Qatar cri­sis redraws red lines and frays Gulf ties

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

It’s early morn­ing at a fish­ing port in Dubai. A group of mostly re­tired fish­er­men are play­ing cards, eat­ing dates and drink­ing cof­fee at the port’s ma­jlis, a tra­di­tional meet­ing space. Here, the Emi­rati fish­er­men say they aren’t too wor­ried about the po­lit­i­cal fall­out with Qatar that’s gripped the re­gion since early June, when Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with the small Gulf state, ac­cus­ing it of sup­port­ing ex­trem­ists. “When it comes to politics, it’s not our busi­ness,” Thani Obeid said. “If ev­ery­one walks around say­ing their opin­ion there will be chaos.”

Obeid, 65, and Salem Jo­maa, 70, say they have faith in the “wis­dom” of the re­gion’s rulers be­cause “we are one fam­ily”. “The Gulf is one home. From Saudi Ara­bia to Ras Al-Khaimah (in the UAE) to Oman. We are all broth­ers, cousins, friends,” Jo­maa said. “We are all Mus­lims.” Cen­turies-old ties that bind fam­i­lies to tribes and tribes to rul­ing sheikhs un­der­pin the Ara­bian Penin­sula, but that kin­ship is now un­der strain.

The cri­sis has also up­ended some red lines, mak­ing what was once il­le­gal now le­gal, and vice-versa. Chief among them was an un­der­stand­ing - en­shrined in tra­di­tion and govern­ment en­forced - that crit­i­cism of an­other Gulf country or its es­teemed ruler could lead to au­to­matic im­pris­on­ment and hefty fines. Af­ter the row erupted June 5, those rules changed. Saudi Ara­bia, the UAE and Bahrain warned in­stead that any­one who sym­pa­thizes with Qatar or crit­i­cizes the mea­sures taken against it would be im­pris­oned and fined.

Qatari cit­i­zens were also expelled from the three coun­tries af­ter years of visa-free travel through­out the Gulf. Trans­port links with Qatar were cut and Saudi Ara­bia sealed shut Qatar’s only land bor­der, im­pact­ing food im­ports. Saudi and Emi­rati of­fi­cials in­sist the mea­sures are not aimed at Qatari cit­i­zens, but at the govern­ment. That dis­tinc­tion has meant lit­tle to Qataris who say the block­ade on their country and the as­sault on their lead­er­ship is like an at­tack on the whole so­ci­ety.

“If they talk about our emir, it’s like they are talk­ing about us. The siege and block­ade and mak­ing it il­le­gal to sym­pa­thize with Qatar, this is against us,” Ahmed AlKhayli, a 36-year-old Qatari said. Speak­ing by phone from Qatar, Khayli said he be­lieves the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Qataris and oth­ers in the Gulf has be­come “more sen­si­tive”. Many Qataris - who num­ber around 270,000 cit­i­zens - be­lieve their small, en­ergy-rich country is stand­ing up for it­self, re­fus­ing to sur­ren­der its sovereignty. Pa­tri­otic fer­vor has swept through the country. Tow­er­ing im­ages of its 37-year-old rul­ing emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Ha­mad Al-Thani, are plas­tered on cars, bill­boards and store­fronts across the cap­i­tal.

In Qatar and the UAE, where for­eign­ers far out­num­ber lo­cals, many talk with sin­cere admiration for their rulers. It’s a re­la­tion­ship that harkens to a time when tribal elders were re­spon­si­ble for the se­cu­rity of their com­mu­ni­ties, which re­lied on pearl div­ing and fish­ing for sur­vival. Then, as now, tribes in the Ara­bian Penin­sula in­ter­mar­ried. The ex­pul­sion of Qataris sep­a­rated mixed-na­tion­al­ity fam­i­lies, par­ents from their chil­dren and hus­bands from their wives. Af­ter public out­cry, the three Gulf coun­tries said ex­cep­tions would be made for im­me­di­ate fam­ily mem­bers, though rights groups say stu­dents and fam­i­lies are still be­ing af­fected.

Re­la­tion­ships

Ha­mad Al-Ku­laib, a 38-year-old Kuwaiti busi­ness­man, said the cri­sis “feels like a bat­tle of the egos” be­tween high-rank­ing of­fi­cials. Kuwait, which has re­mained neu­tral, is try­ing to me­di­ate the cri­sis. “The ten­sion be­tween Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc is cer­tainly putting all our so­cial re­la­tion­ships in dan­ger,” he said. Though there have been fall­outs in the past be­tween Gulf states, this is the most se­vere cri­sis in decades.

Saudi and Emi­rati me­dia have un­leashed a bar­rage of crit­i­cal re­ports about Qatar, ac­cus­ing it of sedi­tion, ly­ing, spon­sor­ing ter­ror­ism and try­ing to desta­bi­lize the re­gion. Qatar’s sup­port of op­po­si­tion Is­lamist groups and its ties with Iran has un­nerved its neigh­bors. Qatar says ac­cu­sa­tions it backs ex­trem­ist groups are po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated and de­nies it has ever spon­sored ter­ror­ism.

Mean­while, Qatari-af­fil­i­ated press upped their crit­i­cal cov­er­age of Saudi Ara­bia since the row erupted. Qatar and the UAE have also traded ac­cu­sa­tions of hack­ing. In the years be­fore the cri­sis, state-linked news chan­nels and papers did not crit­i­cize a fel­low Gulf na­tion’s ruler or poli­cies. Of­fi­cially, at least, Qatar has kept a mod­icum of deco­rum in place. The emir con­grat­u­lated the Saudi king and his son, Prince Mo­hammed bin Salman, when he was el­e­vated to crown prince in late June. The emir also sent a ca­ble of con­do­lences to King Salman on the death of his el­der brother.

Those acts sparked a hash­tag on Twit­ter in sup­port of Qatar, and an­other hash­tag said Saudis still wel­come ties with Qatari cit­i­zens. Twit­ter is also where peo­ple have ral­lied be­hind their gov­ern­ments. Emi­rati so­cial me­dia star Taim Al-Falasi hit back at ac­cu­sa­tions that cit­i­zens in the UAE were be­ing paid to sup­port the moves against Qatar. In a fiercely-worded post, she asked Qataris how they could con­tinue to sup­port their emir af­ter all the al­le­ga­tions made against Qatar.

At the ma­jlis in Dubai’s har­bor, the fish­er­men shake their heads when the men­tion of Twit­ter comes up. They dis­ap­prove of the fierce words be­ing traded on­line. “If you add fuel to a fire, the fire will grow,” Obeid said. In Kuwait, 27-year-old Bar­rak Al-Dakhail says the cri­sis has po­lar­ized opin­ions there and made re­la­tion­ships among peo­ple in the Gulf “awk­ward”. “If the sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ues to es­ca­late, it might cre­ate a big­ger wedge be­tween the peo­ple ... and that’s cer­tainly some­thing we don’t want,” he said. — AP

DOHA: Mem­bers of the Qatari se­cu­rity forces, known in Ara­bic as “Lekhwiya”, dive in a swim­ming pool at Qatar Univer­sity on Aug 10, 2017 to sign their names by a painting of Emir Tamim bin Ha­mad AlThani ti­tled in Ara­bic “Glo­ri­ous Tamim”, orig­i­nally drawn by artist Ahmed bin Ma­jed Al-Maad­heed that spread across the Gulf country, as an ex­pres­sion of sup­port for the monarch. — AFP

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