Gulf In The Gulf

J.J. Gold­berg an­a­lyzes the rift be­tween Qatar and Saudi Ara­bia.

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - J. J. Gold­berg and J. J. Gold­berg is the ed­i­tor- at- large of the For­ward. Fol­low him on Twit­ter, @jj_­gold­berg

There are three ways to ex­plain the re­cent cri­sis that sud­denly erupted in the Sunni Arab world when Saudi Ara­bia and a group of al­lies abruptly broke re­la­tions with the oil-rich Per­sian Gulf emi­rate of Qatar.

One ex­pla­na­tion is strate­gic: that the rift is a Saudi-led bid to rein in the mav­er­ick Qatar, end Qatar’s sup­port of Is­lamist ter­ror­ists and close Sunni ranks in the wors­en­ing cold war with Shi’ite Iran. The se­cond ex­pla­na­tion is Machi­avel­lian: It’s a Saudi ma­neu­ver to squelch Qatar’s lead­er­ship am­bi­tions and pre­serve Saudi pre-em­i­nence as the leader of the Sunni camp.

The third, sur­pris­ingly, is philo­soph­i­cal: The cri­sis is es­sen­tially a show­down pit­ting the Saudis’ un­com­pro­mis­ing, take-no-pris­on­ers pug­na­cious­ness against Qatar’s pref­er­ence for big-tent diplo­macy.

There’s some truth in all three the­o­ries. Which you choose to em­pha­size tells as much about you as it tells about the Qatar cri­sis.

The cri­sis broke out on June 5. Bahrain, an is­land- na­tion in the Per­sian Gulf, an­nounced that it was sev­er­ing ties with neigh­bor­ing Qatar. Bahrain ac­cused Qatar of desta­bi­liz­ing the re­gion, sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism and med­dling in its neigh­bors’ af­fairs. All trade and trans­porta­tion be­tween the two neigh­bors would cease, and each na­tion’s ci­ti­zens were to leave the other’s ter­ri­tory.

Min­utes later, sim­i­lar state­ments emerged, in close co­or­di­na­tion, from neigh­bor­ing Oman and the United Arab Emi­rates, as well as from Egypt, 1,300 miles to the west. Over the next 24 hours they were joined by Mau­re­ta­nia, the Mal­dives, Mau­ri­tius and what’s left of the gov­ern­ments of Ye­men and Libya.

Qatar is one of five small Sunni sheikhdoms, all of them ab­so­lute monar­chies, that dot the Per­sian Gulf shore on the east coast of the Ara­bian Penin­sula. The other four are Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emi­rates. To­gether with Saudi Ara­bia they make up the con­ser­va­tive Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil.

Qatar has been pe­ri­od­i­cally at odds with the oth­ers, pur­su­ing an in­de­pen­dent for­eign pol­icy that the neigh­bors deem dan­ger­ous ad­ven­tur­ism. Qatar also main­tains cor­dial ties with Iran, the Saudis’ bit­ter ri­val. In­deed, it co-owns with Iran the world’s largest un­der­sea nat­u­ral gas field in the

Per­sian Gulf. That’s what’s meant by “desta­bi­liz­ing the re­gion.”

“Med­dling in neigh­bors’ af­fairs”: That’s code for the Qatar- owned Al- Jazeera ca­ble network, which broad­casts free­wheel­ing, crit­i­cal, of­ten in­flam­ma­tory cov­er­age that the other, more tra­di­tion­al­ist Arab regimes re­sent.

As for “sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism,” that refers to Qatar’s 2011 de­ci­sion to back anti-regime pro­test­ers when the Arab Spring broke out. A wave of antigov­ern­ment protests in a half-dozen Arab coun­tries, it started out as a lib­eral, pro-democ­racy surge but was quickly co-opted in most places by Is­lamists, and led by the fun­da­men­tal­ist Mus­lim Brother­hood.

The Mus­lim Brother­hood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is a loose network of or­ga­ni­za­tions op­er­at­ing in Mus­lim coun­tries, seek­ing, through po­lit­i­cal means, to im­pose a purist, fun­da­men­tal­ist ver­sion of Sunni Is­lam. In some coun­tries the Brother­hood sticks to pol­i­tics. In oth­ers it’s out­lawed be­cause of its ex­trem­ist plat­form, and this of­ten makes the Brother­hood re­sort to vi­o­lence.

Rel­a­tively mod­er­ate Brother­hood off­shoots are the elected rul­ing par­ties in Tu­nisia and Tur­key. An Is­raeli off­shoot holds a hand­ful of Knes­set seats. In Egypt and Saudi Ara­bia, by con­trast, the Brother­hood is an out­lawed ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion. The Egyp­tian branch was le­gal­ized dur­ing the Arab Spring and was elected to power in 2012, but its in­com­pe­tence and in­tol­er­ance led to its over­throw and ban­ning by the army a year later. Saudi Ara­bia en­forces its own brand of fun­da­men­tal­ism, known as Wah­habism or Salafism. The Brother­hood’s ri­val brand of fun­da­men­tal­ism is il­le­gal and harshly sup­pressed.

And then there’s the Brother­hood’s Pales­tinian branch, Ha­mas, which man­ages to be both a rul­ing party a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion. Un­til 2011, Ha­mas had its in­ter­na­tional head­quar­ters in Shi’ite-lean­ing Syria and re­ceived fund­ing from Shi’ite Iran. When the Syr­ian civil war broke out, Ha­mas sided with the Sunni rebels and lost its Ira­nian fund­ing and its Syr­ian home. It was in­vited to set up shop in Qatar, rock­ing re­la­tions with the Saudis and Egypt.

That’s not the whole story, though. Since moving to Qatar, Ha­mas has evolved. Qatar has pres­sured it to rec­on­cile with Fatah so that the Pales­tini­ans can present a com­mon front in ne­go­ti­a­tions with Is­rael. The re­sult has been a grow­ing rift be­tween Ha­mas’s Gaza-based mil­i­tary wing, which wants to rec­on­cile with Iran, and its Qatar-based po­lit­i­cal wing, which wants to rec­on­cile with Fatah, the Saudis and Egypt, who are press­ing for a two-state Is­raeli-Pales­tinian accord. The po­lit­i­cal wing won a ma­jor vic­tory May 1, when Ha­mas pub­lished its new char­ter. It re­jects Is­rael’s right to ex­ist, but ac­cepts the Pales­tinian “con­sen­sus” fa­vor­ing a Pales­tinian state within the pre-1967 bor­ders. It also con­demns anti-Semitism.

Fi­nally, you can’t dis­cuss Qatari pol­icy with­out not­ing Qatar’s own po­si­tion on Is­rael. Af­ter Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans signed the 1993 Oslo Ac­cords, Qatar was one of the six Arab states (out of 22) that opened for­mal diplo­matic re­la­tions with Is­rael. Jor­dan and Mau­re­ta­nia con­cluded full re­la­tions with Is­rael and ex­changed am­bas­sadors. Morocco and Tu­nisia ex­changed in­ter­est sec­tions, a lower form of diplo­matic re­la­tions. Qatar and Oman ex­changed trade of­fices with Is­rael. All ex­cept Jor­dan down­graded re­la­tions and shut their of­fices af­ter the out­break of the se­cond in­tifada, in 2000, and then cut off ties al­to­gether in Jan­uary 2009, af­ter the first Gaza in­cur­sion.

But Qatar didn’t cut all ties. It alone, among Arab states with­out diplo­matic ties, con­tin­ues to ad­mit Is­raeli vis­i­tors and trade with Is­rael. It’s al­lowed Is­raeli ath­letes to par­tic­i­pate pub­licly in re­gional sports events, most re­cently in a 2016 Mid­dle East beach vol­ley­ball cham­pi­onship in Qatar. No less im­por­tant, its diplo­mats openly visit Is­rael. Dur­ing the 2014 con­flict be­tween Is­rael and Gaza, Qatari diplo­mats shut­tled be­tween Is­rael and Gaza to ne­go­ti­ate a cease-fire (even though it was a ri­val Egyp­tian cease­fire that was even­tu­ally adopted). A year ear­lier, Qatar chaired the Arab League sub­com­mit­tee that agreed to amend the league’s 2002 peace ini­tia­tive and to en­dorse ter­ri­to­rial swaps to pre­serve Is­raeli set­tle­ment blocs.

What does all that add up to? Are those the ac­tions of a rogue state that can’t de­cide which side it’s on, as the Saudis say? Or is it a pat­tern of flex­i­ble, creative diplo­macy with an eye to­ward build­ing bridges? I’d ar­gue the lat­ter. And I’d hope the Saudis and their fol­low­ers would tread cau­tiously, and avoid wreck­ing Qatar’s care­ful work.


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