The unthinkable happened. It wasn’t long ago that Gulf States were so in tune that its leaders were mulling forming a federation. That idea was put on ice because one GCC member country, Qatar, pursued policies its closest neighbours considered threatening. Superficially, at least, Doha is making efforts to return to the fold. Linda S. Heard reports.
Until recently, Doha, one of the planet’s wealthiest countries, was on the defensive. It was slammed by human rights groups for “treating migrant workers constructing infrastructure and stadia like cattle” prompting the state to publish a Workers’ Charter to pacify FIFA ahead of the 2022 World Cup hosting. Moreover, a Qatari company owned by the country’s former FIFA representative Mohamed bin Hamam was investigated for transferring over US$ 2 million to a former FIFA vicepresident and members of his staff, casting doubt on the impartiality of the bidding process.
But those scandals paled in comparison to Qatar’s fraying relationship with fellow GCC States, which were angered and mystified by Doha’s aggressive stance towards Egypt’s interim government, its sheltering of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the material support it’s allegedly providing to Yemeni Shiite militants hostile to Saudi Arabia as well as Sunni organizations branded ‘terrorist’.
French newspapers - specifically the Canard Enchaîné and La Tribune - accused Qatar of lending armed support to Arab uprisings in Algeria and northern Mali. According to La Tribune, “Qatar wants to destabilize the entire region from North Africa to the Mashreq [Arab countries east of Egypt] without worrying about the political and security consequences that result...” That may or may have been accurate, but no one can deny Doha’s staunch backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, considered a terrorist organization by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
As reported by the Washington Post, Qatar provided sanctuary to senior Brotherhood officials, wanted by Egyptian prosecutors, on its soil. “Several of the exiles live temporarily in hotel suites paid for by Qatar’s state-run Arabic satellite Al Jazeera,” the article reads.
Al Jazeera morphed into the Brotherhood’s propaganda arm following Egypt’s ousting of President Mohamed Morsi and provided a platform for the MB’s de facto spiritual head Yusuf Al Qaradawi to attack the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Its Arabic-language networks have been banned by Cairo for inciting violence and there were reports that Riyadh was poised to close-down Al Jazeera’s Saudi offices.
Rumbling behind-closed-door disagreements between Qatar and brotherly Gulf countries became an open public spat on March 5th when Saudi, the UAE and Bahrain took the unprecedented step of recalling their ambassadors from Doha citing Qatar’s reneging on an agreement not to meddle in their internal affairs. Qatar had not “committed to the principles” of the GCC and must “take the appropriate steps to ensure the security of GCC States” the trio announced. Those steps were believed to include:
- Qatar’s withdrawal of support for the Muslim Brotherhood;
- Curtailing Al Jazeera’s inflammatory broadcasts against Gulf States;
- Severing links with armed jihadist organizations in Syria;
- Cutting ties with Shiite Yemeni Houthis and Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.
Kuwait adopted the role as mediator in advance of an Arab summit scheduled for March 25th. At the time, the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal asserted the rift won’t be mended “as long as Doha does not revise its policy.”
Indeed, in December last year, the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tammim bin Hamad announced that support of the Muslim Brotherhood was “a duty”. Qatar’s former ambassador to the United Nations Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa denies his country is a destabilizing influence. He maintains that the core of the dispute is Egypt. “Unfortunately, those three countries, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, want to keep the Arab world in a hole; the want them to stay weak countries controlled by dictators,” was his slanderous claim.
In reality, the three Gulf allies welcomed the toppling of the MB’s president and are working in concert to ensure Egypt’s democratic future primarily because they view the Brotherhood as a direct threat and are keen on solidifying diplomatic, economic and military ties with Cairo. To that end they have bolstered Egypt’s economy with a US$ 15 billion injection while Saudi Arabia is thought to have brokered a weapons deal between Cairo and Moscow to break Egypt’s dependence on US arms supplies.
During a fractious GCC meet, Saudi delegates threatened Qatar with the closure of the Kingdom’s airspace and border if it refused to make a u-turn. The dispute could have put intra- Gulf projects at risk, negatively affect investments and hamper plans for Gulfwide military cooperation as well as a planned common market and customs union. Initially, Qatar that’s gained the reputation of being a maverick, shrugged off those implications. Its new best friend was a powerful NATO country that shares a similar Islamist ideology – Turkey.
Like Sheikh Tammim, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has condemned what he calls Egypt’s “military coup” and regularly fraternizes with representatives of the global Muslim Brotherhood. There was hardly a chink of light between the two regional actors on their response to international events.
To the relief of Gulf leaderships, as Doha edged closer to the precipice of ruined relationships with its neighbors, it saw the light. In April, at an extraordinary meeting of GCC foreign ministers held in Riyadh, Qatar signed up to an agreement spelling out that member states should preserve each others’ “interests, security and stability”. A week later, it was reported in the Gulf News that dozens of Muslim Brotherhood leaders left Qatar for Libya, where they were ferried away from the airport to unknown parts of the country. That is certainly good news for Gulf States, but alarming for Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood is allegedly forming a “Free Egyptian Army” on Libyan soil to launch attacks on Egypt in the run-up to a presidential election. On the plus side, Qaradawi appears to be somewhat muffled. However, Al Jazeerawatchers have seen little change in its anti-Egypt vitriol. So it’s premature to say all’s well that ends well.
A question that’s still puzzling geopolitical analysts is why? Qatar has long strived to punch above its weight so why did it risk isolation within the neighborhood, especially at a time when the Obama administration is attempting to bring Tehran in from the cold, which could disturb the regional balance of power? Empowering Iran that’s fighting on the side of the Assad regime in Syria and is igniting civil unrest in Bahrain should, in principle, have galvanized GCC member states to stick together. Instead, Qatar’s divergence could have resulted in its ultimate ejection from the GCC.
As to his reasoning for supporting unsavory elements in preference to his country’s longtime allies, Qatar’s Emir was inscrutable. The mystery spawned various conspiracy theories but let’s not indulge in unsupported conjecture. Yet, in the absence of any credible motivation on Doha’s part – at least not one that can be easily pinpointed – the suggestion that powerful unseen hands were pulling its strings cannot be dismissed. Was Qatar being leant on or is unwittingly being used as a pawn to further the ambitions of a foreign power? We may never know.