Four Arab pow­ers freeze out Qatar over ter­ror­ist ties

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt and two other Arab pow­ers — ap­par­ently em­bold­ened by Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­cent visit to the re­gion — on Mon­day moved to diplo­mat­i­cally iso­late the tiny, en­ergy-rich Per­sian Gulf na­tion of Qatar over what they say are its ties to Iran and sup­port for ji­hadi groups such as Ha­mas and the Mus­lim Brother­hood.

While the push may be a sign that the new Amer­i­can pres­i­dent’s sharp pos­ture against ex­trem­ists and Ira­nian provocations is pay­ing off, an­a­lysts say it also comes with tremen­dous

risk be­cause it lays bare the in­ten­sity of feud­ing among key U.S. al­lies in the re­gion, just as Mr. Trump seeks deeper co­he­sion among them.

The de­vel­op­ment could prove par­tic­u­larly sticky for Wash­ing­ton, which has a del­i­cate al­liance with Qatar, on one hand dis­creetly chastis­ing Qatari of­fi­cials over their seem­ingly du­plic­i­tous poli­cies while on the other main­tain­ing a crit­i­cal U.S. mil­i­tary base in the na­tion.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion re­sponded cau­tiously to the de­ci­sion by Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emi­rates and Yemen to sever ties with Qatar and cut land, sea and air routes to the na­tion, claim­ing it sup­ports ter­ror­ists on both sides of the re­gion’s Shi­ite and Sunni Mus­lim re­li­gious di­vide.

Qatar is a ma­jor­ity Sunni Arab na­tion like Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt and the UAE but has long kept up ties to Shi­ite Iran, upon which Doha’s en­ergy wealth is de­pen­dent. It has also pre­served re­la­tions with the Mus­lim Brother­hood, the Is­lamist move­ment that was ousted by cur­rent Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del-Fatah el-Sissi in a 2013 mil­i­tary coup.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son ap­peared ea­ger to down­play the out­break of fric­tion be­tween the Sunni pow­ers, barely more than a week after Mr. Trump vis­ited Saudi Ara­bia and vowed to im­prove ties with dozens of Arab and Mus­lim states to com­bat re­gional ter­ror­ist groups and con­tain Iran.

“We cer­tainly would en­cour­age the par­ties to sit down to­gether and ad­dress these dif­fer­ences,” Mr. Tiller­son told re­porters on a visit to Aus­tralia. He said the de­vel­op­ments won’t neg­a­tively af­fect the U.S.-led al­liance bat­tling the Salafi Is­lamic State group and sug­gested that the de­vel­op­ments could bring much-needed dia­logue be­tween the Sunni pow­ers.

“I think what we’re wit­ness­ing is a grow­ing list of dis­be­lief in the coun­tries for some time,” Mr. Tiller­son said. “They’ve bub­bled up to take ac­tion in or­der to have those dif­fer­ences ad­dressed.”

Mr. Trump held a cor­dial meet­ing with Qatar’s rul­ing emir dur­ing his Saudi visit. “We’ve been friends now for a long time, haven’t we?” the pres­i­dent said at the meet­ing. “Our re­la­tion­ship is ex­tremely good.”

Deep-rooted di­vide

The Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil, a six-na­tion al­liance of Gulf Arab states of which Qatar is a mem­ber, pre­vi­ously fell out with Doha over its back­ing of former Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Mo­hammed Morsi — who was ousted by Mr. el-Sissi.

The Saudis, the UAE and Bahrain pulled their am­bas­sadors from Qatar in 2014 and re­turned them only when Doha forced some Brother­hood mem­bers to leave the coun­try, qui­eted oth­ers and signed a Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil rec­on­cil­i­a­tion agree­ment to ease the stand­off.

But the ten­sions did not abate. While Qatar de­nies fund­ing ex­trem­ists, an­a­lysts say it re­mains a key pa­tron of Ha­mas, which rules the Gaza Strip. Western of­fi­cials also ac­cuse Qatar of en­cour­ag­ing char­i­ties to fund of Sunni ex­trem­ist groups such as al Qaeda in Syria.

Equally prob­lem­atic has been Doha’s re­la­tions with Iran, seen by the Saudis and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion as the main source of in­sta­bil­ity across the re­gion. Qatar shares a mas­sive off­shore gas field with the Is­lamic re­pub­lic and is known for mak­ing po­lit­i­cal over­tures to Tehran — re­peat­edly an­ger­ing the Saudis.

Mon­day’s events mark “an es­ca­la­tion of ten­sions that were there in 2014, when Qatar was ac­cused by Saudi Ara­bia, the UAE and oth­ers of sup­port­ing ex­trem­ists,” said Hus­sein Ibish, a se­nior res­i­dent scholar at the Arab Gulf States In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton.

“Qatar is now ac­cused of non­con­for­mance with the obli­ga­tions of a GCC rec­on­cil­i­a­tion agree­ment that it signed in 2014 to end that diplo­matic stand­off,” said Mr. Ibish. “All of the state­ments com­ing from the coun­tries tak­ing ac­tion against Qatar now cite that non­con­for­mance.”

While he said Qatar’s fi­nanc­ing of the global satel­lite news net­work Al Jazeera and the net­work’s crit­i­cal cov­er­age of the other pow­ers in the re­gion is also a fac­tor, Mr. Ibish high­lighted GCC frus­tra­tion over Doha’s “ami­ca­ble re­la­tions” with Iran.

“While Qatar has al­ways tried to pub­licly en­dorse an anti-Ira­nian cam­paign, the Qataris are pri­vately try­ing to do their best to main­tain these pos­i­tive re­la­tions with Iran be­cause Qatar shares this mas­sive gas field with Iran and draws its rev­enues from the gas field,” he said. “In that sense, Qatar is not de­clin­ing to take part in a long-term cam­paign against Iran, but is ac­tu­ally ac­tively un­der­min­ing that cam­paign.”

Ahmed Al Hamli, pres­i­dent of TRENDS Re­search and Ad­vi­sory, a think tank based in the UAE, sug­gested that the greater frus­tra­tion has to do with Qatar’s un­will­ing­ness to join oth­ers in the Gulf in their con­dem­na­tion of rad­i­cals. “Qatar has al­lowed the Tal­iban, Ha­mas, lead­ers of the Mus­lim Brother­hood to live and op­er­ate in Doha,” Mr. Al Hamli said in an in­ter­view.

“There are re­ports of sanc­tioned al Qaeda op­er­a­tives un­der the U.N. regime liv­ing in Qatar with full gov­ern­ment sup­port,” he said. “Qatar has at­tempted to claim that it can act as some form of me­di­a­tor be­tween ter­ror­ists and oth­ers, but the total of its ac­tions only points to sup­port for des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist in­di­vid­u­als and groups.”

Push­ing back

Saudi Ara­bia ap­peared to spear­head Mon­day’s clash, clos­ing its land bor­der with Qatar, through which the tiny Gulf na­tion of roughly 2.3 mil­lion im­ports most of its food, and spark­ing a run on su­per­mar­kets.

Saudi Ara­bia was joined by Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, all of which be­gan with­draw­ing their diplo­matic staff from Qatar as re­gional air­lines an­nounced that they would sus­pend ser­vice to Doha — leav­ing the in­ter­na­tional travel hub in chaos and send­ing the Qatar stock ex­change tum­bling more than 7 per­cent.

Saudi Ara­bia said it acted be­cause of Qatar’s “em­brace of var­i­ous ter­ror­ist and sec­tar­ian groups aimed at desta­bi­liz­ing the re­gion,” including groups sup­ported by Iran in the king­dom’s restive East­ern Prov­ince. The Egyp­tian For­eign Min­istry ac­cused Qatar of tak­ing an “an­tag­o­nist ap­proach” to­ward Cairo and said “all at­tempts to stop it from sup­port­ing ter­ror­ist groups failed.”

The Saudis and the oth­ers all or­dered their cit­i­zens out of Qatar and gave Qataris abroad 14 days to re­turn home to their penin­su­lar na­tion, whose only land bor­der is with Saudi Ara­bia. The na­tions also said they would eject Qatar’s diplo­mats and vowed to cut air and sea traf­fic. Riyadh also said Qatari troops would be pulled from the war in Yemen.

Qatar crit­i­cized the moves as a “vi­o­la­tion of its sovereignty.” It long has de­nied sup­port­ing mil­i­tant groups and de­scribed the cri­sis as be­ing fu­eled by “ab­so­lute fab­ri­ca­tions” stem­ming from a re­cent hack of the Qatar News Agency. Doha has al­leged that hack­ers took over the site of its state-run news agency and pub­lished what it called fake com­ments from its rul­ing emir about Iran and Is­rael.

The Qatari For­eign Af­fairs Min­istry said Mon­day that there was “no le­git­i­mate jus­ti­fi­ca­tion” for ac­tions against Doha. “The Qatari gov­ern­ment will take all nec­es­sary mea­sures to en­sure this and to thwart at­tempts to in­flu­ence and harm the Qatari so­ci­ety and econ­omy,” the min­istry said.

It was not im­me­di­ately clear how the de­vel­op­ments may im­pact Qatar’s plans to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. FIFA, in­ter­na­tional soc­cer’s gov­ern­ing body, said Mon­day that it was in reg­u­lar con­tact with Qatar and de­clined to elab­o­rate.

Ira­nian For­eign Min­is­ter Javad Zarif con­ferred with Qatari coun­ter­part Mo­hammed bin Ab­dul­rah­man bin Jas­sim Al Thani and said Tehran re­gret­ted the rift among the Arab states.

“Neigh­bors are per­ma­nent; ge­og­ra­phy can’t be changed,” Mr. Zarif wrote on his Twit­ter page. “Co­er­cion is never the so­lu­tion,” and “pres­sures and threats” will not work.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Life pro­ceeded as nor­mal in Doha, Qatar, on Mon­day even as Saudi Ara­bia and three other Arab coun­tries sev­ered ties, ac­cus­ing the na­tion of sup­port­ing ter­ror­ist groups.

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