Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Sanctioning Qatar

Punitive measures are being taken by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain against Qatar in response to Doha’s support for terrorist groups and policies detrimental to Arab national security

Sanctioning Qatar

On 5 June, Egypt and the three Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar because of “its intervention in the domestic affairs” of these countries and its “support for terrorism”, according to official statements.


Sanctioning Qatar

The internationally recognised Libyan government based in Al-Bayda then followed suit, as did the government of the Maldives.

The statements issued by the Arab states say that the range of punitive measures came in response to what they charge is Qatari meddling in their domestic affairs, support for terrorist and extremist groups, and other policies detrimental to these countries’ national security and to Arab national security in general.

Al-Ahram Weekly investigates the recent developments in the region, along with their repercussions and the likely shape of the future of political and economic climate.

 

QATAR VS THE GCC AND ARAB LEAGUE: Qatar is geographically tiny and in terms of culture and civilisation it is insignificant in comparison to its neighbours, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran, and in comparison to its wider Arab environment. The Qatari leadership, determined to remain blind to these realities, has sought to boost the country’s international standing by expanding its regional and international influence.

This is the right of any country. But the Qatari leadership has tried to do it in two ways that are detrimental to fellow Arab nations. Firstly, it has moved to appease Iran, which harbours animosity not only towards the Arab countries overlooking what it calls the “Persian Gulf” but also towards the entire Arab nation to which it seeks to export the Khomeini Revolution (the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran) and in which it seeks to disseminate the doctrines of the Shia “Twelver” sect.

Secondly, the Qatari leadership has turned the country into an agent at the service of outside powers that seek the downfall of the Arab nation and that are working to partition the region into mutually antagonistic statelets in order to make it weaker than it is at present.

Within the narrow Gulf framework, Qatar knows that in order to strengthen its own profile it needs to confront Saudi Arabia, the elder sister and most powerful nation in the GCC. Its alliance with Saudi Arabia’s enemy Iran has been the leverage that Doha has needed in order to enhance its profile and influence in the GCC.

Relations between Qatar and its neighbours in the Gulf have not always been so dire. Under its Emir Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatar was an active partner in the establishment of the GCC. A respectable Qatari contingent took part alongside Saudi, US, British and other coalition forces in the war to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion in 1991. But these times came to an end with the palace coup in Qatar of 1995 that brought to power the then crown prince, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, while his father was abroad. At that point, Qatari-Gulf relations began to grow rocky.

The beginning of this process was marked by the establishment of the Al-Jazeera news channel which soon began to turn its crosshairs against Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

After Qatar’s huge gas fields were discovered (the second-largest natural gas fields in the world after those in Russia), the revenues were funnelled into funding extremist groups and militias in the region. However, Qatar’s policies were oddly contradictory because at the same time Doha offered the Americans the Al-Udeid Airbase that became the largest counter-terrorism facility in the region.

In 2007, Sheikh Hamad imposed an unwelcome guest upon his fellow heads-of-state at the GCC summit in the shape of then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In 2011, Qatar supported the wave of unrest that swept the Arab world and that became known as the Arab Spring. In Egypt, it actively backed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power and after the revolution in Libya it supported the extremist factions that seized control in Tripoli. Also in 2011, Qatar withdrew from the Gulf initiative for a solution to the Yemeni conflict.

Two years later in June 2013, Sheikh Hamad was overthrown by his son Tamim. Tensions then quickly escalated, peaking in March 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Doha. That was the first and largest diplomatic crisis in the Gulf since the creation of the GCC, but thanks to Kuwait’s mediation efforts, an agreement was reached and the ambassadors were returned to Doha by December of the same year.

The decision to recall the ambassadors at the time was explained in a joint statement issued by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. It stated that these countries had taken the step after “all efforts had failed to persuade Qatar to abide by principles that call for the non-intervention in the domestic affairs, directly or indirectly, of any of the GCC states, for refraining from supporting individuals or organisations that jeopardise the security and stability of the GCC states, whether by means of direct action impacting on security or through attempts to influence politics, and for refraining from supporting a hostile media.”

Qatar and Iran signed a military accord in October 2015. However, the way was laid for this many years earlier on 23 December 2010 during a visit by the former Qatari emir to Tehran to meet with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and conclude an agreement that included security cooperation between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Qatari army. At the time, a military delegation from the Revolutionary Guards navy headed by Admiral Mahmoud Shayari and Reza Naseri, naval commander of the Fourth Region, visited Doha. The Qatari side in the negotiations was represented by Abdel-Rahman Al-Saliti, vice commander of the Qatari navy.

Also in a bid to augment its regional leverage, Qatar enhanced its presence in Libya in a number of major cities by its support for extremist Islamist movements and militias such as Ansar Al-Sharia, the Libya Dawn militias, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and other radical militias that have been active in Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi. Qatar has also harboured names on international terror lists, such as the leader of the Al-Qaeda affiliated LIFG Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, Ali Al-Salabi and Salah Badi.

In Tunisia, Ennahda Party leader Rached Al-Ghannouchi lauded Qatar’s involvement in his country. In an interview with a Qatari newspaper in June 2012, he said that “Qatar is a partner in the Tunisian revolution through its media contributions on Al-Jazeera and the encouragement it gave to the revolution even before it succeeded.” He added that “we are grateful to Qatar and its emir for their encouragement of investment in Tunisia.”

With regard to Iraq since the US-led invasion that overthrew the former Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, the Qatari media has served as a mouthpiece for extremist organisations such as Al-Qaeda. It has even hosted some prominent Al-Qaeda figures on Al-Jazeera programmes.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that the US Treasury Department has been monitoring the huge flows of money passing through charitable foundations and social networking sites in Qatar to support extremists in Iraq and Syria. Qatar still has a considerable presence in Syria today as a major backer and funder of extremist and terrorist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, as well as groups and militias affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Yemen, Qatar has fed unrest, and it has supported the Houthi rebels just as it has supported the Shia opposition in Bahrain and given media encouragement to terrorist activities in eastern Saudi Arabia. Doha has also sustained an excellent relationship with the Lebanese group Hizbullah, which is another organisation on terrorist lists regionally and internationally, but which Qatar describes as a “resistance movement”.

Qatar has been active in Afghanistan, where it supported extremist Islamist groups in Kabul and Kandahar. So warm are its relations with the Taliban that this movement opened a political bureau in Doha in 2013. Prior to that, Doha granted dozens of high-level Taliban leaders residence in Qatar after granting them political asylum.

A recent Newsweek article picked up on this phenomenon and remarked in some wonder on how successfully Qatar has established commercial and political relations with parties as far apart as Israel, Iran and Hizbullah and at the same time with their adversaries affiliated with groups close to Al-Qaeda. It concluded that the continued existence of the American base at Al-Udeid was encouraging Doha to continue its support for terrorism in contradiction with American interests.

 

PREVIOUS SILENCE OVER QATAR’S PROVOCATIVE PRACTICES: The secret to this resides in the nature of the conflicts and the balance of power in the Gulf region which has long been an arena for the vying ambitions of the US, Russia, Iran and extremist Islamist forces.

GCC foreign policy is founded on the need to safeguard the strategic balance in the Gulf and as far as possible to avert disputes that could threaten the political and economic stability of the region. Economic relations between the GCC countries and Iran are good. Iran is the second-largest trading partner with the GCC, and the two sides have not severed diplomatic relations even though Iran continues to occupy the three UAE islands of Tanab Major, Tanab Minor and Abu Moussa that it seized in 1971.

Nor have cultural relations been broken off despite Iran’s attempts to ignite sectarian strife by inciting Shia groups into sowing turmoil that could destabilise regimes in the Gulf, as occurred in Bahrain where Iran seeks to overturn the existing order in order to install a Shia leadership loyal to Tehran.

However, Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini and Kuwaiti suspicions of Iran began to mount after the signing of the Iranian nuclear agreement with the US. The Gulf states felt that they were losing their strategic ally in their struggle against Iranian ambitions and that Iran had been given the green light in its campaign to impose its influence over the region.

Yet, while wary, the Gulf countries were resolved to act cautiously and to avoid any escalation that might lead Iran to respond with a direct act of aggression. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi signalled his awareness of this situation on a number of occasions when he stressed that the security of the Gulf was part of Egypt’s national security and that if the Gulf countries came under threat Egypt would be ready to come to their defence.

 

WHY NOW? Commentators agree that the position of US President Donald Trump during the recent Arab/Islamic-US Summit in Riyadh was explicit and unequivocal. He vowed to intervene militarily if Iran attacked any of the Gulf states, and he expressed a desire to review the nuclear agreement with Iran signed by his predecessor Barack Obama. He is also determined to fight the Islamic State (IS) group wherever it may be found.

This stance expresses Washington’s unlimited support for the Gulf countries in their capacity as US strategic allies, meriting a security and military cover that would make Iran think a thousand times before embarking on any reckless adventure in the region.

However, the speech delivered by President Al-Sisi at the summit in Riyadh perhaps best offers further insight into the question as to why this action has been taken now. In his speech, Al-Sisi urged immediate steps to bring countries that sponsored terrorism to account. He was apparently the only head-of-state to use this term, and he was alluding to Qatar which funds extremist Islamist and terrorist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt’s importance in the summit was also expressed in other ways. Al-Sisi was the only other head of state at the meeting to join Trump and Saudi King Salman in the inaugural ceremony of the new international counter-terrorism centre in Riyadh, for example. The occasion was symbolic of the vital role Egypt plays in the fight against international terrorism alongside Saudi Arabia and the US.

Perhaps the EU’s support for Washington’s firm stance in the fight against terrorism also contributed to encouraging the three Gulf countries to take the stance they have against Qatar and, via Qatar, against Iran.

At all events, it was only two days after the Riyadh Summit in May 2017 that Sheikh Tamim issued his controversial remarks concerning Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, reflecting his determination to persist in the same subversive foreign policies in the Gulf and the broader Middle East and North Africa region.

 

FUTURE SCENARIOS: Officials in the Gulf contacted by the Weekly doubt that Qatar will respond quickly or mend its ways. They believe that the steps these countries have taken are only the beginning and that other diplomatic actions will follow, firstly from the GCC and then at the Arab/Islamic and international levels in order to deter Qatar from its support for extremists and terrorists.

However, Riyadh, Manama, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait may not seek a resolution against Qatar from the GCC out of fears of not being able to secure a unanimous decision from the six-member body or of creating severe polarisation in the Gulf region and jeopardising Arab unity and stability in the Gulf.

Therefore, the four Gulf states prefer to keep up the political and economic pressure on Qatar, combined with diplomatic mediation efforts, primarily on the part of Kuwait, which has been kept in reserve as the gateway to a solution in the framework of the Gulf community.

Also according to Gulf sources, the Gulf countries prefer the movement spearheaded by Egypt towards an Arab League resolution that would notch up the political and economic blockade on Qatar if the above-mentioned pressures exerted in the Gulf framework fail to achieve their ends. The sources added that at a subsequent stage the Gulf countries might also ask the US, European and non-Arab Islamic nations to take actions individually and outside of the UN and Security Council frameworks against state sponsors of terrorism such as Qatar and Iran.

The sources drew attention to an important point, which is that the Gulf countries and Egypt seek to precipitate a radical change in the Qatari leadership and not just a change within the ruling Al-Thani dynasty. These countries feel that all hope is lost in the ruling family in Qatar and in Emir Tamim in particular, who is practically unable to realise genuine changes in his foreign policies which are so totally aligned with Iran.

Emirati Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Qarqash in a recent series of tweets said that the stability and security, as well as the future of the GCC countries were connected and interwoven, but that patience had its limits. Ultimately, there is no way forward but through frankness and trust. He noted that Qatar was still playing deaf to the Gulf anger and that judging by the statements of the Qatari emir Doha has in one way or another reaffirmed its choices. According to Qarqash in one of his tweets, in a telephone call with the Iranian president on Sunday Sheikh Tamim expressed his desire to strengthen relations with Tehran.

Gulf sources have stressed that the Gulf countries are very keen not to set a new precedent of regime change through intervention in other members’ domestic affairs, as this would only serve to sow acrimony among the peoples of the Gulf and jeopardise their historic and cultural unity. Therefore, the Gulf countries would prefer that change in Qatar comes either from below through the people or from above through the ruling family.

DOHA’S POSSIBLE REACTIONS: Will Qatar concede to the legitimate demands of the Gulf countries, as well as Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Palestine, Lebanon and other Arab countries? Or will it persist in its current subversive path? To what extent or on what basis will Qatar agree to having its wings clipped and to forsaking the influence it has gained in many Arab countries by supporting extremist groups and returning to its natural size?

Qatar has a number of cards it could play in any bartering over what it can gain in exchange for mending its ways. What cards it plays, and how it plays them, will unfold in the forthcoming days. The Gulf countries now are keeping a close eye on the Iranian response to the crisis. They fear that Iran might try to attract Qatar to its side in order to chip away at Arab solidarity and destabilise the Gulf.

Economically, the balance of trade between Qatar and the other GCC members accounts for 12 per cent of Qatar’s volume of trade worldwide and eight per cent of its trade within the Arab world, according to official Qatari statistics for 2016. Qatar’s imports from GCC countries last year came to 19 million Qatari riyals, of which 83 per cent came from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and six per cent from Bahrain. Qatari exports to other GCC countries do not exceed nine per cent of its total exports.

The Saudi Central Bank has instructed Saudi banks to suspend transactions with Qatari banks in order to tighten the economic blockade on Doha. Egypt has moved to suspend transactions in the Qatari riyal.

Qatar was the 28th largest recipient of Egyptian exports, at LE226 million, in 2015.

In the light of such factors, economic analysts believe that Qatar will be able to avert an economic crisis in spite of the embargoes and the land, sea and air restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Yemen. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund is estimated at $335 billion, and it had a trade surplus of $2.7 billion as of last April. It also has large port facilities that it could use as an alternative to the overland transit routes that are now closed due to the Saudi closure of the land borders.

As can be seen from the statistics cited above, Qatar’s volume of trade with the other GCC countries is relatively small, and it can compensate for them through imports from other countries outside the region as it continues its natural gas exports.

 

Read more:

The Gulf and Yemeni crisis

Too rich to be affected

Little impact from Qatar decision

 

 

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