Vol. XLI No. 26 June 25, 2017

Qatar Crisis

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE attempt by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the region to isolate and undermine the Emirate of Qatar, seems to be failing. The American military establishment, despite President Donald Trump's repeated tweets supporting the Saudi position, seems to have decided against regime change in the Emirate. The evidence of this is the signing of a $12 billion deal by the Americans to sell 36 F-15 fighter jets to Qatar. Even within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Oman and Kuwait are not supporting the Saudi move for regime change in Qatar. The immediate trigger that sparked the latest crisis involving Qatar and its Gulf neigh-bours was an alleged speech made by the country's Emir in which he questioned the wisdom of confrontation with Iran. The Emir in his speech, which the Qataris claim was hacked, also praised the role of resistance movements like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Qatar was accused of paying “ransom money” to so-called Shia terror groups in Iraq. In the second week of June, the Iraqi prime minister said that the $500 million in ransom money that Qatar had paid to secure the release of 25 Qatari hostages was lying in the Iraqi Central Bank. The Saudis and their Gulf allies had insisted that the money was directly paid to a Shia militia. One of the major charges being bandied about is that Qatar is not faithfully implementing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) line on isolating Iran. The other charge is that Qatar continues to back political move-ments and parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, which the Saudis, the Emiratis and Egypt have charaterised as “terrorist”. Only a few countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt consider these parties as terrorist groupings. The Hamas is in power in Israeli blockaded Gaza and affiliates of the Muslim Brothers are active in the politics of Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and other Arab countries. Most of the top leadership of the Brotherhood in Egypt are incarcerated with many of them facing  death sentence.

The Muslim Brotherhood was voted into power in Egypt just three years ago by the people there. If free and fair elections are held there again, the results according to most observers, will still be the same. The leadership of the Brother-hood has explicitly foresworn terrorism. The Obama administration was doing business with them. In the elections held in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006, the only one held so far, the Hamas had won at the polls. The Saudis were particularly unhappy with the support the Qatari government had lent to the short lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and the Brotherhood affiliated parties after the success of the Arab Spring revolution there.

The other major demands that the Saudis have made on Qatar, include the immediate severance of diplomatic relations with Iran, expulsion of all Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood operatives and the suspension of the al Jazeera network. Qatar and Iran share the giant South Pars gas field, the biggest in the world. Cooperation in the hydro-carbon sector is crucial for both the countries. Besides, even in the Gulf region, many of the Emirates like Oman, Kuwait and for that matter, Dubai, would like good relations with Iran. It is Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, which controls the UAE with its immenseoil generated wealth, that is currently driving the GCC's foreign policy.



The Saudis and their allies in the GCC made their move against Qatar soon after the visit of President Trump to the region. The move to isolate Qatar, at least on the surface looked like a surprising move, as the country hosts one of the biggest American military bases in the region. More than 10,000 US servicemen are based in the al Udeid Air Base, the biggest American air force base in the region. 
The forward headquarters of the US CENTCOM is also located in Qatar. As the Pentagon has been saying, the base had been crucial for the American military in its operations in Syria and Iraq. The secretary of state, Rex Tillerson had also been issuing statemen-ts on the need for a negotiated settlement to the stand off between the Gulf neighbours.

The Trump administration however totally agrees with the view from Riyadh that Iran is the principal sponsor of terrorism in the region. However in 2011, Trump had described Saudi Arabia as the “world's biggest funder of terrorism” and went on to add that it was using “our own petro dollars to fund terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them”. After the Saudi's inked the $110 billion arms deal during his visit to Riyadh, the Saudis have suddenly become good guys in the eyes of America's multi billionaire president. The former vice president, Joe Biden, had in a speech at Harvard, said that “the Saudis, the Emirates, etc, – were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war- that they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who could fight Assad, except the people who were being supplied were al Qaeda and al Nusra and the extremist elements of Jihadis coming from all over the world”.

Qatar has a population of around three million, out of which more than two million are foreigners, most of them workers from the Indian subcontinent. The gas rich Emirate is almost completely dependent on food imports. With its land borders sealed by the Saudis and its immediate neighbours prohibiting the use of their airspace for the transportation of goods and commercial travel, the Qataris have been pushed to a corner.  Almost all the food and other basic necessities used to come through Saudi Arabia, with which Qatar shares its land border. Now Qatar is forced to airlift food from Turkey and other countries. Iran has also started airlifting food and other essential commodities for their Arab neighbour in need.

The German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has been forthright in his criticism of the American president's role in the new crisis in the Gulf. He attributed the escalation of the dispute to the dangerous “Trumpification” of regional politics. “Such a Trumpification of relations with one another is dangerous in a region that is already rife with crises”, he said in an interview with a German paper. Germany, along with Turkey and Iran are the prominent countries openly supporting Qatar. Germany and Turkey are NATO members. The United States and the UK, the two major arms suppliers and backers of Saudi Arabia, are also part of the same military alliance. Any military move against Qatar could create serious ruptur-es not only in the Gulf alliance but also in the western military alliance. Turkey also has a small military base in Qatar and has rushed in additional troops to the Emirate.

The only major country openly supporting the Saudis is Egypt. Cairo is angry with the Qataris for their continued backing of the Brotherhood and the al Jazeera network, which the Egyptians claim is a mouthpiece for the Brother-hood. Interestingly, even the Maldives has broken diplomatic ties with Qatar and supported Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have invested heavily in the country's tourism industry and the present government there is also pursuing an Islamist agenda. Israeli policy makers are openly happy
 with the latest developments in the Gulf as the Saudis and Emirati policies in the region have now started working in tand-em with theirs. Iran is now the common enemy along with Hamas and Hezbollah for Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Palestine statehood is no longer a priority for most of the Gulf Arab monarchies. The Qataris, like the Saudis and the Emiratis, have been vehemently denying links with terrorist groups. Most of the Kingdoms in the region, barring Oman, have been active players in the efforts to undermine the secular governments in the region. All the three countries supported terrorist groups in Libya, though many of them are on opposing sides now. The same was the situation in Syria. The Saudis and their allies prefer groups linked to the  Daesh while the Qataris and the Turks preferred to route their money and weapons supply to the Daesh and allied groups, during the initial stages of the Syrian conflict. Tiny Qatar is not the only state in the region challenging the Saudis for influence in the region. The UAE, though a staunch ally of Saudi Arabia in Syria, Libya and other places, is trying to carve out its is own zone of influence in Yemen, Libya and the Horn of Africa.  



Both the Saudis and the Emiratis are however united on the question of seeking regime change in Qatar. They are apparently on the lookout for somebody from the royal lineage to replace the current dynasty. An abortive attempt at an in-house palace coup was made in 1996. The Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani, has said that his country “will never surrender” to the demands made by his Gulf neighbours. He has been visiting countries like Russsia and Germany to mobilise support. He said that Qatar has more friends, “more than others think”. The senior counter terrorism adviser to the Qatari Emir, also reiterated that the “policy of domination and control” of the country's neighbours will not succeed. The spat within the GCC shows no sign of abating, especially after the Saudis and the Qataris released a “terror blacklist” of 56 individuals. Figuring in the list were senior Qatari royals and former ministers along with exiled leaders and clerics sympathetic to organisations like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Arab Street will not have much sympathy for any of the protagonists involved in the latest Gulf crisis. The key players involved are to a large degree responsible for the dire humanitarian situation in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The Saudi bombing and blockade of Yemen has led to the worst humanitarian crisis, the world is facing today. In Syria and Libya, it was Qatar which was in the forefront, arming and funding extremist groups. The Qataris were the first to cozy up to Israel. Now they find themselves a target of Israeli machinations. US le-gislation threatening to sanction Qatar for supporting “Palestinian terror” was sponsored by 10 legislators who received more than $1 million for more than a year from a lobbying firm having links with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Pro-Israeli groups like the Foundation for the Promotion of Democracy have now started openly campaigning for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This tripartite alliance could come out in the open if they succeed in their machinations against Qatar.