A Crisis Whose Time Had Come
Jutting into the Persian Gulf like lower Michigan minus its thumb, the super-rich peninsular nation of Qatar has long been a problem—one that has now brought the region to the brink of a potentially catastrophic conflict.
Seen for decades as a more liberal extension of the arch-conservative Saudi Kingdom, since the mid-1990s Qatar has striven to maintain that façade, even as it aided and funded the global jihad, both directly indirectly, and grew dangerously close with an ever-more strident and aggressive Iran.As the tensions built, erupted, subsided and built again during this time, it finally took a US administration willing to back up and rally the countries that Qatar's actions have threatened—primarily the very states that have moved against it now—to bring matters to a head.
The result has been a lengthening physical and diplomatic embargo on Qatar that could lead to war, or perhaps impede the war to kill the Islamic State (IS). In either case it would leave a lasting rift between four of the six states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and lands far beyond them.
Begun by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain, later joined by Chad, Libya, the Maldives, Niger and Yemen, this was a crisis, sadly, whose time had come.
The three GCC states have blocked Qatar's access to their land and air space. The rest have cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar, which is still approachable by other air routes (especially via Iran and Oman) and by the sea, which the US has pledged to keep open, at least for the critical export of oil and natural gas.On June 22, the coalition against Qatar offered a list of 13 key demands—at their top the closing of the inflammatory, state-funded Al Jazeera television channel and a stop to aid for Islamist groups—which had to be met by Sunday, July 2, later extended by 48 hours till midnight Wednesday, July 5, when Qatar refused to answer them.
As the new deadline passed, Qatar predictably rejected all the demands, and the four principal members of the blockade coalition—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt—have been meeting in Cairo to consider how to respond. Numerous countries have offered to mediate or otherwise defuse the dispute, a role that eventually fell to Kuwait—to no avail so far.
Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, told CNN in Cairo July 5 that Qatar's reply to the demands, which has not been revealed in full, is "negative," and warned, "This position shows the lack of awareness of how dangerous the situation is." The four nations have said they will continue their consultations and probably meet again in Bahrain soon.
For his part, Qatar's foreign minister, Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said to CNN's Christiane Amanpour, "So there are a lot of demands which are against the international law," and that his nation would not comply with them. Meanwhile, Saudi FM Adel al-Jubeir, said that the "political and economic boycott…will continue until Qatar changes its policies for the better."
Qatar Airways has said it may take legal action to recover its extra operating costs, according to a June 19 report in Bloomberg News. And its CEO, Akbar al Baker, has compared the contretemps to the Soviet blockade of West Berlin—though he incongruously then predicted the Eid-ul-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan would be "business as usual," even if the crisis continued.
Perhaps the key potential mediator, as well as a major instigator, of the confrontation is Washington. Yet American policy in the crisis seems virtually bipolar as well, while the Middle East isdangerously split over the question—though most of the area's governments have either come out against Qatar, or remained neutral instead (as have most Western governments, who fear disruption of the closer commercial relations with Iran achieved with the nuclear deal of 2015).
Indeed, the fear of either armed conflict or a humanitarian catastrophe may make the U.S. and the emerging anti-Islamist, anti-Iran front surrender once more to Qatar's dangerously schizoid behaviour. Given the signal it would send to those states thatlikewise function as sponsors of Islamist terror, which could be the worst outcome of all.
Trump vs. State and Defence
Both US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and, more quietly, Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis, seek to ease the blockade and find a quick diplomatic solution, working with Qatar's Islamist ally, Turkey, as well as Kuwait, which has good relations with next-door Iran.But President Donald Trump, who had earlier offered his personal mediation at the White House (which Qatar quickly declined), saidin the Rose Garden June 9, "The nation of Qatar unfortunately has historically been a founder of terrorism at a very high level"—demanding it end immediately.
The American website Politico said on July 5 that Trump has urged both sides to reach agreement, as he did in separate calls from Air Force One en route to Poland to Egypt'sPresident Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and the Qatar's Emir Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad Khalifa Al Thani and other leaders involved. But he also urged al-Sisi to insure the coalition sticks to its goal to "stop terrorist financingand discredit extremist ideology."
Trump's tough line is needed, for Qatar would likely backpedal the moment the crisis eases—as it did after some of the same states at the core of this confrontation withdrew their ambassadors from Doha for several months over similar concerns in 2014. So too, perhaps, is the softer approach of Tillerson and Mattis—so long as they demand the same things before offering relief.
While the American approach wavers between these figures, the UAE has declared the sanctions imposed on Qatar may last "for years." So far, no effective mechanism has been created to settle the dispute.
"They have to lift the blockade to start negotiations," Qatar's foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, told the media June 19. "Until now we didn't see any progress," he added—and the situation has not changed since.
The campaign to isolate Qatar came weeks after Trump's participation in the first Arab Islamic American conference in Riyadh on May 20-21.In a tweet June 6, Trump declared, "During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar—look!"
But Trump's enthusiasm was quickly downplayed by the Pentagon, whose Central Command has been based in Qatar since the Iraq invasion of 2003.There is also fear for the crucial air base of al-Udeid, shared with Britain, whence the US-led coalition forces are bombing many of the very people that Qatar supports, often covertly.
Qatar, however, uses those facilities as a hedge against its own hypocrisy: despite the difficulty involved, they should be moved if Doha doesn't decisively change its policy. At the same time, a way must be found to punish the government without harming the civilian population, most of whom are not even citizens.
Some of the nations that met at the summit—which included Qatar—are quickly trying to form a new military coalition to combat ISIS and confront Iran, dubbed an"Arab NATO." Qatar would be the most problematic member of such an alliance, as it effectively backs both sides.
Actual NATO member Turkey is itself a conundrum, announcing it will deploy ground troops plus air and naval vessels within two months to protect Qatar—to which both Ankara and Tehran are already airlifting food and other items.A report from Reuters in TheDaily Mail (London) June 19 shows the strength of Turkey's alignment with the embattled emirate: "Qatar has relished support from Turkey during the dispute. Its state-funded pan-Arab Al Jazeera news channel showed footage of a column of armoured personnel carriers flying the Turkish flag inside the Tariq bin Ziyad military base in Doha."
It also reported that additional Turkish troops had arrived in Qatar on Sunday for the exercises, although military sources in the region told Reuters the operation actually involved Turkish troops that were already present rather than new arrivals.
A July 2 article by Giorgio Cafiero in Washington-based al-Monitor said that "Turkish tanks were recently seen rolling through the capital, Doha." Removing the joint Turkish-Qatari base is a central demand of the coalition. Like the American facilities--which the UAE has offered to host instead--its presence is seen by Qatar as insurance against invasion.
Turkey is host to the exiled leadership of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB)--which is waging a terrorist war against the current government in Cairo--as well as its Palestinian branch Hamas, while helping other jihadi groups in Syriaalong with Qatar (and Saudi Arabia). Qatar ostensibly no longer allows the MB's leaders to operate only in its territory, but paid for their relocation to London in 2014, and has given at least a half-billion dollars in aid to Hamas-controlled Gaza in the meantime.
On June 9, Saudi Arabia (which has also funded Hamas), Egypt and Bahrain issued a list of 59 individuals and 12 organizations that Qatar must stop aiding and abetting, including Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the MB--who has said thatafter Hitler administered "divine punishment" on the Jews, Muslims would inflict their next chastisement.
Still, as late as June 12, Sheikh Mohammed told Al Jazeera that he had "no idea" why the blockade was imposed.
"Fake News" vs. Real Ransom
While much has been made of the reaction to a May 23 report by Qatar's state news agency, (improbably) praising both Iran and Israel and predicting a short term in office for Trump, it does not appear to have been the real trigger for the incident.Qatar claims it was hacked, dismissing the disputed posting as "fake news."CNN reported on June 7 that US intelligence believes it was the work of unnamed Russians, though the FBI is now on the case.
Yet the real kicker was clearly the $1 billion Qatar paid in April to free a group of 26 of its nationals kidnapped by the Iran-linked Shi'ite militia, Kita'ebHizbollah, while hunting in Iraq in December 2015.Freed in the same deal were 50 Islamists seized by other jihadis in Syria, as reported in The Financial Times on June 5—thus both "Iranian security officials" and an al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliate, al-Nusra Front, apparently received the cash.
Worse, the deal was evidently done behind the back of the Baghdad government led by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi—who is trying to rein in the brutal Shi`ite militias while fighting ISIS. Al-Abadi announced in April that Iraq had confiscated "millions of dollars" in suitcases from Qatari planes on its territory, says the FT.
Meanwhile, Iyad Allawi, Iraq's secular Shi'ite vice president, quoted by Reuters at a Cairo news conference June 19, accused Qatar of seeking to divide Iraq "into a Sunni region in exchange for a Shi`ite region."
"It is time we spoke honestly and made things clear (to the Qataris) so that we can reach some results," Allawi insisted. "After that confrontation, comes reconciliation," he stated--without saying how.
The Root of the Trouble
Qatar has not always behaved this way. I served as Head of the Academic Section under the Cultural Attaché of the State of Qatar, part of the Qatari embassy in the US, from 1986-90, advising students on university scholarship from Doha in North America. The Qataris with whom I worked and met at the time were generally conservative, but kind-hearted, forward-looking and not fanatical—hence it is hard indeed to personally advocate action against their country.
The trouble began with the overthrow of the old emir, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, by his son, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in 1995.Sheikh Hamad pushed for a more modern, constitutional, somewhat more egalitarian government at home (primarily for its roughly 300,000 citizens, rather than its 2,000,000-plus, often virtually enslaved foreign workers)—while apostasy from Islam, adultery and homosexuality remain capital crimes.
He also allowed the creation of Al Jazeera television, hailed by many as a voice of open democracy—though its Arabic arm has mainly carried a mixture of Islamist and other anti-Western propaganda with agitation against other Arab regimes (along with often vociferous debate programs), and has had ties to AQ behind the scenes. (The network's more secular-left leaning English-language service has won many fans in the West, who do not grasp or would even rationalize the radicalism of the Arabic version seen in the Middle East.)
Stunningly, Al Jazeera's former bureau chief in Cairo, Canadian-Egyptian citizen Mohamed Fahmy, jailed for 438 days in Egypt for allegedly colluding with the MB's attempts to overthrow al-Sisi in 2014, has recently filed a lawsuit in British Columbia against his former employers. Eli Lake of Bloomberg News wrote on June 23 that Fahmy accuses Al Jazeera of deliberately serving the MB and of being "a mouthpiece for Qatari intelligence" and "a voice for terrorists," something he says he learned from Islamists in Cairo's infamous Tora Prison, who told him how they had cooperated closely with the network.
Under Hamad and his son, Sheikh Tamim, who took over in 2013, Qatar has gone far beyond media agitation on behalf of the terrorists.Under them, Qatar began funding, or in some cases permitting others to fund, groups like the MB—the ideological parent of all the Islamist groups operating today.
Also those very offshoots themselves, including Salafi jihadis, Hamas (which it has endorsed as a "legitimate resistance organization," according to Al Jazeera on June 10) and the Taliban--to whom it has offered refuge, or funnelled ransom--as well.
Under former President Barack Obama, America too backed the MB in the Arab Spring, and worked with Qatar as well as Saudi Arabia—which has historically exported the same ideology—to aid obvious Islamists in the uprisings against Mu`ammar al-Qaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Asad in Syria.
Qatar still helpsthe MB, which seeks to overthrow Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, whom most Egyptians backed in the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, and hence has had frequent quarrels with Cairo.Saudi Arabia—whose still-new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, has pledged to fight "extremist ideology," and unveiled a high-tech centre at the Riyadh summit with the stated aim of doing the same--along with the UAE, have each also banned the MB for plotting to bring down their own regimes.
Yet Egypt has recently strengthened its own ties with Hamas, apparently to turn it from an ally of the hostile MB to a partner in securing its north-eastern border against attacks by other Islamists. According to Reuters July 5, al-Sisi "may well insist on Hamas giving up its friendship" with Qatar as a price for continuing the relationship.
The BBC quoted FM Sheikh Mohammed June 6 as having complained to Al Jazeera of those "trying to impose their will on Qatar, or intervene in its internal affairs."At the word "intervene," Qatar's critics can only laugh—as it has laughed with a Janus face at those fighting the jihadi menace, and its millions of suffering victims, for years.
A Crisis Whose Time Had Come