In a dramatic move, on June 5 Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and the Maldives announced they were all severing diplomatic relations with Qatar over its support for terrorist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, as well as for its close ties to Iran, with which it co-owns the largest natural gas field in the world.
They canceled flights, blocked Qatari ships from accessing ports and removed Qatari citizens from their territories, preventing Qatar from accessing approximately 40 percent of its food supply. If the spat continues it could event prevent Qatar from hosting the World Cup in 2022, if FIFA views it as too much of a risk.
Saudi Arabia has accused Qatar of harboring “terrorist and sectarian groups that aim to destabilize the region including the Muslim Brotherhood, Daesh (IS) and Al-Qaeda,” and supporting Iran-backed “terrorist activities” in eastern Saudi Arabia and in Shiite-majority Bahrain.
Qatar denies the allegations, but the little Gulf state has been a thorn in the side of its Sunni Gulf neighbours for some time. They have felt especially threatened by the popularity and wide reach of Qatar’s Al Jazeera TV news network, which many have blamed for promoting Arab uprisings, and which has been accused of promoting an Islamist Muslim Brotherhood agenda.
In Australia, Al Jazeera has been available on cable since 2006, and its news stories are often used by the ABC and SBS. However, unlike the ABC or SBS, Al Jazeera is not an impartial and neutral source for news, rather it is owned and financed by the Qatari ruling al-Thani family. As Professor Eyal Zisser explained in the Australia/Israel Review last year:
“When it was first launched, Al Jazeera aspired to change the face of the Arab media and present an alternative to the official media outlets in various Arab countries. It presented itself as the one seeking to offer ‘other opinions,’ and as such allowed more than a few Israelis to appear on its broadcasts. But this smokescreen of openness and tolerance was camouflage for preaching and spreading extremist opinions, an exciting combination of Arab nationalism in the style of former Israeli Arab MK Azmi Bishara [who is suspected of aiding Hezbollah in the 2006 Second Lebanon War] and its diametric opposite – Islamic extremism, one of whose representatives is Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood [who has his own show on Al Jazeera, Ed.] The channel would attack the regime in Egypt or in Tunisia, but for years protected the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who visited Saudi Arabia but had leanings toward Iran and Hezbollah. Above all, Al Jazeera never uttered a word of criticism of the tiny emirate under whose auspices it was operating – Qatar.”
It is unclear what was the tipping point for the Gulf isolation of Qatar. Some have attributed it to comments allegedly made by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on May 24, who was quoted as calling Iran an “Islamic power that cannot be ignored” and said it “is unwise to face up against it.” Al-Thani was also quoted as commenting that Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, was the “legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”
Backlash followed and Qatar denied the emir had made the statements, claiming its state media website and Twitter accounts had been hacked. In response, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates blocked Qatari media, including Al-Jazeera.
Another possible tipping point, was the $1 billion dollar ransom reportedly made by Doha to Iran and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in April for the release of a hunting party that included members of the Qatari royal family, who had been kidnapped in southern Iraq. As the Times of Israel reported:
“Regional government officials told the Financial Times that Qatar paid $700 million to Iran and Shiite militias supported by the regime. An additional sum of between $200 million and $300 million was paid to Syria, most of it to the al-Qaeda-affiliated group Tahrir al-Sham, the paper said.”
On the other hand, Qatar is a US ally and hosts the largest American military airbase in the Middle East, with around 10,000 US service members. Some also view Qatar as promoting a more cosmopolitan Wahhabism when compared with Saudi Arabia, because in Qatar women are allowed to drive, and foreigners can drink alcohol. Regarding Israel, Qatar has expressed openness to maintaining trade relations with Israel and has hosted Israeli officials.
Qatar has also taken some steps to address the Gulf States’ concerns. It has reportedly expelled several senior Hamas members from its territory, citing “external pressures” – though the political leadership of Hamas continues to have it headquarters in Doha. Hamas is a Palestinian Islamist terrorist group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Since Hamas took control of Gaza Strip, Qatar has been a main financial backer of Hamas, and after the 2014 war with Israel, Qatar pledged $1 billion for reconstruction, the largest of any single country.
Despite Qatar being a US ally, US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to show support for the Saudi-led effort to isolate Qatar, he wrote: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he tweeted in reference to his trip to Saudi Arabia last month.
“They said they would take a hard line on funding… extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opted for a more diplomatic tone, noting that “all” countries in the Persian Gulf “have work to do” in ending their support for extremism, and encouraging them to “resolve this through dialogue.” Tillerson also said, “I think every country in the region has their own obligations they need to live up to,” adding “and they have their own challenges to live up to that commitment to terminate support for terrorism, extremism, however it manifests itself anywhere in the world. And I would say that’s true of all the GCC countries; they have their own work to do in that regard.”
The GCC is the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar recently signed a communique with Trump pledging to continue their joint fight against terrorism.
However, as Tillerson notes, each of these countries has their own work to do in fighting terrorism. For example, Saudi Arabia has been widely criticised for indirectly backing militant networks through groups promoting Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
Although, according to Lori Plotkin Boghardt of the Washington Institute, despite the seemingly contradictory statements coming out of the US, she claims that some US officials will welcome the rift, sharing concerns about Qatar. She writes:
“Yet some in Washington have concerns that mirror those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Especially troubling in the U.S. capital has been Qatar’s political and other support to various strands of political Islamists throughout the region. Such support has increased Doha’s regional influence, given it leverage over its larger neighbors, and allowed it to play a high-profile role in mediating international conflicts with actors of all stripes. It’s also been a key reason why the new administration is coming under growing pressure from various quarters to consider a reduction or withdrawal of the U.S. military presence in Qatar, which has functioned to date as important security protection for the Qataris.
In recent months, there has been much discussion specifically about the extent of Doha’s progress in countering private terrorist funding activity inside its borders. This is viewed as a measure of any change in approach toward the terror financing challenge. Under the Trump administration, the issue of countering terrorist financing has been a reoccurring theme in high-level discussions with the Qataris. Addressing terror funding was also a top priority on Trump’s Riyadh agenda, leading to the announcement of a new U.S.-GCC Terrorist Financing Targeting Center.
One of the difficult aspects of assessing progress has been that the Qataris have wished to keep their actions under the radar. The upshot seems to be that Doha indeed has been addressing the activity of select terrorist financiers with greater effort than seen previously. Doha has implemented sanctions and completed criminal prosecutions of some designated terrorist financiers. At the same time, progress on making Qatar a hostile environment to terrorist financing is understood as very slow. To the Qataris’ credit, senior officials charged with the counter-terrorist financing portfolio recognize that this is an area on which Doha needs to improve.”
She argues that the US should work with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar to identify specific steps that Qatar can take to remedy critical differences, in line with the counter-terrorism and other regional security initiatives.
How Qatar responds will be key. Will it work with its Gulf neighbours to address their concerns, will it tighten its links with Iran, or is a new Middle East war about to erupt?