Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Minus Qatar

Doha continues to hedge and meddle beyond its stature in Middle East strategic relations, writes Hussein Haridy

Egypt’s foreign minister met his Saudi counterpart in Cairo Sunday, 4 June, in the framework of regular political consultations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. One of the topics discussed dealt with how to approach growing differences between leading Arab powers, Egypt and Saudi Arabia included, and Qatar, a topic that gained in importance after the conclusion of the Arab-Islamic-American Summit, 21 May, in Riyadh. 

Less than 24 hours after the summit, the official Qatari news agency attributed to the ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Hamad Al-Thani, declarations that went directly against the spirit of the Riyadh Declaration, if not the letter. Not only the gist of the declarations of the Qatari head of state, but also the timing took everyone by surprise.

The Qatari monarch said that Hamas is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and that Iran is a guarantor of peace and stability in the region. 

From 20 - 21 May, Riyadh hosted three consecutive summits that had one major element in common; that is, the three were attended by the US President Donald Trump in his first foreign trip since being sworn in as president in January. The Middle Eastern agenda of the Trump administration is threefold. First, to contain Iran in the Gulf and in the larger Middle East, along with its proxies. Second, to defeat terrorism, in particular the Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front. It is true that President Trump had not uttered his favourite expression, “radical Islamic terrorism”, in his speeches and statements during his visit to Saudi Arabia, but the message was quite clear. Third, the determination of the White House to push for a peace accord between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and for a regional peace that would shield the Middle East and the Gulf from Iranian influence and destabilising policies via the Houthis in Yemen and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

In fact, the three summits in the Saudi capital, the American-Saudi Summit, the US-Gulf Summit, and the unprecedented Arab-Islamic-American Summit all dealt with these issues that are at the core of regional tensions and armed conflicts, and will have a determining role in defining the future of the Middle East and the Gulf for years to come, if not decades.

So the positions taken by the emir of Qatar were nothing but alarming. No surprise that the fallout was nearly earth-shaking within the Gulf Cooperation Council and in the Arab world. American reactions have been, surprisingly, muted. And Saudi and Emirati reactions have been swift and decisive. They boil down to two options for Qatar. Either to adhere to the basic consensus of the three Riyadh summits, or there would be a price to incur.

The Kuwaiti government dispatched its foreign minister to Doha, the Qatari capital, in an attempt to stop the gap from getting wider, and later on, the Qatari monarch went to Kuwait to seal a conciliation within the Gulf Cooperation Council. As of time of writing, there haven’t been tangible results from this Kuwaiti initiative. 

What are the odds for Qatar to change course and align its positions vis-à-vis the main regional agenda by those countries and powers that had taken part in the Riyadh summits of last month? The chances are almost nil. 

Qatari foreign policy in the region, in the Gulf, and in the Middle East process after the coup of 1995 has been drawn in parallel with US strategies in the Middle East. Not once, ever since 1995, has Qatar adopted a position that has run counter to American plans, be it military or political. Even amid the various developments of the so-called Arab Spring, Doha was almost the spokesman of the Obama administration. That meant an unwavering support for Islamist movements, be it “moderate” or “radical”. In retrospect, we can safely assume that there was a tacit division of labour between Doha and Washington in this respect. The United States would deal publicly and in an official way with the moderates, the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Qatar would deal with the moderates and the radicals. The only problem has been that the radicals are the terrorists that the Trump administration is out to destroy. 

This would seem problematic. How to reconcile the fight against terrorism with public support for the radicals? This question was not on the table during the Obama years. Now it has become pressing. A choice has to be made. 

The Qataris are playing a double game. As far as the United States is concerned, their calculations are premised on Trump policies in the region being short-lived against the background of the domestic political challenges President Trump faces. The testimony of former FBI director James Comey on Wednesday, 8 June, could spring surprises. On the other hand, the Qataris are not unhappy with Saudi Arabia getting mired in Yemen, so having a foot in the Iranian camp could be an insurance policy. That means that Doha does not wholly subscribe to the Saudi strategy in Yemen, and, consequently, does not see any strategic reason to incur the enmity of the Iranians. The Qatari game is founded on the necessity of being a party to all US and Saudi-led alliances in the Middle East, while attaching a certain importance to keeping open channels of communications with the “adversary” and the “enemies” of these alliances that seem short-lived from a Qatari point of view. 

Furthermore, the Qataris want to have strong bonds with all three regional powers, namely, Iran, Turkey and Israel, the stable powers in the Middle East, at the expense of relations with leading Arab powers, mostly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which happen to be the two powers that Doha has been trying hard to supplant in Arab and regional politics for the last 21 years. It is a highly risky high-wire strategy. 

The struggle for power is wide open in the Middle East and in the Gulf. A grand Arab alliance, minus Qatar, has become a strategic necessity.

In this context, the decision by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Yemen to cut diplomatic relations with Qatar, announced early morning Monday, 5 June, comes as proof that such an alliance has taken shape and heralds a struggle for power in the Gulf and in the Arab world. The consensus that was reached in the tripartite summit in Riyadh has been short-lived, unfortunately. Cooler heads in Doha should speak up and admit that the road ahead is very perilous with the persistence of those Qatari policies that have nearly broken the Arab world and the Gulf asunder. These policies are no longer sustainable. The Qatari government needs to reassess its position. The earlier the better for Arab interests, including those of Qatar.

The author is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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