Why Qatar is being demonised
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In order to preserve their hold on power, the Gulf monarchies either need to rein in its rulers or initiate a regime change
THE WEALTHIEST nation in the world today in terms of per capita income – Qatar – was blockaded by its Gulf Arab neighbours this week by land, air and sea.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Yemen all cut diplomatic ties to Qatar, ordering its citizens to leave within 14 days. But it had less to do with its supposed “funding of terrorists groups”, and more to do with putting it under siege in order to force a change in its independent foreign policy positions.
Qatar’s foreign policy is perceived as a threat to the monarchies of the Gulf. Not only does Qatar have good relations with Iran, which is considered the nemesis of the Sunni Gulf Arab monarchies, but it has supported people power in the Middle East – rule from the bottom up.
One of the greatest existential threats to the Gulf monarchies is the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, which is considered one of the largest civil organisations in the Muslim world. While Qatar has historically supported the Muslim Brotherhood, the Gulf monarchies have banned it and attempted to crush its influence.
The Gulf monarchies can no longer tolerate this maverick in their midst, at a time when many of them have a tenuous relationship with their subjects, sizeable and restless Shia minorities (and in the case of Bahrain a 60% majority), and increasing calls on the Arab street for democracy and accountability. Qatar is also accused of supporting Shia militants in eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
In order to preserve their hold on power, the royal families of the Gulf need to either rein in Qatar’s rulers or initiate a regime change.
Plan A is to demonise the Qatar leadership, painting it as a sponsor of terrorism and crippling its economy unless it bows to their collective demands. But their demands have little to do with the issue of terrorism, but designed to weaken Qatar’s influence in the region.
One such demand was to shut down Al Jazeera, which has been perceived as the foreign policy instrument of the Qatari Emir. But few could argue that Al Jazeera’s reporting has supported terrorist networks. Saudi Arabia has blocked the transmission of Al Jazeera, closed its airspace to Qatar Airways and closed its land borders with Qatar. Forty percent of Qatar’s food imports come from Saudi Arabia, but Iran has promised to fill the void.
Another demand of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states has been to expel the political leadership of Hamas which was in Doha, but Hamas leaders quietly left Qatar earlier this week for Turkey, Malaysia and Lebanon, understanding the changing balance of forces against their hosts.
If pressure fails to make Qatar change course, there is always Plan B – the regimechange option. For those who thought that was not on the table, consider the statement by the president of the Saudi-American public relations affairs committee, Salman al-Ansari, who tweeted: “To the emir of Qatar, regarding your alignment with the extremist government of Iran and your abuse of the custodian of the two sacred mosques, I would like to remind you that Mohammed Mursi did exactly the same and was then toppled and imprisoned.”
The one Gulf country that has not joined in the chorus of condemnation against the Qatari leadership has been Kuwait, which is attempting to mediate in the confrontation that is tearing the GCC apart. Kuwait has historically stood out from its Gulf allies in that it was the first to have a parliament, regularly holds elections, and is generally a more open and tolerant society.
If one asks, as one must, “who benefits” from the escalating conflict, one can look beyond the Gulf monarchies to their allies. The official positions of the US and Israeli governments are telling, which have wholeheartedly praised the anti-Qatar campaign. President Donald Trump tweeted that his Saudi visit was paying off as they would take a hard line on the funding of extremism, and “all are pointing to Qatar”.
Similarly, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has praised the anti-Qatar measures. Not only do the US and Israel perceive the developments as weakening the Iran axis of resistance by pressuring the country which gave protection to Hamas, but antagonism between Muslim countries of the region also suits their interests in terms of divide and rule.
The remaining question is: Why now? Everything indicates that this has been a carefully calculated campaign, driven from the capitals of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US.
The pre-meditated assault began with the hacking of the Qatar News Agency on May 24, which put out fake news to embarrass the emir of Qatar. Within minutes and in the middle of the night, Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya, and the Emirati Sky News Arabia was quoting the fake news, and within less than three hours they had interviewed no fewer than 11 politicians for their reactions before the Qataris even woke up.
Before this week’s developments there had also been 14 op-eds in the American press on the danger to regional stability that Qatar represents. Leaked emails supposedly from the account of the Emirati ambassador to the US have also exposed the extensive collaboration between a pro-Israeli neo-conservative NGO in Washington and the UAE in strategising how to tarnish Qater’s reputation and reduce its influence in the region.
The fate of the second-biggest American military base in the region which is hosted by Qatar might also hang in the balance. The US has 10 000 of its soldiers there, and flies sorties against the Islamic State and into Afghanistan from Qatar.
In Trump’s calculus he sees nothing to lose, and his Middle East trip effectively gave a green light to the Gulf States to take matters into their own hands to contain Iran and its friends. It seems they wasted no time in getting started.
SIDELINED: Several shipping lines have suspended service to Qatar after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut diplomatic relations with Qatar on Monday.