Zecharias Zelalem, Special to Addis Standard
Addis Abeba, June 27/2017 – Although some experts say there was bound to be a head on collision within the Gulf States sometime in the not too distant future, the speed in which the recent diplomatic crisis unfolded has caught many off guard. It began on June 05 when Saudi Arabia, with the backing of Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE, abruptly severed diplomatic ties with Qatar accusing it of sponsoring terrorism and destabilizing the Gulf region. Although the Gulf States have in the past frequently found themselves at odds for one reason or another, it was clear from the get go that the recent crisis was no ordinary spat amongst cousins.
Qatar, which over the past several years worked so hard to solidify itself as a regional peacemaker and a diplomatic channel for disenfranchised states such as Eritrea, has all of a sudden seen its hard work trashed in a matter of hours. Everything, from allegations of supporting Israel and Iran, to accusations of funding terrorist organizations, has seen Doha scramble to defend its reputation. It happened fast, so fast that Qatari officials who retired for the night as honored dignitaries on June 04 woke up the next morning and found themselves surrounded by their once friendly neighbors turned snarling wolves gnashing their teeth at them.
Not as spontaneous as it looks
For those who closely follow political events in the Gulf States, it is quite evident that this was no spontaneous outbreak of rage.
First, let’s dissect the official explanation given by Riyadh. Qatar’s alleged funding for “terrorist organizations.” This long standing allegation has stirred up strife and civil war in several conflict hotspots, meriting the globe’s condemnation against Qatar for the sake of the peace seeking people of the Middle East, Asia and Africa. With most mainstream media outlets hesitating to go into detail with what is referred to as “terrorism,” the Saudis seem successful in dominating the narrative that Qatar is the main financial backer of what is arguably the most influential terrorist group, Daesh (aka ISIS).
A good deal of the outrage against Qatar among social media users in the west is born of the assumption that evidence linking Qatar to the Raqqa based “caliphate” was recently unearthed, triggering the standoff. But this isn’t true. Qatari state funding of Daesh is as of yet unverified by independent sources and cannot be taken as fact. Despite rumors of wealthy Qataris openly funneling money to the group and facing no repercussions for it at home, no high level diplomat has produced an evidence beyond a reasonable doubt implicating Qatar’s attempt of directly aiding Daesh financially or militarily.
Hamas: Much ado about nothing
At a press conference in Paris, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir added a further demand for Qatar, this time, to end all support for the “extremist groups undermining the Palestinian Authority and Egypt,” namely Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
However, Qatar’s alleged support of the likes of Hamas can by no means be what triggered the recent Gulf crisis. For starters, Qatar made no secret of its official recognition of Hamas for years. The militant group’s leader Khaled Meshal recently choose Doha to announce Hamas’s new political charter. Several high ranking Hamas officials have also met with Qatari diplomats and leaders, including the former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal announced a new policy document in Doha, Qatar, on May 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters
This well known liaison between Qatar and Hamas was by no means a new phenomenon. Nor is Qatar the sole provider of funds and resources for Hamas and/or its military wing. In fact, it the beginning of the 2000s, Saudi Arabia, not Qatar, was widely known to have been the principal financier of Hamas. Hamas’s claims to adhere to Sunni Islam virtues meant that Riyadh sought to bring them under their wing and away from the influence of Iran, which, despite being a majority Shia Muslim nation, also sought to support Hamas.
According to American research group Stratfor, Saudi’s support for Hamas diminished in the wake of the latter’s act of taking open responsibility for the campaign of terror waged against Israel as a part of the “Second Intifada” conflict of the 2000s. Under pressure from the likes of the United States, Riyadh began scaling back their support of Hamas. Nevertheless, Hamas continued to enjoy support from several other wealthy donors and governments from Kuwait to Jordan, Syria and Iran as well as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It would be quite difficult to name a single Arab or majority Muslim country in the region that hasn’t at one point or another, offered support to Hamas.
The Saudi Foreign Minister’s reference of Hamas as “terrorists” in the wake of the latest Gulf crisis therefore holds no water. Supporting Hamas is hardly a lone Qatari initiative, nor was it ever openly referred to as a “terrorist” organization by most leaders in the Gulf States.
Muslim Brotherhood charge bogus in nature
As for accusing Qatar of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, it is not, once again, a new phenomenon that the Egyptian based Muslim Brotherhood enjoys recognition and support by the state of Qatar, which has chosen to shelter many of its members in the wake of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s crackdown against the organization since 2014.
Although have hesitated to do the same as Qatar in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s efforts to get a universal support in having the group designated as a terrorist organization haven’t bore fruition for the most part. As such, the Muslim Brotherhood has only been declared a terrorist organization by the governments of Bahrain, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the UAE. To Egypt’s continued disdain, the exiled members of the Muslim Brotherhood operate a website based in London and even have a certified Twitter page, much to the chagrin of hordes of Egyptian Twitter users. Partly owing to its 2012 ascendance to power through free elections, global condemnation against the Muslim Brotherhood will probably be extremely slow to come by, too.
Qatar’s funding of the Muslim Brotherhood is not therefore the collective reason that led the Saudi camp to cut diplomatic ties and implement a blockade against Qatar; but they all have their own different reasons and none of them involve “regional destabilization.”
Egypt’s grudge against Qatar goes back to 2013
Most media outlets were quick to point fingers at President Donald Trump’s recent trip to the Middle East and his meetings with a host of leaders as the key trigger of the current Gulf crisis. For instance, Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel referred to the diplomatic buildup against Qatar as a “Trumpification of the Qatar-GCC dispute”. Indeed President Trump assumes his own share of responsibility for creating the tension and fostering division amongst the traditionally allied Gulf States.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel believes “Trumpification” is at play. Photo: Press TV
But what should not ignored is the fact that long before June 05, Egypt had maintained a firm anti-Qatar stance, stemming from Qatar’s official disapproval of the 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood party leader Mohammed Morsi from his position as Egypt’s President. Egypt has also blocked broadcasts of Al Jazeera from the country since August of 2013, accusing it of bias and defamation. Although both Egypt and Qatar form part of the Saudi led anti Houthi coalition of the war in Yemen, and both are major co-financiers of oil pipelines in the Red Sea, President Al-Sisi has long been working to turn the region against Qatar .
Al-Sisi vs Trump: A friendship with benefits
Egypt may have played the most crucial role in executing the hostilities against Qatar by obtaining the support of the United States. Al-Sisi and Trump have a well established friendship that goes beyond the normal state protocol. Trump had had a sit down with Al-Sisi in New York already in September 2016. The Trump campaign released a communiqué at the time in which candidate Trump made promises that “under a Trump Administration, the United States of America will be a loyal friend, not simply an ally that Egypt can count on in days and years ahead”. Trump’s America may have just made good on that promise. President Trump has also expressed his personal admiration for his Egyptian counterpart. “I have been close to him since the first time we met. We agree on so many things.” This has been the perfect opportunity President Al-Sisi this has been waiting for.
But the US has no reason to go after Qatar
Few days after Qatar’s diplomatic crisis, Trump told journalists that “the nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level”. When one considers the fact that candidate Trump had never publicly admonished Qatar throughout his campaign, which was fraught with pledges to get rid of terrorist organizations, this statement comes as rather a surprise. Bear in mind that Qatar was also not among the seven mainly Muslim countries included in president Trump’s infamous travel ban, popularly named as “Muslim ban.” To make matters more complicated Qatar was an active participant in the war against the Houthis in Yemen, a position endorsed by the United States. It also hosts USCENTCOM, a US military base, going a step farther than many countries in the region when it comes to accommodating America’s foreign policy manoeuvring. The Al Udeid Air Base in the country is still jointly operated by Qatar and the US as part of the larger effort to combat terrorism.
This fact strengthens explanations that president Al-Sisi has effectively twisted president Trump to submit to his will regarding Qatar. But unlike president Al-Sisi, Uncle Sam has no plausible excuse for going after Qatar. President Al-Sisi is may be in for a further disappointment because the US is less likely inclined to name the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation; far less likely to take actions against its members based in America. To this end, exactly what the US expects to get in return for aligning itself with Egypt in the Qatar’s diplomatic crisis is not clear.
Seething sectarian Saudis seek Shia solution
This brings us back to Saudi Arabia. It is not hard to realize that Qatar’s rapprochements with Iran, fake news or not, only served to intensify suspicions that Qatar doesn’t maintain the same anti-Shia Muslim stance that the royalty in Riyadh strongly adhere to. Qatar had initially provoked the ire of Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the January 2016 storming of Saudi embassy offices in Iran. The main embassy in Tehran was among those attacked by mobs protesting the Saudi government’s execution of a Saudi Shia Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr. The offices were ransacked and set ablaze by hundreds of angry Iranian demonstrators. There weren’t any casualties as no staff or embassy personnel were present. But the incident left a sour taste in the mouths of Saudi Arabia. A day later, Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir announced that his country was severing all ties with Iran and gave Tehran 48 hours to evacuate all of its diplomats from the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia and Iran have always been at odds due to the Sunni-Shia divide. For far too long, Saudi Arabia sought to politically isolate Iran much like the way it is doing to Qatar today. They called on all their allies to cut ties with Tehran. The likes of Bahrain did so promptly while African nations Somalia, Sudan and Djibouti soon followed suit. But in the aftermath of the embassy blaze, there was one nation that refrained from totally cutting Iran off: Qatar.
Although Qatar had temporarily recalled its ambassador from Tehran and condemned the defiling of the sanctity of an international embassy by Iranian rioters, it was among the last to issue a statement condemning Iran, which didn’t go unnoticed in Riyadh. Qatar’s envoy to Iran eventually returned and all appeared to return to normal again between the two, further irking the house of Saud . Qatar’s reluctance to support a decisive action against Iran appears to have been taken as lack of will to actively participate in diminishing Shia influence in the region, which is Saudi Arabia’s central demand from all its allies.
Hacking, “Fake News” and all
With tension building up throughout most of 2016, the hacking on May 23 of the Qatar News Agency and a subsequent release of a news that Qatar firmly asserted was “fake news” is now seen as the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Among other stories, the news item allegedly quoted Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani as saying Iran was an “Islamic power.” Expressing open admiration for Iran puts one in the crosshairs of Riyadh. Qatar, already under scrutiny for its decision to maintain its consular services in Tehran, was presented as having crossed the red line. The Saudis, who by this stage must have already confided their intentions with Egypt to take decisive action against Qatar, knew there would be no turning back now.
Although the FBI sent a team of investigators to Qatar and it is now widely believed that the Qatar News Agency had been hacked by Russian hackers when the statements were published, the Saudi camp didn’t seem to reverse the course of its diplomatic assault against Qatar.
It’s about Al Jazeera: A Qatari weapon of mass disruption
On Friday June 23, Saudi Arabia and co. have issued a list of 13 demands that Qatar should meet in just 10 days if it wanted a return of normalcy. Among the sweeping demands was the complete shutdown of the Al-Jazeera news network. Although this demand is now tabled officially, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have long wanted Qatar to stop transmissions of the Doha based news channel, which is widely accepted by millions of its viewers around the world as the most successful disruptive media. Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Arab spring has undoubtedly sent chills through several Arab countries, most notably Egypt; however, the latest rage appeared to be over Al Jazeera’s decision to publish emails of the Emirati ambassador to the US, Yousef Al-Otaiba, showing details of a communications between the ambassador and Israeli lobbyists.
Al Jazeera is widely credited for bringing the Arab Spring to the television screens of millions of people around the world. The network has particularly given extensive coverage of the political dynamics in post-Mubarak Egypt and the government’s misdealing and bloody crackdowns on civilian protesters. More importantly, Al-Jazeera news network has brought immense disruptions within the Arab world, shattering long established narratives of patriarchal autocracies the region is known for. Demanding the shutting down of the network is therefore nothing but an attempt to prevent millions of people living in the Arab world from questioning and holding power accountable. It has nothing to do with the alleged accusations of Qatar’s sponsorship of terrorism.
Funding Terrorism is a regional problem, not just a Qatari problem
When it comes to the problems of funding terrorism, Saudi Arabia finds itself among nations with an extensive track record. A Wikileaks release of emails between former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and her former campaign manager John Podesta revealed their belief that the likes of Daesh are thriving on consistent sources of revenue coming from members of the Saudi government, or wealthy Saudi businessmen.
In 2006, a UN Security Council report published revealed that Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were among several nations providing weapons and funds for Somalia based Union of Islamic Courts, an Al Qaeda linked terrorist group that had captured parts of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu earlier that year. These facts indicate that funding terrorism is used as de facto diplomatic arm twisting between several regimes in the Gulf. It is therefore certainly not up to Saudi Arabia and Egypt to look down condescendingly upon Qatar accusing it of funding terrorism when both are far from being model nations to the contrary. Power, personal feuds, the age old Shia-Sunni sectarian divide and vengeance are what have fueled the current diplomatic crisis in the Gulf. The upping of the ante by Riyadh and Cairo is hypocritical; America’s flagrant and inconsiderate involvement is a flat out mockery; and Qatar’s fate of being ostracized as the black sheep in the neighborhood is outright farcical.
Three weeks into the crisis, many are hoping the tension will subside as influential third party states, most notably Kuwait, are trying to bring everyone back to the negotiating table. However, any hope for a diplomatic solution was thrown into the fray where the Saudis and its bloc came up with unrealistic demands that should be met by Qatar. If anything, the 13 points of sweeping demands are an indication that the Saudi bloc will continue to bribe, brownnose and intimidate more players into adopting similar stances, sending unto the unknown any sense of morality in solving the crisis though diplomatic means.
Whether we realize it or not, in the long run the free world will end up paying the price if it silently watches Qatar continued to be bullied into total submission. AS
ED’s Note: The writer, Zecharias Zelalem, tweets @ZekuZelalem