The siege of Qatar, rebellious black sheep of the GCC

Published in Qatar
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By Zeenat Adam

The May 2017 Riyadh Summit marked the first international tour of the new US president, Donald Trump. Three meetings in Riyadh – a bilateral with Saudi Arabia (KSA), a USA-Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) meeting and the US-Arab-Islamic Summit – collectively supposedly focussed on unity in the fight against terrorism. The Summit culminated in a declaration – crafted unilaterally by KSA – that proposed, among others, the establishment of an ‘Arab Alliance’ and an ‘Islamic Military Coalition’ to combat terrorism; the establishment of a counter-terrorism centre based in KSA; and a condemnation of Iran as a regional destabiliser. Contrary to the show of unity, Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, expressed reservations about signing a declaration that had not been discussed, in clear defiance of his hosts. It is unclear whether he ultimately did sign the document.

A day later, statements attributed to Tamim – supposedly uttered at a military graduation ceremony – appeared on the website of Qatar News Agency. He was quoted praising Iran and the Lebanese resistance organisation Hizbullah, mentioning Qatar’s close ties with Israel and the USA, and proclaiming his country’s unwavering support for the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas. Additionally, tweets posted in the name of Qatar’s foreign minister declared that Qatar would withdraw its ambassadors from Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, KSA and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) because of a ‘plot’ against Qatar. The Qatari government vehemently rejected these statements, claiming the news agency website had hacked. By this time, however, the reaction from KSA, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt was becoming frenzied. Within an hour of the hacking, Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian media began a media campaign to discredit and demonise Qatar. The seemingly-orchestrated onslaught maligning Qatar as a cancer in the GCC persisted despite Kuwaiti attempts to intervene and restore calm. Tamim’s visit to Kuwait to quell the tensions was in vain, as KSA and the UAE refused to entertain any explanations, leading to a shock announcement on 5 June 2017 that both states had severed ties with Qatar. They were followed by Egypt, Bahrain and, later, other Arab states or non-state actors aligned to KSA or the UAE, in what became one of the greatest spats in the GCC’s history.

A series of leaked emails revealing the extent of the lobbying by the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, added to suspicions that the GCC fallout was not as sudden and reactive as the Saudis and Emiratis portrayed it. The emails uncover the key contentious issues according to Qatar’s neighbours: the presence of US CENTCOM in Qatar, the Al Jazeera network, and support for Hamas. Otaiba’s courting of Washington neo-conservatives adds to the suspicion that the Saudis and Emiratis seek to seize the opportunity of Trump’s presidency to reconfigure the US agenda in the Middle East. The carefully orchestrated plan to isolate Qatar appears to be aimed at reinforcing Saudi hegemony in the region and cultivating a new power dynamic with the Trump administration. The renewed courtship with America is led on the Saudi side by the deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman, who has been at the forefront of decision-making since his aged father, King Salman ascended the throne in January 2015. His ambitious vision for Saudi Arabia and his aggressive, impulsive resort to military action against perceived rivals is setting the scene for regional upheaval. The Emiratis have also been flexing their petrodollar muscles to exert influence in the region, led primarily by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan who has been aggressively building up an arsenal of weaponry to support his interventionist motives.

As tensions between Qatar and its neighbours heighten, more questions arise as to the future of the GCC and the expected result of the dramatic siege of the tiny peninsula state. Without providing evidence, the anti-Qatar alliance led by KSA and UAE accuses Qatar of supporting terror organisations. The list of individuals on their ‘terror list’ appears to be a regurgitated post-9/11 CIA list that was laid to rest over a decade ago, and which has been dug out of some dusty archive for lack of any other credible evidence against Qatar. Organisations on the list appear to mainly be humanitarian and charity groups that have been active in war-torn regions. Qatar, KSA and UAE have all been deeply involved in Middle East conflicts, with proxy wars playing out in Syria, Libya and Yemen in particular. None of the three have been neutral in supporting factions that may have committed war crimes and atrocities and / or have been accused of being terror organisations. Thus, the KSA-UAE accusation against Qatar is a case of ‘the camel never seeing its own hump, but only those of others’. The allegations of Qatari terror funding and destabilisation of the region through its policy of engagement with Iran, support for Al Jazeera, and support for the Muslim Brotherhood are bones of contention but it is unclear how much the anti-Qatar alliance expects Doha to concede on these issues, especially since it would encroach on its sovereignty and independence.

Perhaps the alliance, and KSA in particular, cares little about sovereign rights of states like Qatar, which it has long treated as an extension of its eastern province. It has even been suggested that the anti-Qatar alliance is plotting for regime change in Qatar; unsubstantiated rumours surfaced in Egyptian and Emirati media weeks before the Riyadh Summit that the Tamim’s father was planning to support one of his other sons, the current deputy emir and Tamim’s half-brother, Abdullah bin Hamad Al Thani in a coup against his brother. These rumours are likely unfounded and generated outside Qatar among those who believe the real power in Qatar is with Tamim’s mother, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Misned, a prominent figure who has been repeatedly disparaged by Qatar’s patriarchal neighbours. She has been at the forefront of social and educational transformation in Qatar, and served as a UNESCO Special Envoy for basic education. Her children were groomed for leadership and she has stood as a model for women’s empowerment in the Gulf.

Further whisperings of regime change, also emanating from Egypt, attempted to open old wounds in Qatar’s history by goading Tamim’s distant cousin, Saud bin Nasser Al Thani, into making a claim for the position of emir. These attempts fail to consider that Qatar is a constitutional monarchy, and Qataris talk of a ruling family as opposed to a royal family. Its historical succession has not traditionally been one of primogeniture, but of regency and consensus within the ruling family. Furthermore, the split between the two wings of the ruling family dates to a 1940s succession debate when then-emir, Abdullah, intended for his son Hamad to succeed him. Unfortunately, Hamad died prematurely, but an agreement was reached within the ruling family that Abdullah’s other son, Ali, would assume the helm until Hamad’s son Khalifa would be able to rule. Ali, however, handed over the affairs of state to his son Ahmad in 1960, contrary to the agreement, and in opposition to the Hamad faction of the Al Thani family. In 1972 Khalifa, the rightful heir, deposed Ahmad. Any claim by Ahmad’s heirs would be contrary to the historical agreement, and would require consensus from the entire Al Thani clan, numbering more than 20 000 in Qatar alone. In addition, Tamim’s father, the former emir, Hamad, focussed, during his rule, on bringing the Ahmad faction back to Qatar from self-imposed exile and reunifying the factions, though there may still be some within the clan who feel disgruntled and entitled to power. To ensure that the matter would be laid to rest, the constitution stipulated that the succession of the rule of state would be hereditary in the male lineage of Hamad bin Khalifa bin Hamad bin Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani.

There is no inclination to effect regime change by installing a ruler from outside the Al Thani clan, but any such attempt would fail, first of the constitution, and second because the Al Thani family has led the Qatari tribes with little opposition since the British Empire entered the territory in the 1800s.

Most analysts trace the current tensions between Qatar and its neighbours to the Middle East and North Africa uprisings, when Qatar positioned itself apart from the rest of the GCC in supporting the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, events unfolded sporadically and the momentum was organic. In both countries, parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power through the popular vote, to the dismay of other Arab dictators. Qatar’s role was minimal but for extensive coverage on Al Jazeera, which became the people’s channel – broadcasting their revolution live from Tahrir Square to the world. Once the governments in these two countries were democratically elected, Qatar provided keen support – financially and politically. The uprisings also presented Qatar with an opportunity to exert influence and affect the outcomes in other areas where similar uprisings were simmering, but where the leadership was militarily more equipped to suppress the people. In Libya, Qatar was instrumental in lobbying for international intervention, which subsequently set the country on a debilitating course of war. Similarly, in Syria, Qatar was one of the first countries to openly support the Free Syrian Army and is also alleged to have supported al-Qa'ida-linked Nusra Front. Qatar’s stance in Bahrain, however, was far more ambiguous as it joined the GCC coalition in support of the Bahraini monarchy; but coverage by Al Jazeera left its Gulf neighbours wondering if its allegiance to the coalition was genuine. Similarly, in Yemen, whilst Qatar contributed troops to the Saudi coalition forces, it strongly expressed the view that the Houthi should be engaged as a legitimate party; Saudi Arabia considers the Houthi terrorists.

KSA and Qatar now find themselves at opposites, though not for the first time. The polarisation during the MENA uprisings boiled down to the views of each country on the Muslim Brotherhood. In the late 1950s the Gulf states served as a haven for Brotherhood activists escaping persecution from Egypt and Syria. During the 1970s a Saudi society (Al-Sahwa al-Islamiya – the Islamic Awakening) was formed, inspired by the Brotherhood. KSA rendered support to the Brotherhood until the 1991 Gulf War when Al-Sahwa opposed the kingdom’s position of inviting US intervention in Iraq, and began to mobilise for democratic and political reform. Similarly, in the UAE, an organisation with roots in the Brotherhood, Al-Islah wa al-Tojihi al-Ijtima (The Reform and Social Guidance Association) was established in Dubai in the early 1980s. During the MENA uprisings, Al-Islah began to call for democratic reforms, and was subsequently banned as a terror organisation, along with the Brotherhood. With its prominence in uprisings, the Brotherhood suddenly became an existential threat to the monarchies. Qatar provided a haven to Brotherhood clerics and Al Jazeera stood as the driving force of popular revolution. This prompted GCC members in 2013 to secure themselves against one of their own by ensuring that Qatar committed to ‘principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other GCC countries and not support anyone who threatens the security and stability of other GCC countries, including organisations…and not supporting the antagonistic media’. However, a few months later three countries recalled their ambassadors from Qatar citing non-compliance with the pact. Qatar was forced to make some concessions eight months later, ahead of the next GCC summit, including the closure of the live Al Jazeera channel, Al Mubasher Misr in Egypt and requesting some members of the Muslim Brotherhood to leave Qatar. Exiled members sought refuge in Istanbul.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has viewed the tiny territory of Qatar as an irritant that should be dispensable due to its diminutive size, but which always tried to play in the big leagues. Until the early 1990s, KSA dominated the GCC, which had been established in response to the security concerns from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. As a miniscule state, Qatar had always relied on alliances with mightier external actors to ensure its security, notably the Ottomans, British Empire, and the Saudis. The 1995 coup by Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani against his father Khalifa, a staunch Saudi ally, irked the Saudis who supported the former emir in a failed counter-coup attempt in 1996. Most of Qatar’s nuanced policies were developed during Hamad’s reign from 1995 until his abdication to Tamim in 2013. Credit is also due to the then foreign minister and later prime minister, Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr Al Thani, as the architect of Qatar’s enigmatic foreign policy. By the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, whilst Hamad bin Khalifa was heir Apparent, Qatar began to woo the Americans, who soon established US CENTCOM (Central Command) at Qatar’s Al Udeid military base. Having the military might of the world’s superpower just a few dunes away from the regional big brother emboldened Qatar to embark on its ambitious plans for development. The second major development was the founding of the Al Jazeera News Network, and the third was its embarking on economic investments through its sovereign wealth fund aimed at diversifying its gas-based economy. This allowed Qatar to position itself at the centre of numerous international political dialogues, as it did not shy away from criticising the US interventions in the Middle East, whilst concurrently expressing a willingness to engage adversaries and position itself as a peace broker. No doubt Qatar’s financial clout greatly contributed to its political ambitions; often leaving its neighbours feeling slighted by its brazen actions. Often, Qatar would be reminded of Saudi’s seniority, particularly when it tried to influence the outcomes of GCC and Arab League summits. This would frequently occur when Qatar tried to present a conciliatory tone in discussions regarding Iran – a sensitive matter for the region and a view which KSA is not tolerant of. Qatar has maintained cordial, yet cautious, relations with Iran due to the proximity of the two countries and the fact that they share the North Dome / South Pars gas field. The wars in Yemen and Syria found Qatar and Iran on opposing sides, but Qatar has consistently held that diplomatic engagement would be more beneficial than hostility and military aggression, a position its GCC partners do not agree with. Iran has exploited the rising tensions between Qatar and its neighbours by extending a hand to Qatar; Doha has, however, been cautious not to be over-eager to befriend Iran in this sensitive time.

The smear campaign against Qatar has isolated geographically and politically. The economic impact of the siege will likely be severe, considering that air traffic has been affected, impacting on the successful Qatar Airways, and hindering importation. Ground transport across the border with KSA has been completely shut off. Sea ports are limited, and access to the UAE port of Jebel Ali has been restricted, making the movement of aluminium and LNG challenging. Qatar has begun using Omani ports, and has been offered the use of three Iranian ports. Food imports have been seriously affected, but Iran and Turkey have become new sources of fresh produce, and a ‘buy local’ campaign has been launched, enhancing growth in the local market. Moody’s had downgraded Qatar’s status prior to the siege, and other ratings’ agencies did so since. Fitch dropped Qatar’s credit rating from AA to negative, noting that a prolonged siege may affect its credit outlook. The stock market has been significantly affected, but indications are that Qatar has sufficient investments abroad to ensure its survival should further economic sanctions be applied. Stress on gas production has been evident with the shutdown of two helium production plants, impacting on 32% of the global market. This is an early warning of what could potentially happen should the blockade affect Qatar’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) and gas-to-liquids (GTL) plants. World powers would be wary of allowing the anti-Qatar alliance to push Doha to the extent that it begins to flex its energy producing muscles and threatens a world energy crisis. Gas production is not governed by OPEC, and therefore Qatar is not regulated in its production or price settings. It would have the potential to cripple Asian giants like Japan and South Korea but the real question is whether it would consider retaliation against the UAE by cutting off the Dolphin Energy gas pipeline to the Emirates. Thus far, Qatar seems to have adopted measured responses, and emphasised the need to enter into dialogue to resolve differences, but the anti-Qatar alliance appears determined to force its way irrespective of the consequences.

The push for US sanctions on Qatar through the Congressional Bill HR 2712 (Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act of 2017) bolsters the suspicion that the action against Qatar was not sudden, but was part of a broader plan for reconfiguring the Middle East. The bi-partisan sponsored bill already appears to be gaining momentum in Washington DC, and clearly targets Qatar (and Iran), without specifically mentioning its name, by its allusion to the sponsors of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It proposes economic and military sanctions against individuals, entities, organisations and organs of state. The banking sector is specifically mentioned. Were this bill to pass, it will have far-reaching consequences in the further isolation of Qatar, and in the ability of Qatar to do business with the rest of the world. The bill and the actions against Qatar are likely to have devastating effects on Hamas, possibly constraining the capacity of the movement to continue to resist Israeli occupation, or forcing it to make unimaginable compromises that could be devastating for the Palestinian cause.

There are strong indications that Israel- and KSA-funded lobbyists had pushed for the bill to be tabled, and it is no mere coincidence that its timing corresponds with the siege on Qatar. Israel expressed strong support of the anti-Qatar alliance, with Israel’s Deputy Minister for Diplomacy tweeting: ‘No longer Israel against Arabs but Israel and Arabs against Qatar-financed terror’. The Saudi and UAE insistence for Qatar to break links with Hamas, and their promoting the notion that Qatar undermines Palestinian-Israeli peace beg the question whether their new-found friendship with Israel and the relationship with Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have any bearing on these demands. There are strong indications that Israel has been cooperating covertly for some time with both KSA and UAE. In recent years the GCC had been increasingly muted in addressing the flagrant disregard of international resolutions by Israel. Qatar expressed extreme frustration with the GCC in 2008 when the GCC refused to hold an emergency session on the margins of its Summit in Kuwait to condemn the Israeli onslaught on Gaza. Qatar has financially supported Gaza with humanitarian and reconstruction aid after both the 2008 and 2014 Israeli attacks. It has been instrumental in mediating between the Palestinian factions to bring about unity, and supported the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, proposing a normalisation of relations with Israel, which the Saudis tried to reignite earlier this year, against the backdrop of their own warming relations with Tel Aviv.

It remains unclear what tangible outcome the anti-Qatar alliance seeks to achieve from the current escalation other than battering what they see as a delinquent into submission. Any suggestions of regime change will not be welcomed by Qataris who hugely support Tamim, and have a strong sense of national pride. The siege has sent Qatar’s patriotism to an all-time high, even amongst non-Qatari residents. An expression of allegiance to Tamim by the Bani Hajer and Al Murrah tribes, which span the Arabian Peninsula, has caused concern in Saudi Arabia, which fears other tribes, including the Bani Tamim, whom the Al Thani family derives its lineage from, will follow suit. The siege has already had a negative impact on the lives of Gulf nationals who are married across state lines or whose families and tribes were divided by national borders, but who, until two weeks ago, had ease of movement between Gulf states. Any coup or transfer of power will not significantly alter Qatar’s policies, and will, instead, leave the country more vulnerable to internal strife, as it would be seen to lack integrity, pride and independence. Qatar is unlikely to accede to the shutting down of Al Jazeera, a demand (sometimes threatening) of several Arab states over the years that it has withstood.

Kuwait’s attempts to negotiate a de-escalation may yet succeed, but an escalation, including the option of military intervention (though minimal at this stage) cannot be completely ruled out. Any such move would be catastrophic for the region, polarising the Muslim and Arab world and drawing other regional powers into the conflict. KSA is clearly lobbying other countries to join its alliance against Qatar, with a growing number of countries seemingly willing to do so. Saudi Arabia appears to be courting several African states for support with either offers of millions of investment dollars or threats of divestment. Pledges of support by these client states is indicative not only of the immediate isolation of Qatar, which has massive huge investments in Africa and membership of La Francophonie, but possibly of a potential plan to table motions against Qatar at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Arab League, and perhaps even the United Nations.

Qatar would not be able to withstand a military incursion without outside support, even though it has pulled back its troops from Yemen and the border region between Djibouti and Eritrea. Turkey has strongly supported Qatar and has begun to fast-track the deployment of about 3 000 troops to Qatar based on a pre-existing military cooperation agreement. Iran is keen to align with Qatar, as demonstrated by its immediate deployment of foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Ankara on 7 June to engage his Turkish counterpart on collaborative means to support Doha. It is, however, unlikely that Qatar will choose to align itself too closely with the GCC’s antagonist while facing the prospect of sanctions or expulsion from the council. Qatar’s options may appear limited but the anti-Qatar alliance has drawn itself into a quagmire that would be difficult to withdraw from. Other world leaders have been weighing in on the crisis. US President Donald Trump initially expressed glee at the siege, taking credit for the notion. Washington has sent conflicting signals to Qatar since the blockade, as the White House has aligned itself with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in accusing Qatar of support for and funding of terrorists, whilst the Pentagon continues to engage Qatar more constructively, including through a new arms sale and joint military and naval exercises. French President Emmanuel Macron has urged dialogue, whilst Russian President Vladimir Putin joined Erdogan in calling on all parties to ‘develop compromise solutions in the interest of preserving peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region’.

The siege will undoubtedly have far-reaching ramifications for GCC. The values upon which the GCC was formed may still be important for its member states, but culture, language and familial ties cannot be the sole basis for unity when political ideology and military ambitions undermine the prospects of shared values. Unification of the states and integration will not be possible in a climate of mistrust. Threats to regional security in the form of wars in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria require a unified vision that will not be possible if GCC members have different views on the root causes of these conflicts, and view each other as enemies. The absence of trust between member states, together with the lack of transparency, accountability and an archaic notion that the public must remain submissive to a ruling elite, does not augur well for the GCC’s future, and may even lead to renewed popular mobilisation for democratic change in the Gulf. This is already indicated by a petition by GCC nationals calling for citizen participation in political decision-making, noting that ‘arbitrary and extreme actions’ such as the blockade would not have happened in a democratic environment. With Qatar not willing to concede, and the anti-Qatar alliance not backing down, the dissolution of the GCC in its current form is likely.

* Zeenat Adam served as South Africa’s deputy ambassador to Qatar between 2005 and 2009, and is currently an independent international relations strategist

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