Qatar’s support for the global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel was a major cause of concern amongst senior UAE diplomats in Washington during the months leading up to the imposition of the Saudi-led siege on Doha. The UAE plays a leading role in the siege on its Gulf neighbour.
The UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef Al-Otaiba, vented his frustration about the Qataris to a former American diplomat, Dennis Ross, in a series of leaked emails, which have been obtained by MEMO. Ross is known to some as Israel’s watchdog; he and Al-Otaiba can be seen to have been mulling over the prospect of holding Qatar “accountable” during an email exchange in which the two men discuss “Israeli anger as Qatar backs campaign for global boycott”.
Ross and Al-Otaiba were apparently enraged by Qatar following the publication of an article by the right-wing British newspaper the Telegraph concerning Qatar’s support for BDS. The emails show that the two broached an array of punitive measures against Doha, including the transfer of the US military base at Al-Udeid, in order to compel Qatar to change its “behaviour”.
The private exchange is within the tranche of documents leaked by “GlobalLeaks”, an anonymous whistle-blowing group which managed to hack into the emails of the influential UAE ambassador in Washington during the summer of 2016. Al-Otaiba’s emails stretching back over a decade expose the lengths to which the absolute rulers in Abu Dhabi went to protect their own interests and undermine any opposition in the region. Thousands of emails shed light on the secret and at times nefarious dealings of the UAE.
The bombshell documents reveal Abu Dhabi’s ambition to shape the Middle East; its means to achieve this include pulling the strings to orchestrate divisions within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The UAE’s efforts to normalise ties with the Israelis feature prominently, as well as its growing links with pro-Israel, far right think-tanks such as the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD). The correspondence uncovers back-channel communications and exposes the efforts of the Emirates to push back against the popular uprisings across the region, as well as its underhand tactics to fund propaganda and shape US foreign policy covertly against organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Despite the murky revelations, UAE hostility towards the global BDS movement highlighted in the exchange with Ross may come as a surprise. Dennis Ross is believed by many to be one of the main reasons why the US has failed to be an honest broker in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Critics point out that he has used his role as US envoy to do Israel’s bidding on the world stage. His pro-Israel stance is well-known, and the veteran diplomat is on record as saying “we need to advocate for Israel.” Ross is also a committed Zionist. He is reported to have told a synagogue audience about their Zionist duty, insisting that, “Jews should not advocate for Palestinians because we don’t live in Israel, and we won’t suffer the consequences of our criticism.”
The leaked emails suggest that Ross views Al-Otaiba as a like-minded person and, with the UAE ambassador fast developing a reputation for being one of the most powerful foreign officials in Washington, a good ally to have on his side against Israel’s critics.
A conference in Tunisia organised by a Qatari based think-tank, the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, is one example of the sort of event which has provoked the ire of the two men. The 2016 conference discussed “Boycott as a Strategy against Israeli Occupation and Apartheid: Present-day Realities and Aspirations”. It described BDS as “an indispensable method in the struggle against Israeli oppression” and sought “to better understand its importance and the best means by which it can be bolstered.”
The organisers faced sharp criticism from pro-Israel groups, and the Centre was forced to release a statement defending the programme and, indeed, its own independence as an institution: “We believe that social and political scientists should not remain neutral in addressing and studying human rights, democracy, self-determination and racial separation issues.” It insisted that it maintains its academic independence and integrity by not adopting or representing any government’s perspective.
In their email exchange discussing the conference, Ross appears to be telling Al-Otaiba that Qatar had to disassociate itself from the Doha-based think-tank. He considers escalating pressure against the state, pointing out that, “I would start privately during the transition [presumably from Obama to Trump] and make clear if we don’t see unmistakable, public dissociation we will go public and take every specific step.” That’s quite a serious threat to make.
In the same email, Ross tells Al-Otaiba that when he was in the White House he had “pushed” for the US to take steps towards closing down the vitally important military base in Al-Udeid by “transferring a tactical air force out of Qatar”. He implied that the threat to relocate the military base should be used as leverage against the Qatari government, while protesting that “the base does not give them a pass”.
A separate email in the same thread appears to show Ross excited about Hillary Clinton, presumably because he assumes Clinton would not give the Qataris “a pass”. Ross seemed optimistic about Clinton’s victory and points out eagerly that under the new administration Qatar will “no longer get to have it both ways.”
Four days before the UAE and Saudi-led blockade of Qatar began, Ross expressed the same hostility during a Sky Arabia interview. “The Qataris seem to want to have it both ways,” he said, while accusing Doha of supporting extremism and simultaneously keeping close relations with the US.
Speaking about a contradiction in US-Qatar relations he mentions the “duality of Qatar’s behaviour” and insists that under the Trump administration there would be stricter accounting of Doha’s foreign policy. If need be, the military base would be moved if the Qataris threatened the “collective interest”.
In reply, Al-Otaiba says that the message to Qatar needs to be “delivered clearly” before adding that “they [Qatar] will keep getting away with this behaviour… until someone holds them accountable.”
This short exchange between Ross and Al-Otaiba took place just under a year before the siege on Qatar. Since the blockade started on 5 June this year, a veritable tsunami of embarrassing revelations has shed light on many of the UAE’s underhand attempts to undermine anyone and anything that does not fall in line with the Saudi Arabian, UAE, Israeli and Egyptian vision of the Middle East, even at the cost of regional stability.
The treasure trove of emails includes an exchange, also seen by MEMO, between Al-Otaiba and former US diplomat Elliott Abrams, in which they conclude that conquering Qatar would “solve everyone’s problems literally”. The UAE ambassador reveals that “King Abdullah of Saudi came pretty close to doing something in Qatar a few months before he passed” in January 2015.
Abrams, clearly surprised, replied: “I didn’t know that. Dramatic!” He asks, “How hard could it be?” and points out that the local Qatari population is just 250,000 to 300,000 people. “Foreigners won’t interfere,” he adds. “Promise the Indians a raise, promise the police a raise and who is going to fight to the death?” His reference was to Qatar’s large population of South Asian migrant workers.
Al-Otaiba’s response is brief: “That was the conclusion. It would be an easy lift.”
While the blockading countries maintain that regime change was never an option in Qatar, the leaked emails suggest otherwise. They also reveal a web of lies and propaganda fuelled by a powerful anti-Qatari constituency in Washington.
Few would have suspected the UAE of harbouring this level of hostility towards BDS and using Qatar’s support for the Palestinian cause as a reason to endorse punitive measures in order to force Doha to “change its behaviour”. However, given that the UEA is now part of an exclusive club in Washington alongside neo-conservative and pro-Israeli groups, we can expect more revelations of Arab regimes undermining Palestinian rights whenever it suits their interests to do so.