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Qatar-Gulf Crisis: the Yemen element

A woman leaves her village with her belongings after Houthis captured Tubeysia village in Taiz province, Yemen on 20 February, 2017. ( Abdulnasser Alseddik - Anadolu Agency )

Growing tensions in the Gulf have unleashed a full siege on Qatar, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Accusations levied against Qatar include support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, Daesh and sectarian groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Qatar has categorically denied funding terrorism and described the situation as “unjustified”. The “terrorism” accusations also include giving support to the Houthis in Yemen, in a war in which Qatar has been involved within the Saudi-led coalition.

It was clear to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the support and backing from the authorities in Doha for coup Al-Houthi militias even after the announcement of the Coalition to Support the Legitimacy in Yemen.

The Houthi rebels are backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s most formidable opponent, Iran. No evidence has been put forward to support the claim that Qatar backs the Houthis whereas we do know that it has been involved in the Yemen war since 2015 after responding to the request of President-in-exile Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to intervene in a complex conflict with the rebels. The military objective of the coalition was to reinstate Hadi and his control over the capital Sana’a and push back the Houthis and their allies towards Aden, in southern Yemen. The coalition led by Saudi Arabia includes the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain.

Two days before Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, six Qatari soldiers were injured whilst defending Saudi Arabia’s southern borders against the Houthis. “The Qatari armed forces stationed in the southern Saudi border… were carrying out their continued heroic duty, along with their brethren, of defeating enemy forces on Saudi territory,” said the Qatar defence ministry. The southern Saudi border has witnessed frequent incursions by Houthi fighters, and Qatari troops have often been in the front line.

Since joining the coalition, Qatar has deployed ten warships along the Red Sea coast and 1,000 troops with advanced equipment. This displays clear intent to assist in the fight against the Houthis in Yemen.

Old-time negotiator: missed opportunity?

Qatar is no stranger to negotiations covering conflicts as varied as Afghanistan and the Taliban, Sudan and Lebanon. It even tried to forge a peace deal between the then Yemen government and the Houthis in 2004. For a country of its size, it has stood out as the Gulf’s most proactive mediator.

On their part, the Houthis have condemned the moves being taken against Qatar. “We condemn actions against Qatar,” said the head of the Houthi Revolutionary Committees on 5 June. “We are ready to cooperate with Qatar as they are known to us as men of sincerity, loyalty, and wisdom – we experienced this during Qatari mediation in the Yemeni conflict,” added Mohammad Ali Al-Houthi.

Although the Houthis have fought against Qatari forces, the rebels have shown signs of a willingness to cooperate yet again. The Houthi leader did not elaborate what was meant by “cooperate”, but if it refers to negotiations, it may have been a serious missed opportunity for the Yemen war which appears to be in a deadlock. The Houthis may view Qatar to be neutral when it comes to negotiations or peace deals, or simply “men of sincerity, loyalty and wisdom”. The rebel group has previously rejected the UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed as an intermediary to negotiate a peace deal; they believe that the envoy is biased by taking the line of the Saudi-led coalition. The UN Envoy was also attacked by the Houthis, although nobody was injured.

Qatar’s official dismissal on Monday from the Saudi-led coalition may have been a premature move by Riyadh, particularly as the conflict is going nowhere. Moreover, the Houthi statement may well be an expression of their preference for Qatar to be involved in negotiations rather than Russia, which is making some strategic moves in this regard.

Supporting terrorist armed groups

Parties to the conflict in Yemen have allegedly fought alongside Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), including factions by the US and Saudi Arabia. “We fight alongside all Muslims in Yemen, together with different Islamic groups” AQAP’s military commander Qasim Al-Rimi has claimed. Alliances have been made with an array of factions, referred to as “our brothers among the sons of [Sunni] tribes.” AQAP supports local armed groups in Yemen, which are backed by the Saudi-led coalition, which remains a Sunni bloc against the Houthis.

Governor Ahmed Bin Brik of Hadramawt claimed that the UAE-backed Hadhrami Elite Forces found AQAP fighters in possession of Yemeni First Army ID cards. This suggests that Hadi is fighting with and supporting Al-Qaeda groups in the Yemen war. The First Army is tasked with military objectives in Shabwah, Hadramawt and Mahra governorates in eastern Yemen. Hadi’s government-in-exile is thus apparently fighting alongside Al-Qaeda and has also cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, following the lead of its sponsors in Riyadh.

Qatar does not deny arming opposition armed groups in Syria, but to claim that it supports Daesh is absurd and without foundation. The strategic Al-Udeid Air Base, soth-west of Doha, is home to 10,000 US troops and is used by the Americans to launch airstrikes against Al-Qaeda and Daesh. This simple fact tells us a lot about Qatar’s position toward the transnational groups.

If Qatar’s involvement in the Yemen war is ended, it may be the best result to come out of the Gulf crisis as it will no longer be part of the volatile and complex conflict. More importantly, though, it will no longer be part of a ruthless campaign against Yemeni civilians which has already been called out for war crimes by human rights groups. Although it looks unlikely that Qatar will ever be involved again on the front line in Yemen, however, as the Gulf crisis continues to develop, and given the fluidity of the situation, it cannot be ruled out.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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ArticleMiddle EastOpinionQatarSaudi ArabiaUAEYemen
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