Unfortunately, the anger is long and deep in the nasty row dividing some of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, which means any quick answer to the Trump administration’s diplomatic and security headache is hard to see from here.
Nearly four months ago, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates banded together to impose an economic and diplomatic blockade against Qatar, the tiny but wealthy country that hosts Washington’s most strategic military base in the Persian Gulf, over what they claim is its willingness to work with Shiite Iran and its suspected support for jihadi groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
While the Trump administration has attempted to cool tempers in the region, officials in the UAE say, the crisis is likely only to escalate.
Qatar, which sits atop some of the word’s largest proven natural gas reserves, has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, claiming the accusations against it are driven less by legitimate security concerns than by regional jealousy over the nation’s massive economic prosperity in recent years.
But the Saudis, Emiratis and others aren’t yielding. The boycotting nations have cut off land, sea and air routes to Qatar, a small nation that sticks out like a thumb in the Persian Gulf.
Members of the coalition, including the UAE, are doubling down with fresh accusations that the Qataris are flat-out guilty of financing terrorism and suggesting the only solution may be to replace the regime of young Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
“Qatar has supported not only the Muslim Brotherhood; it supported al Qaeda, the Nusra Front — they fund them — and it’s supported ISIS,” said Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, who sits on Abu Dhabi’s exclusive Executive Council and chairs the UAE-based counterextremism center Hedaya.
“We don’t tolerate anyone who supports terrorism or extremism, either here or outside. This is why we have a problem with Qatar,” Mr. Al Nuaimi said in an interview with The Washington Times, part of a fact-finding reporting trip exploring the depths of the passions on both sides of the dispute and the fallout from President Trump’s push to rally the region’s Sunni states to isolate Iran and pursue U.S. vital interests.
The situation will worsen before it improves, said Ahmed Al-Hamli, who heads Trends Research and Advisory, a prominent Abu Dhabi think tank. “Nothing will happen as long as Qatar’s current leaders are in power.”
Vexing for Trump
The Trump White House has struggled to manage the personal and policy fault lines dividing the wealthy Gulf Arab monarchies to forge a cohesive front against Iran.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are all heavily armed members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the U.S.-backed political-military alliance that also includes Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. While the latter three have stayed neutral toward the boycott against Qatar, the acrimony is so deep in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that many say it puts the very future of the GCC at risk.
The situation lays bare a sticky predicament for Mr. Trump, who chose Saudi Arabia as the destination for his first presidential foreign visit back in May. Analysts say the move emboldened the Saudis to rally the UAE and others against Qatar, which has increasingly challenged Riyadh’s regional hegemony and whose own alliance with Washington is underscored by the U.S. military’s heavy presence on the outskirts of the Qatari capital of Doha.
Some 11,000 U.S. military personnel, along with the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command, are stationed at Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base, which has quietly emerged as a linchpin of U.S. military campaigns in Syria and Iraq, as well as against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Washington thus finds itself stuck playing both sides of the regional crisis. On one hand, the president has publicly backed the Saudi-Emirati hard-line position by warning Qatari leaders via Twitter that America won’t tolerate their “funding of radical ideology.” On the other, Defense Secretary James Mattis has flown to Doha to show unity with the Qataris and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has launched a halting diplomatic push to get the two sides to “sit down together” to resolve matters.
But Mr. Tillerson’s calls for dialogue appear to be going nowhere, while many in the U.S. government and in public opinion polls display a fatigue with the region’s politics after the long engagement in Iraq and Syria.
A test-the-waters phone call last month between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatari Sheikh Al-Thani ended in a meltdown, with the Saudis accusing the Qataris of falsely announcing that the two had agreed to appoint envoys to meet and discuss outstanding differences.
They apparently hadn’t.
Gas and the Brotherhood
Most notably, the Qataris share ownership with the Iranians over the massive South Pars/North Dome offshore natural gas field near the center of the Persian Gulf, a field that has fueled Doha’s growth as a major regional player. In August, Doha restored diplomatic relations with Iran after Tehran sent food to undercut the Arab embargo and allowed Qatari planes to increasingly use the Islamic republic’s airspace.
In another move not likely to ease hard feelings across the region, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Doha for talks Tuesday with top Qatari officials on deepening the bilateral relationship and “the current situation in the region,” according to the Qatar News Agency.
What’s more important, analysts say, is that Qatar also maintains strong relations with various factions of the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, a movement shunned and increasingly feared by the other Gulf monarchies since it briefly took power in Egypt following the 2011 social and political uprisings there as part of the Arab Spring.
Analysts say the Gulf divide grew from long-standing frustration among the other GCC members over Qatar’s backing of the Brotherhood as a destabilizing opposition force in Egypt and beyond during the Arab Spring, an anger that boiled over after Mr. Trump’s trip in May.
The frustration first surfaced in 2014 when the Saudis, the UAE and Bahrain all pulled their ambassadors from Qatar and returned them only when Doha publicly forced some Brotherhood members to leave the country, muzzled others and signed a “reconciliation agreement” to ease the standoff.
But the tensions remained and burst to the fore in June — this time with the military-led government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi joining the Saudis and others to issue a fresh list of demands on the Qataris.
In addition to demanding the closure of all Iranian diplomatic missions in Qatar, the coalition said Doha must cut ties with all Muslim Brotherhood groups. It even accused the Qataris outright of playing host to U.S.-designated terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, al Qaeda and the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
Qatar’s leaders say the accusations are over the top.
While issuing broad denials in public and rejecting the Saudi demands, several officials — including members of the Qatari royal family — in background interviews contemptuously dismissed the charges as part of an “ill-conceived smear campaign” orchestrated by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
“The accusation that Qatar supports terrorism is ridiculous,” said one Qatari official. “How could a country hosting a U.S. military base that’s carrying out a major bombing campaign against terrorists all over the region be itself considered to support terrorism?”
The real reason for the feud, the official said, is that the Saudis and Emiratis envy Doha’s economic growth and expanding regional influence — influence the Saudis once held all to themselves. “They’re doing this also because they’re jealous,” the official said, “that Qatar and not them has been chosen to host the [soccer] World Cup in 2022.”
Indeed, terrorism may be one of the last things that comes to mind amid the frenetic pace of economic transformation evident on every street corner in Qatar’s capital. While the growing beachside metropolis of Doha is still small in comparison with rival Dubai in the UAE, gleaming new skyscrapers line the horizon. The Qatari capital is packed with new and expensively designed parks and opulent museums, all paid for by the global natural gas boom.
Taxi drivers in Doha complain that they can’t find their way because traffic routes change nightly as a result of constant development.
“It’s like living in a construction project,” one resident quipped of the city, where some 1.7 million mostly Nepali, Indian and Pakistani guest workers do the vast bulk of the construction work.
“Twenty-five percent of the world’s cranes — the world’s cranes — are here,” said a U.S. military official who lives in Doha. “They just set a record for the most earth-boring machines in the world operating simultaneously. Six. Just incredible. So, it is a nation being born.”
While accusations about Qatari terrorist financing dominate the headlines around the GCC crisis, one source close to the Saudi government said that, in a region where power is concentrated in a few powerful families and clans, Riyadh’s beef with Qatar is personal.
The bad blood dates back to 1995, when the current Qatari emir’s father, Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, launched a palace coup to unseat his own father, Khalifa Al-Thani, who was in Geneva seeking medical treatment at the time.
Khalifa had been installed in Doha as part of a deal with the Saudi royal family during the early 1970s, and his sudden ouster by a power-thirsty son “scared all the other monarchies in the Gulf — monarchies mostly headed by men in their 80s — because it set a very dangerous precedent,” the source said.
Riyadh was so outraged by the 1995 coup that it tried to reinstall Khalifa with a countercoup a year later. The attempt failed and “was embarrassing, like a kind of Bay of Pigs for Saudi Arabia,” said the source. Saudi leaders have been harboring a grudge ever since.
The Saudi ruling family, led by a series of elderly royals, has watched in dismay for the past two decades while “these young emirs in Doha have run wild like spoiled children, setting up things like Al Jazeera to challenge everyone in the region,” said the source.
Without question, Qatar’s decision to set up the international news network in the late 1990s, which brought a jolt of energy and controversy to the Arab-language media, has been a major subplot of the current feud.
Al Jazeera’s reporting has given Qatari leaders outsized influence over Arab public opinion. The network is now one of the biggest players on the global media stage — and it’s notorious for its critical coverage of the powers that be in the Persian Gulf while delivering almost exclusively positive coverage of Qatar.
Other Gulf monarchies accuse Al Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for Islamists in a way that stokes regional political and religious unrest, challenging the status quo in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and beyond.
The Al Jazeera factor
An analysis by the Trends Research and Advisory cited a range of examples, including one in 2014 in which the network “broke regular programming” to provide then-Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal “a 45-minute slot to give a speech” while running a “Hamas propaganda video.”
“We’re talking about political Islam,” said Mr. Al-Hamli, who heads the Abu Dhabi-based think tank. “This is the ideology for violence. This is the foundation for violence because it’s politicizing religion.”
He said Qatar’s backing of Muslim Brotherhood political parties has the same effect. “All of it adds up to backing movements that foment terrorism,” he said. “This is not about jealously or competition. It’s about terrorism. We are here to stop Qatar from supporting terrorist groups around the world.”
But the State Department has softened its language on Qatar in recent years. The department’s 2016 Country Reports on Terrorism said that during 2015 and 2016, authorities in Doha “prosecuted and convicted Qatari terrorist financiers for the first time.”
However, the assessment also said terrorist financiers “are still able to exploit Qatar’s informal financial system.”
It’s not something the Qataris take lightly. In August, Doha hired the Financial Integrity Network, a U.S.-based company run by former American counterterrorism officials, to help close loopholes that had allowed terrorist financing to flourish.
Daniel Glaser, a former Treasury assistant secretary for terrorist financing and a principal with the Financial Integrity Network, has said the goal will be to ensure that Qatar’s “anti-money-laundering and counterterrorist financing regime is comprehensive.”
Emirati officials dismiss the development. “I don’t trust the commitment of the Qataris,” said Mr. Al Nuaimi, who heads the counterextremism center in Abu Dhabi. “They’ve done so many things in the last three months, but we feel they are not serious.”
‘We can’t go to Mecca’
A former U.S. intelligence official in the region pushed back against the Emirati characterization, telling The Times that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are misguidedly clinging to the idea of Qatar as a terrorism financing hub.
“It’s a smokescreen for what they’re really pissed off at the Qataris about, which is the open backing of political Islam in the region,” the former official said on the condition of anonymity. “There certainly are examples of Qataris channeling money to Muslim Brotherhood groups in other nations, but equating that with financing terrorists is at best a legal gray area because the Brotherhood is not listed by Washington as a foreign terrorist organization.”
Such logic doesn’t convince those who have lined up against Qatar. “Widely shared among these nations is the view that you cannot separate between Muslim Brotherhood ideology and more extremist regimes like al Qaeda,” said Shady Abdelwhab Mansour, an analyst at the UAE-based Future for Advanced Research Studies.
“The concern is that if Muslim Brotherhood-connected groups backed by Qatar get stronger and more politically active in the region, they could eventually challenge the power structure in both the UAE and in Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Mansour said.
Qataris scoff at the notion.
“Their fear is that Qatar is using Al Jazeera and financing political Islamists, and that all these young people in Saudi Arabia will be brainwashed against the Saudi monarchy and ultimately try to overthrow it — Egypt-style — and put in place a Muslim Brotherhood government,” said one of the Qatari officials who spoke anonymously with The Times.
“But it doesn’t make sense that we would be trying to foment unrest in Saudi Arabia,” the official said. “No one wants an unstable Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia becomes destabilized, there are so many young people there, it will become a breeding ground for ISIS and al Qaeda. We don’t want that — and this is not to mention Mecca. If Saudi Arabia becomes unstable, we can’t go to Mecca.”
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.