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What’s behind the UAE-Saudi escalation against Qatar?

Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council pose for a photo at the 37th Leaders Summit in Manama, Bahrain on December 6, 2016. [Stringer/ Anadolu Agency ]
Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council pose for a photo at the 37th Leaders Summit in Manama, Bahrain on December 6, 2016. [Stringer/ Anadolu Agency ]

A sudden escalation from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt against Qatar has occurred over the past week. It seems fabricated and comes at a time when the latter was continuing its efforts to overcome previous tensions in its relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Dramatic developments began late last Tuesday with a fabricated statement attributed to the Emir of Qatar, which was circulated quickly by Al-Arabiya TV channel, owned by Saudis, and Sky News Arabia owned by Emiratis, as well as private Egyptian satellite channels and electronic media in all three states. The statement contained allegations about tension in Qatar’s relations with the Trump administration in Washington; a call by Doha to Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain to review their anti-Qatar stance; and an assertion by Doha that Iran represents a regional and Islamic power that cannot be ignored and that it is not wise to escalate the rhetoric against it.

Although the official Qatar News Agency (QNA) and government officials were quick to deny the statement’s authenticity – the QNA’s website had been hacked, it was said – the Saudi, UAE and Egyptian media ignored the claim and continued their analysis of the statement as an authentic document. The fact that this analysis was backed early on with detailed video graphics, which take time to produce, suggested to one Qatari official that they had been prepared in advance.

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The statement dominated the news and comments of the aforementioned media outlets until the next day. The attack on Qatar and its head of state, however, has continued, indicating that this escalation has been agreed at a very high level in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The fingers of blame are pointed especially at the Crown Princes of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Zayed and Mohammed Bin Salman respectively, especially since the media involved are linked to the two men in one way or another.

The UAE-Saudi-Egyptian escalation against Qatar seems intentional, but why now? It came just two days after the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Qatar were together at the Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh, in the presence of Donal Trump and dozens of leaders of other Arab and Islamic countries. Was this meeting linked to the escalation?

The answer may lie in the context of a report published by Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Thursday. It pointed to the current pressure faced by Trump within the US (probably led by the pro-Israel lobby) to review Washington’s alliance with Qatar because the latter stands on the side of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, against the Israeli occupation, and supports the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the context of this pressure, the Guardian drew attention to a recent statement by former US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, who criticised the support provided by Qatar to Hamas and the Brotherhood. In the same vein, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives, Ed Royce, has said that he will put forward a bill to punish the countries that support the two movements, singling out Qatar.

The pressure facing the US president at home may have been reflected in his address to the leaders meeting in Riyadh, when he lumped Hamas – an anti-occupation movement – together with extremist groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda. This has given the Saudis and UAE the opportunity to launch an attack on Qatar and apply their own pressure to get Doha to reconsider its position. It might have been given the green light from Trump to ease the pressure on his administration, without intervening directly in light of the nature of the US alliance with Qatar and its importance, especially as Doha hosts the largest American Air Force base in the Middle East.

Read: Kuwait FM met with Qatar’s emir amidst Gulf media war

The escalation against Qatar may also have another dimension. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are beginning to be concerned about several websites that have highlighted plots in Yemen and the Horn of Africa, and the financial largesse from Saudi Arabia to the Trump administration. This is possibly in the hope of getting the US president’s blessing for the eventual accession of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to the throne of the kingdom.

As has usually happened recently, when they want to suppress any dissenting voices, the Saudis and Emiratis make the ready charge that those behind them are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or Qatar. That’s why an e-campaign was launched several days ago by UAE and Egyptian websites — and supported by the government of the former – against such dissenters. It is also why the authorities in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have decided to block dozens of such sites, including Al-Jazeera.net.

Again, the go-ahead for this has come from the highest levels in the UAE, including the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and the Deputy Chief of Police and Public Security in Dubai, Dhahi Khalfan. If this reflects anything at all, it is the credibility and influence of the sites in question, as well as the degree of fear of the new media in the UAE.

Furthermore, observers have noted the intense UAE anxiety in recent weeks over Qatar’s response to the “Aden coup” plot, which was met by the media controlled by Bin Zayed with a vicious attack against the Doha-based Al-Jazeera network. Although Qatar’s position intersects with Saudi Arabia’s rejection of the plot, there is a question about the private financial accounts of the Saudi crown prince, which makes him keen to strengthen his personal partnership with Abu Dhabi.

Several factors may have come together to develop possible explanations and scenarios for the Saudi-UAE escalation against Qatar. The days ahead may reveal even more and make matters clearer.

Translated from New Khalij, 25 May, 2017

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