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The Saudi war of words on Qatar

Protesters hold placards during a protest against the Saudi-UAE led aggression on Qatar on 17 June 2017 [Isabel Infantes/Anadolu Agency]
Protesters hold placards during a protest against the Saudi-UAE led aggression on Qatar on 17 June 2017 [Isabel Infantes/Anadolu Agency]

The recently launched land, air and sea blockade of the tiny nation of Qatar is manifestly not what its perpetrators claim it to be.

Led by the fanatical and aggressive Saudi regime, a loose coalition of regional dictatorships have imposed punitive sanctions on Qatar. Last week they released to the press a list of demands that Qatar must abide by before the sanctions can be lifted.

The claim when the Saudis imposed these sanctions at the beginning of June was that Qatar had been supporting “terrorist” groups, and that this must stop. But few really seemed to take this claim seriously – possibly the most egregious case of the pot calling the kettle black the Arab region has seen in recent years.

It took a serious amount of chutzpah for the Saudis to accuse Qatar of funding terrorist groups when Saudi money is widely known to flow freely into some of the most fanatical armed groups involved in the war in Syria. Saudi funding has gone into groups in Syria linked to Al-Qaeda, and money from funders in the Kingdom is even suspected to be behind the so-called Daesh.

Read: Timeline of the Arab rift with Qatar

Mohammed Bin Salman, newly appointed as Crown Prince, has been deeply involved in the wars in both Syria and Yemen, driving a large part of the death and destruction in both countries. In his role as minister of defence since early 2015, he has backed the the Army of Conquest group, a coalition of armed extremists in Syria which was primarily formed out of an Al-Qaeda affiliate. He was accused of “an impulsive policy of intervention” by a German intelligence agency.

It is of course true that Qatari money has also gone into armed groups in Syria. But the list of demands released last week show that “terrorism” was not the real impetus for the new sanctions.

At the top of the list was a demand that Qatar “curb” relations with Iran. Qatar’s slightly more independent foreign policy in this regard was a break from the sectarianism stoked and imposed by regional tyrants, which Saudi Arabia has all-too-often been behind. Saudi’s demand that Qatar comply with US sanctions on Iran in this regard is therefore notable.

Read: Qatar working with US, Kuwaitis on response to Gulf demands

Another telling item on the list was the demand that the country shut down satellite TV channel Al Jazeera, full stop.

There are legitimate concerns about Al Jazeera, but the Saudi demand to shut down the channel altogether had nothing to do with these. Indeed, Saudi media outlets have been some of the worst promotors of sectarianism in the region, and have also blatantly promoted a proxy war on Syria.

No; the Saudi worry about the channel is that is allows for some (small, too-often timid) criticism of Saudi policies. And the democratic environment of discussion and debate that the channel was once famous for always sat badly with the tyrants on the Saudi throne.

So now, apparently given a green light by US President Donald Trump, the Saudis along with their regional allies have had enough and are pushing for the channel to be shut down altogether. The Qatari royals are unlikely to give up the influence Al Jazeera affords them any time soon. The same principle goes for the other allegedly Qatar-backed media outlets that Saudi includes in its list of demands to be shut down.

Read: Gulf crisis chance to influence Saudi and Qatar says US

Which brings us onto another demand on the list: the severing of ties with “terrorist organisations”. As previously noted, this is a transparently hypocritical demand. But it also betrays the brazenly anti-democratic nature of these regimes. Included on the list of “terrorists” is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is primarily an electoral opposition.

#QatarGate

The Muslim Brotherhood is defined by the Saudi, Egyptian and UAE regimes as a “terrorist” group, but not by the UK or US. The designation is based on zero evidence, and is a transparent attempt to outlaw political opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood does present a threat to these dictatorial regimes, but for the most part it is a purely political one.

As previous elections in Egypt showed, the Brotherhood is capable of building a fair degree of popular support – enough for one of its ranks to be elected president in Egypt for example. The threat of democracy to these regimes is such that Mohamed Morsi had to be overthrown in a bloody military coup in July 2013.

Although the list does not explicitly include a demand for leaders from the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas to be expelled from Qatar, there is little doubt that this thorn in Israel’s side is part of the background to the demands. Especially with the Saudi-Israeli alliance becoming ever more open and blatant in recent years.

All told, the list of demands to Qatar seems deliberately calculated to be rejected. Don’t expect this impasse to be resolved any time soon.

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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