations are strong”, both countries are “coordinating” diplomatically and “cooperating” on regional security, and they share a “defense pact”. Qatar “hosts CENTCOM Forward Headquarters” and supports NATO and US regional military operations. Qatar is also an active participant in US-led efforts to set up an integrated missile defence network in the Gulf region. Moreover, it hosts the US Combined Air Operations Centre and three American military bases, namely the Al-Udeid Air Base, the Assaliyah Army Base and the Doha International Air Base, which are manned by approximately 5,000 US soldiers.

However, Qatar, which is bound by such a close alliance with the United States, has recently developed into a major sponsor of Islamist political movements. Qatar appears now to be the major sponsor of the international organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was reportedly disbanded in Qatar itself in 1999 because it viewed the ruling family as an adversary.

This Qatar-Brotherhood marriage of convenience has created the natural incubator for Islamist armed fundamentalists acting against the US, which since 11 September 2001, has been leading what is labelled a “global war on terrorism”.

The war in the African nation of Mali offers the latest example of how the US and Qatar have seemingly been going their separate ways despite the defence pacts that exist between them. While US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was in London on January 18 “commending” the French “leadership of the international effort” in Mali to which his country was pledging logistical, transportation and intelligence support, Qatar has been appearing to risk its special ties with France, which peaked during the NATO-led war on Libya, and to distrust US and French judgments.

On 15 January, Qatari Prime and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani told reporters that he did not believe “power will solve the problem” in Mali, advising instead that the problem be “discussed” among the “neighbouring countries, the African Union and the Security Council”. In doing so, he joined the Doha-based ideologue for the Muslim Brotherhood and its Qatari sponsors, Youssef Abdallah Al-Qaradawi, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars who was refused entry to the UK in 2008 and to France last year, in calling for “dialogue”, “reconciliation” and a “peaceful solution” instead of “military intervention”.

In an older example of Qatari disagreements with the US and France, according to WikiLeaks, Somalia’s president in 2009, Sherif Ahmed, told a US diplomat that Qatar was channelling financial assistance to the Al-Qaeda-linked Shabab Al-Mujahideen group in his country, which the US had listed as a “terrorist” group.

In Syria, to take another example, the Muslim Brotherhood is the leading fighting force against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, and it is in alliance with, and a culprit in, the atrocities committed by the terrorist bombings of the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front, designated by the United States as a terrorist organisation last December. The Brotherhood-led and US and Qatar-sponsored Syrian opposition have publicly protested against this US designation, and the silence of Qatar on the matter can only be interpreted as an act of support for the protests against the US decision.

Recently, Qatar has, to take another example, replaced Syria, which has been on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1979, as the sponsor of Hamas, whose leadership has relocated from Damascus to Doha. The US lists Hamas as a “terrorist” group, and it is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. In all these examples, Qatar seems to have been positioning itself as a mediator with US blessings, trying to achieve by the country’s financial leverage what the US has not been able to achieve militarily, or could achieve but only with a much greater expense of money and souls.

In the Mali case, Sheikh Hamad went on record to declare this ambition. “We will be a part of the solution, [but] not the sole mediator,” he said. The US blessing for Qatari actions could not have been more explicit than Obama’s approval of the opening of the Afghan Taliban office in Doha in order “to facilitate” a “negotiated peace in Afghanistan”, according to the Qatari Foreign Ministry on 16 January.

However, unilateral Qatari mediation failed in Yemen, and Qatar-led Arab mediation in Syria has similarly proved a failure two years after the beginning of the Syrian crisis. The Doha Declaration intended to reconcile the rival Palestinian factions is still a paper achievement, and the Qatari mediation in Sudan’s Darfur crisis has yet to deliver. Qatari “mediation” in Libya has been condemned as intervention in the country’s internal affairs by the most prominent among the post-Gaddafi leaders, and in post-Arab Spring Egypt, Qatar has dropped its early mediation efforts in order to align itself with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

However, in spite of these failures, Qatar’s “mediation” efforts have been successful in serving the strategy of its US ally, and from here comes the US blessing. Intelligence analysts employed by the Soufan Group, a strategic consultancy organisation, on 10 December concluded that “Qatar continues to prove itself to be a pivotal US ally… Qatar is often able to implement shared US-Qatari objectives that Washington is unable or unwilling to undertake itself.”

The first-term Obama administration under the pressure of fiscal austerity blessed Qatari funding of the anti-Gaddafi Islamists in Libya, closed its eyes to Qatar’s shipment of Gaddafi’s military arsenal to Syrian and non-Syrian Islamists fighting the regime in Syria, “understood” the visit of Qatar’s emir to Gaza last October as “a humanitarian mission”, and recently agreed to arm Qatar-backed and Brotherhood-led Egypt with 20 F-16 fighter jets and 200 M1A1 Abrams tanks.

All this raises the question of whether what we are seeing is US-Qatari collusion, or a conflict of interests between the two countries. The Obama administration during its second term will have to give an explicit answer.

It seems that today Doha and Washington do not see eye-to-eye on the Islamic and Islamist movements, but on the battle grounds of the “war on terror” both capitals could hardly argue that in practice their active roles have not been coordinated and have not complemented each other. Drawing on the historical experience of what has been similar to an Iranian “religious” approach, but on a rival Shiite sectarian basis, Qatar’s promotion of Sunni Islamist forces will inevitably fuel sectarian polarisation in the region, along with regional instability, violence and civil war.

Given the US-Qatari alliance, this Qatari Islamist connection threatens to embroil the US in more regional strife, or at least to hold the US responsible for the resulting strife, and it could sustain a deep-seated regional anti-Americanism, which in turn could become another incubator of extremism and terrorism exacerbated by the past decade of war. It was precisely this that Obama in his inaugural address promised to end.

Traditionally, Qatar, which stands in the eye of the storm of the geopolitically critical but volatile Gulf region — the theatre of three major wars during the last three decades — has done its best to maintain a fragile balance between the two major powers that determine its survival, namely the decades-old US military presence in the Gulf and the rising regional power of Iran.

In 1992, it signed a comprehensive bilateral defence pact with the United States, and in 2010 it signed a military defence agreement with Iran, which explains its warming ties with the Iran-supported, Islamist and anti-Israel resistance movements of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. It also explains Qatar’s honeymoon with Iran’s ally in Syria.

However, since the eruption of the bloody Syrian crisis two years ago, the Qatari opening up to regional pro-Iranian state and non-state powers has been exposed as merely a tactical maneuver to lure such powers away from Iran. In the Syrian and Hizbullah cases, the failure of this tactic has led Qatar to embark on a collision course with both Syria and Iran, which are backed by Russia and China, and towards a U-turn away from its long-maintained regional balancing act. Doha seems unaware of the threat that this represents to its very survival under the pressure of international and regional conflicting interests, as has been bloodily exposed in the Syrian crisis.

During the rise of the Pan-Arab, nationalist, socialist and democratic movements in the Arab world early in the second half of the 20th century, the conservative and authoritarian Arab monarchies adopted the Brotherhood, other Islamists and the Islamist political ideology and used them against those movements in order to survive as allies of the United States. The latter in turn used both, spearheaded by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, against the former Soviet Union and the Communist ideology to its detriment after the collapse of the bipolar world order.

However, history seems to be repeating itself as the US-backed Arab monarchies, spearheaded by Qatar, are now resorting to their old tactic of exploiting the Islamist ideology in order to undermine and pre-empt Arab anti-authoritarian revolutions promoting the rule of law, civil society, democratic institutions and social and economic justice in the Arab countries on the periphery of their US-protected bastion in the Arabian Peninsula.

Yet, they seem to be unaware that they are opening up a Pandora’s box in doing so that could unleash a backlash in comparison with which Al-Qaeda’s blow-back against the US could prove to be just a minor precedent.


The writer is an Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.


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