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Qatar and the risky politics of bullying Open in fullscreen

Bill Law

Qatar and the risky politics of bullying

Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Al-Thani meets with his Russian counterpart [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 June, 2017

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Comment: Blockading food shipments, withdrawing air space, whipping up anti-Qatar fever in state controlled media. It's time Saudi Arabia and its allies acted responsibly and diplomatically, writes Bill Law.

"Aghast, worried but defiant" is how a colleague who had just returned from Doha described to me the mood of a country suddenly under siege from erstwhile friends and neighbours.

With Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain applying land, sea and air blockades, coupled with a diplomatic rupture and the demand that Qatari nationals leave their countries within two weeks, the apprehension for what comes next is palpable.

But what does come next? Is a coup in the offing? It is not an entirely farfetched idea. After all the current emir's father overthrew his own father, much to the dismay and anger of the Saudis. 

There was even a Saudi backed countercoup attempt in 1996 to restore the old emir. It failed, and Qatar went on to develop its huge natural gas resources and in the process make itself the richest per capita country on the globe.

With the cash came influence, and tiny Qatar began to punch above its weight much to the annoyance of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

With the cash came influence, and tiny Qatar began to punch above its weight much to the annoyance of Saudi Arabia and the UAE

The Saudis and the Emiratis deny that they want regime change. The denial in itself, though, is more than a little ominous even as they say that what they want is attitude change. But let's be clear here - they are demanding big attitude change and doing so in a very public way.

The message to the Qataris is this: Fall into line and stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Expel the spiritual leader of the Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi. Curb the editorial independence of Al-Jazeera and other news websites funded by Qataris such as Middle East Eye and this one, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (disclosure of interest, I write for both these sites, and contribute to Al Jazeera Arabic TV.)

And oh yes, join us in denouncing Iran as the sole agent and the ultimate source of unrest in the region.

Read more: No reason to be concerned about Qatar's currency, says finance minister

Let us put aside for the moment the deep business relationships that the UAE has with Iran. Forget the fact that via the Dolphin pipeline, the UAE is happy to continue purchasing Qatari gas.

Ignore the truth that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are as complicit, if not more complicit, in  supporting various factions that are easily classified as "terrorist", the former in Syria and the latter in Libya. And let us assume that the young Qatari emir says what it is claimed he said - though as this crisis unfolds it becomes increasingly clear that nothing of the sort actually happened. Tamim did not praise Hamas and Iran. He did not have kind things to say about the Israelis. But let us say that he did.

There is no way that the Saudis and the Emiratis should be behaving in the way that they have

Does it in any way justify the extraordinary response from the GCC three? (I say three, because Oman is wisely keeping its head down while quietly searching for a way out for all involved. And the Kuwaiti emir Sabah al Sabah, whose country has also been fingered as a supporter of terrorism, is shuttling back and forth trying to play the role of public mediator.)

The answer to my question is a resolute no.

There is no way that the Saudis and the Emiratis should be behaving in the way that they have. In calmer, cooler days not that long ago solutions were found, usually behind closed doors and peace and quiet were restored.

But driven on by two ambitious princes, Abu Dhabi's Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyen (MBZ) and the Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman otherwise known as MBS, the row has continued to escalate.

The Muslim Brotherhood have survived many a purge and no doubt will continue to do so

A fellow journalist from the Middle East said to me "It is just like school boys fighting in the playground." And she is right.

Certainly, Qatar has a case to answer in the choices it has made post-Arab Spring. But equally, so do the Bahrainis, the Emiratis, the Saudis and the Kuwaitis. And to drag the GCC and the region into yet more conflict is foolish and misguided in the extreme.

Clearly MBS who launched the coalition war in Yemen, a war that drags on with appalling consequences for the Yemeni people, has not learned from this disastrous campaign fuelling rumours about his temper.

These are not the actions of responsible leaders

MBZ, the older and more experienced of the two continues to display his near paranoid anxieties about the Muslim Brotherhood. Not satisfied with torturing and imprisoning members of the Brotherhood-inspired Al-Islah in his own country, he now sees in attacking Qatar the opportunity to deal them a lethal blow.

However if history tells us anything, it is that the Muslim Brotherhood have survived many a purge and no doubt will continue to do so with or without support from the Qataris.

When the biggest bully on the block, one Donald Trump, blew into town and gave the Saudis and the Emiratis the green light to get on with whatever they wanted, that too was the height of folly and ignorance - but then we have come to expect no less from the president of the United States.

Blockading food shipments, withdrawing air space, whipping up anti-Qatar fever in state controlled media, kicking out families and separating parents from their children during Ramadan - these are not the actions of responsible leaders.

For Bannon, the more chaos the better

A permanent rift between Qatar and the other GCC states enables Iran. It allows Turkey the opportunity to meddle. It further heightens tensions in the world's most volatile region. It plays into the hands of those who want to break apart political entities and drive wedges between communities and countries.

I have said from the beginning of the crisis that the hand of Trump's chief advisor Steve Bannon is very much at play.

For Bannon, the more chaos the better. He knows little and cares less about the Gulf and the wider Arab world. He is obsessed with linking Islam to terrorism. It is shocking really to see how easily, how readily MBZ and MBS have allowed themselves to be manoeuvred into a strategy that only further divides the Arab world.

It may be that this is but a storm in a teacup or perhaps better put a tornado in a teapot and it will blow itself out soon. But the potential for lasting ill-will is great. The economic damage already caused at a time of low oil prices will continue to hurt all the GCC economies, not just Qatar's.

The insults - real and imagined - will not heal quickly. The trust deficit will grow. The longer this crisis continues, the more profound the hurt to all concerned.

Bill Law is a former BBC Gulf analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @Billlaw49

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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