The release of formal demands made of Qatar by the Saudi-led coalition bears striking similarities to 19th century-style gunboat diplomacy with its concept of issuing impossible-to-meet demands intended to escalate a situation into potential military action. Whilst military action in this case appears unlikely, there is every reason to believe that the Saudi-led coalition is preparing for a non-kinetic war of attrition intended to change Doha’s values and behaviour.
Whilst this latest crisis in the Gulf has been analysed from every political, strategic and security angle, few have pontificated deeply on the real reasons behind the push to isolate Qatar. The Saudis, Egyptians and Emiratis may have big differences with Qatar on the issues of foreign policy and Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, but their real motivation can be reduced to this: fear of change and crass intolerance.
All three regimes are either conservatively retrograde — as in Saudi Arabia and the UAE — or, in Egypt’s case, a reactionary military junta committed to rolling back the modest democratic gains of the Arab Spring. None of these regimes offer real solutions to their own country’s long-term political and socio-economic crises – which left untreated will inevitably produce implosion – let alone a strategic vision for sustainable regional development and security.
Instead of appeasing the demands made by such regimes, which the United States appears to be doing, the West should come to tiny Qatar’s defence. This would be entirely consistent with the West’s declared support for democracy and diversity in a national context and lasting security in a regional framework. The fact that Qatar has been practically abandoned says a lot about Western hypocrisy and double standards.
Whilst Qatar is no beacon of democracy, the fact is that no one really expects it to be. The country is far too small and homogeneous to become an arena for adversarial politics. However, Qatar’s investment in education and media, and its outreach to progressive forces in the region and beyond, is consistent with public demands for change across the region. The iconic Doha-based Al-Jazeera broadcaster is the most potent embodiment of these views and demands. It is little wonder that the Saudi, Egyptian and UAE governments want it shut down.
The focus on the Muslim Brotherhood is designed to obscure the full extent of Doha’s patronage. The simple fact is that Qatar has reached out to varied political forces and other organised communities across the region, and often across the sectarian divide. For example, it played a substantial role in the reconstruction of southern Lebanon following more than a month of relentless Israeli bombardment in the summer of 2006.
Nevertheless, even the coalition’s obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood hides much deeper and potent fears. The movement is the largest opposition group across much of the region. Real political change in these countries cannot take place unless the Brotherhood and its local derivatives are able to engage freely in politics, contest elections and contribute to governance. Tunisia is the best example of a country where this takes place, and the Ennahda party currently shares power with groups from secular backgrounds.
In its Egyptian homeland, the Brotherhood played an active role in the immediate post-revolution political landscape. Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was from the movement’s ranks. The thinly-disguised coup that overthrew him in July 2013 was not just aimed at destroying the organisational infrastructure of the Ikhwan; the real aims were much deeper and broader, and focussed on arresting Egypt’s political development. To that end, the Egyptian regime is invested fully in inflating an essentially bogus dichotomy centred on Islamists and secularists. It is worth noting that this dichotomy – and the tensions and destabilisation which it creates – is a major contributing factor to radicalisation and the growth of terrorist groups like Daesh. Developments in post-coup Egypt bear this out, as evidenced by the proliferation of terrorism across the country, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula.
An eccentric voice
The same intolerance extends to the anti-Qatar bloc’s critique of Doha’s regional policy, except that in this case it is also laced with more than just a hint of hypocrisy. Saudi Arabia, for example, has played an equal, probably bigger, role than Qatar in supporting a wide range of rebel groups in Syria, thus contributing to the chaos that reigns in some parts of that country.
Moreover, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt contribute to destabilisation in other parts of the region. Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen has not only failed to achieve its basic objectives after 27 months of daily aerial bombardments but, more worryingly, it has also helped to create a major humanitarian crisis with inevitably wider regional repercussions. Egypt’s support for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya, meanwhile, is little short of adventurous and at minimum complicates the search for a lasting political settlement in its North African neighbour.
Ironically, at least in so far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, its lack of strategic vision will force Doha to overcome slowly but surely its apprehension of aligning more closely with the Iranian giant to the east. To avoid even deeper tension, it is in everyone’s interest for Doha to be left alone to tweak and recalibrate its idiosyncratic approach toward regional diplomacy. The Middle East, more than any other region, needs an eccentric player like Qatar.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.