Qatar should not capitulate
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
The travel and trade blockade on Qatar – imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt- is less about “stopping terrorism” and contacts with radical “Islamists” than about Qatar questioning Riyadh’s tough position against Tehran.
The anti-Qatar Arab countries, having serious issues of their own, have overstepped their reach. All things Qataris are accused of doing are committed by the Saudis themselves. Such hostile action could backfire.
The embargo was launched shortly after the visit of President Donald Trump to Riyadh. The Saudis misread the diplomatic significance of the visit. Saudi royalty assumes that it has earned US unwavering support.
Riyadh rulers ought to know better. Washington’s leniency with the autocratic kingdom is self serving, motivated by oil deals and sales of arms. Similarly, Egypt, the second most important partner in this bash-Qatar Arab bloc, should note that Washington maintains friendly relations with President Sisi, primarily, to sustain a fragile Camp David Accord- forged between Israel and Egypt in 1979.
The credibility of all four anxious Arab regimes is at stake. Riyadh and its allies take risks in launching a war of isolation on another Arab state with assertive political views. Failure to induce capitulation of Qatar could expose the two most powerful Arab states to destabilizing pressures at the domestic, regional and international level. In addition, Qatar is not helpless and can count on Iran and Turkey, whose manipulative powers in the Middle East should not be underestimated.
Washington is not likely to allow Riyadh and Cairo to humiliate Qatar mercilessly. It is US predisposition to keep Qatar in the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC. The GCC is a relatively integrated diplomatic and economic Arab council consisting of six oil-rich states: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. Washington does not wish to let a new wave of inter-Arab rifts diminish collaborative efforts of ending ISIS infrastructure in Syria and Iraq.
Qatar has a mind of its own but it has been an active player in the GCC, which is a west leaning institution. It has participated in the international coalition of the war on terror. Doha hosts America’s largest overseas air-base. Qatar hosts several branches of America’s finest universities. With its heavy investment in modern education it could not be consciously investing in terrorism or in the spread of political Islam.
Qatar’s connection with conservative Islam may be partially explained by its history: the older generation of the Qatari elite has been educated by Egyptian Islamists of a bygone political era. As in other Gulf countries, it may not be the state itself, but some powerful figures or groups who engage in funding Islamists. And finally a question: why would the state of Qatar establish Aljazeera, the first free television network in the Arab world, if it were deliberately supportive of extreme Islamist groups?
Surely, Qataris are not blameless in this dispute. Here are some examples of questionable action: funding Al-Qaeda related rebel groups in Syria, building relations with hostage takers, supporting former Egyptian President Moursi, getting too involved in dark Sudan politics, Palestine’s marginal groups and warlord Lebanese politics.
The Qataris are due for a review, but not a blow on the head. They have developed supportive relationships with a wide variety of activist groups: Syrian Jihadi rebels, Palestinian Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood groups, controversial Muslim scholars- such as Sheik Yussef Qardawi, and popular anti-Israel ideologue Azmi Bisharat. One wonders if Qatar is entitled to expose the GCC in so many hot spots. Moreover, it may not be in the best interest of this small state to act as a regional super power.
The Saudis and their allies are digging in as their impulsive threats are pushed back by Qatar. Following the blockade Qatar receives a list of impossible demands: pull the plug on Al Jazeera, downgrade diplomacy with Iran, distance Turkey, end relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, hand over wanted exiles, pay compensation and terminate support of Hamas.
The deadlock continues as moderate Iraq, Kuwait and Oman anxiously mediate the conflict. Things will probably get worse in the short term; Riyadh counts too much on Washington’s support. The US sends messages of caution. The Congress halts sales of arms to the Gulf as the crisis endures.
The longer the embargo endures the more regime contradictions are tested, the higher the chances for military action and the more outside powers are drawn in. To end this crisis Saudi Arabia should back off, Qatar ought to curb partnerships with Islamists and Washington stick to consistent, enabling foreign policy.
At this point the prognosis of this crisis does not look good.