The second round of political escalation began with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, stopping air traffic and ending the movement of people and trade by land, sea and air. This was almost a declaration of war — or at least preparation for war — after the earlier media escalation against Qatar under the pretext that it supports Iran and “extremist Islamic terrorism” represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, the Houthis and the Shias in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. This has portrayed Qatar as a demon with international tentacles whose abilities surpass that of even the biggest country in the world.
It is obvious to any observer that the escalation started and is continuing unilaterally, and it is snowballing. This implies that the decision to proceed was made some time ago, while a political approach was made at the highest level to discourage Qatar from a specific position or to impose a political agenda that has not been officially announced, other than through pro-Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian media outlets. This agenda aims to push Qatar to reconsider its position on Iran and its alleged support for terrorism and Islamic extremism.
Qatar’s position on Iran does not differ much from that of the general position of the other Gulf countries. It was the first to support the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime in Damascus, which is the complete opposite of Iran’s position. Moreover, it has partnered with Saudi Arabia and the Arab coalition against the Houthi rebels, who are Iran’s allies in Yemen. Qatar is also allied with Turkey, which is the fiercest opponent of Iran’s policies in the region.
Hence, trying to explain the escalation based on Qatar’s support for Iran and the Shias in Syria or the Gulf doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. I believe that the motives actually lie elsewhere, in issues some of which have been disclosed while others are too sensitive.
One of the open issues disclosed unofficially in the media is that Qatar is at odds with the UAE regarding the management of the Yemeni crisis. Qatar’s position is closer to that of Saudi Arabia in clear contrast to that of the UAE, which supports the southern separatist parties at the expense of the legitimate authority, led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who is backed in exile by Saudi Arabia and the coalition. In Libya, Qatar backs the Presidential Council in Tripoli, which is recognised by the United Nations, whereas the UAE and Egypt support General Khalifa Haftar and his government in Benghazi and eastern Libya.
Looking closer at the Egyptian portfolio, we find that Qatar has backed down quite a bit regarding its position on the military coup, led by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi against democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi. It made many concessions to Saudi Arabia in this regard in 2014, especially its suspension of Al-Jazeera Mubasher Egypt and asking Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders to leave Doha. Moreover, it has lessened the severity of its news coverage regarding Egypt’s affairs in general. All of this counts in Qatar’s favour within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), especially given its keenness to be flexible and cooperative with Saudi Arabia in particular.
If these positions vouch for Qatar as far as Saudi Arabia and the GCC are concerned, what has it done to deserve this escalation, which threatens the disintegration of the Gulf status quo and the ignition of strife between the closest of brothers in terms of religion, history, social ties and common interests?
What some countries are avoiding is talking explicitly about the motive for this dangerous scenario in the Gulf and Middle East, which is the position on the Palestinian cause and the Islamic resistance movement, Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. That is not all, as the Palestinian issue has become a free-for-all and entry point for some competitors, either over the succession of King Salman in Saudi Arabia or the leadership of the Gulf and Middle Eastern region given the vacuum due to the absence of a leading role for Egypt, Syria and Iraq. As such, the success of any of the competitors in this regard requires US acceptance and entry into the White House via Israeli gatekeepers, which means starting the race to make concessions over Palestine.
In this context, I must remind everyone that in 2014, Saudi Arabia asked Qatar to end the presence of Hamas’s political leadership in Doha at the same time as the expulsion of the exiled Muslim Brotherhood leaders. However, the Qatar government refused; it considered the Palestinian cause to be too serious to be subject to inter-Arab conflicts. In a related matter, some sources have stated that Donald Trump’s meeting with Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani on the sidelines of the Riyadh summit on 21 May addressed the presence of Hamas leaders in Qatar, and that this was a bone of contention which upset the US president. This indicates increased pressure on Qatar regarding its position toward the Palestinian resistance and its support for the Palestinian people besieged in the Gaza Strip. It also explains the departure of a number of Hamas officials from the Qatari capital at the end of May to unknown destinations. Hamas explained this as “movements in various areas according to the requirements of our work and interests” after its internal elections.
Furthermore, I have to mention the meeting between the Egyptian security agencies and a Hamas leadership delegation on 4 June in Cairo; the Hamas team was led by Yahya Al-Sinwar from Gaza, and included Dr Mousa Abu Marzouk from Doha. Informed sources have said that Egypt put pressure on Hamas to change its political position to align with the so-called moderate Arab states, or else face the movement’s fate given the escalation against Doha, which is hosting its political leadership.
The official US position has been stated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Matiss; they urged the Gulf countries to resolve their differences, saying that Washington wants to help with this. Then the Pentagon confirmed that there were no plans to change the US presence in Qatar and it thanked Doha for its cooperation in preserving the security of the region. In my opinion, this was just for media consumption and contradicts the course of events that took an escalatory turn immediately after the Riyadh — Arab/Islamic/US — summit. If Washington was unhappy with the escalation against Qatar, it could easily press its allies and friends in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt to stop the siege and resolve their disagreements through dialogue.
I think, therefore, that the escalation would not have occurred without Washington’s knowledge and prior blessing in order to force Qatar into subordination or “tutelage”. Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said as much in his interview with Al-Jazeera on 6 June.
Qatar’s options are limited. Either it accepts Saudi Arabia’s conditions — and this will be evident in its position on besieged Gaza and the presence of Hamas’s political bureau officials in Doha — or it refuses to make concessions over Palestine and tries to manoeuvre by making concessions on other issues, such as its position on Egypt or Libya. Personally, I believe that the so-called moderate Arab axis will not accept this and will push for a radical change in Qatar’s position to invest in this critical moment that some Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, believe will allow them to get everything they want under the pressure of the Arab-Islamic-US alliances.
They believe that they will be able to arrange the issues in the Middle East to their own design by liquidating so-called political Islam, which showed its strength in the Arab Spring revolutions. These countries regard this as an existential threat, and so find themselves in the same position, and with the same ambition, as Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The extreme right-winger told the Israeli Knesset (parliament) on 5 June that the diplomatic fallout between several Arab states and Qatar had created opportunities for Israel to collaborate with others in the region to combat terrorism. He added that the Arab countries now realise that the real threat is not Israel, but Islamic terrorism.
The days ahead will reveal more details, but if the price is the Palestinian issue, or if the price is the emergence of the logic of political “tutelage”, the situation deserves to be challenged. This requires the restoration of common interests between the affected or targeted parties, because the issue will not stop at Qatar or Hamas. It will extend to other parties that still represent an obstacle to the Zionist project in the region.
Translated from Arabi21, 6 June 2017
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.