Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Qatari game

As important as it is that Arab allies oblige Doha to change policies, Qatar is of small significance in the region and shouldn’t garner undue attention, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

In their analyses of international relations, political scientists frequently resort to “game theory”. Sometimes the game resembles a chess board on which two sides play moves and countermoves until one wins or the players reach a stalemate. Other games are modelled on behavioural patterns, as in the game of “chicken” when two sides approach each other on a collision course and the test is which will swerve off course in order to avert a crash. A third type applies the theory known as the “prisoner’s dilemma” in which two criminals implicated in a crime of murder, for example, are held in the same prison but kept isolated from each other. They are compelled to decide whether to implicate the other or remain silent. Naturally, there are different combinations of the abovementioned models and others, and in actual reality the types of interplay in international relations are far more complex. Still, it may be possible to acquire a fuller understanding of the dynamics of an international event by means of a game paradigm. More importantly, this approach may help one or the other of the parties develop the most appropriate policies for dealing with a problem, or could even contribute to solving it.

Relations between Qatar and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have, in many ways, appeared normal and routine on the surface. But GCC members realised very well that calm outward appearances were no excuse for ignoring Doha’s acts of deception, as it violated all the provisions of the agreement that was signed in 2014 after GCC nations withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in protest against Qatari behaviour that promoted terrorism, regional instability and hostility to an ally, Egypt. What took place in the interval until 4 June this year was essentially a series of flagrant Qatari violations of the 2014 agreements, combined with Doha’s attempts to work both sides — the GCC and Iran — in order to promote itself.

In other words, Qatar had stopped acting like an ally in the Gulf alliance and had begun to function as a fifth column in the service of other countries whose interests conflict with those of GCC nations. This was why Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt moved to sever diplomatic and commercial relations, to impose an embargo on the movement of goods and people to and from Qatar and, in short, to isolate that country from its Gulf neighbours. It was a powerful move, but not a violent one. It was stinging, but not devastating. It delivered a blow, but not so hard as to cause Doha to lose consciousness. The purpose was to compel Qatar to change its ways, not to harm the Qatari state. The move drew support from Yemen and other countries of the region that either severed their relations with Doha or reduced their level of relations as a means to express their disapproval of Qatari behaviour. US President Donald Trump backed the GCC countries and also condemned Qatar’s support for terrorism even if the US State Department kept the door open for mediating efforts spearheaded by Kuwait.

The Qatari moves that followed exposed the true nature of its regime. No longer even taking the pains to act as an ally, a member of the GCC or a member in the Islamic coalition, Doha threw itself directly into the Iranian and Turkish embrace. It may have felt that this was sufficient to even out the strategic balances, but it certainly showed the Qatari people where their country is moving away from and to.

Qatar’s political actions took place in two languages: Arabic and English. In the former, it turned up the volume of its propaganda organs, such as Al-Jazeera and all the other television stations and newspapers belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood in Doha, Istanbul and London. The blare of its multifarious terrorist media machine eliminated all remnants of doubt and scepticism as to the financial and logistical links between Qatar and the various terrorist groups it backs. In English, perhaps thanks to the influence of some public relations firms, Qatar applied diverse techniques to the tasks of defining the problem and dealing with it. Firstly, it described the issue as just another one of those “crises” that routinely erupt among the Arabs. It had nothing to do with terrorism, or a threat to the stability of neighbouring countries or betrayal of an alliance. It was a storm in a teacup that is below the level of the countries involved and that should not be protracted at time when the region is in such turmoil and does not need yet another crisis. Secondly, as long as everyone is talking “crisis” then, Doha maintains, it should be governed by international law, not the agreements Doha signed with Gulf parties in 2014, or the war against terrorism, or the GCC charter, the Arab League or the Islamic coalition. Thirdly, it describes the GCC action against it not as an “embargo” but as a “blockade” of that small country. Of course, there is a vast difference between the two concepts. The Arab embargo never went so far as to try to prevent Qatari airports or seaports from operating or to sever the lines of communication between Qatar and other countries. Fourthly, as though Qatar were the epitome of liberalism and democracy, Qatari diplomacy, armed with the likes of Azmi Bishara and the clique of Arab nationalists to the left and Youssef Al-Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood to the right, attempted to suggest that the “crisis” and the “blockade” had to do with Qatar’s liberalism and openness in contrast to the regimes that are hostile to the freedom of expression and the virtue of dialogue. Finally, it is playing for time. Qatar believes that after enough time has passed it will be able to boast “victory” over a “blockade” that never happened.

All these Qatari moves mean little from the strategic perspective of the countries that decided to act in order to compel Qatar to change its policies in support of terrorism and against work to restore stability to the entire region. Therefore, it is important not to allow the noise emanating from Doha to divert them from their main battle or to offer an opening to other countries to take advantage of the campaign to alter Qatari policies in order to achieve their own ends. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt need to keep cool heads during this period as their diplomatic organs do what is necessary in the international domain. It is essential to ensure that everything remains in proper perspective and that the process of isolating Qatar and altering Qatari behaviour can be sustained without straying off course towards secondary ends and issues.

Yemen, Libya, Syria and Palestine are the primary ends that will determine the fate of the Middle East for years to come. The Qatari game is marginal. According it more weight and attention than it deserves gives the ruling elites in Doha a status they do not merit. Meanwhile, working to expand the current Arab bloc to include other important countries such as Jordan will serve to build an Arab order capable of altering the balances of forces in the region. “The Concert of Arabia”, as we have called it, will be able, on the one hand, to cut Qatar down to size and, on the other, to wage the battle for the future of the Arab region against terrorism, anarchy and foreign intervention.

As the old adage put it, one of the great advantages of crises is that they let us know the difference between our friends and enemies.

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