Why Qatar is be­ing de­monised

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

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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.

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