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Barak Barfi

Qatar: A convenient scapegoat in a broken system

The Saudi-led bloc has closed its airspace to flights from Doha [AFP]

Date of publication: 15 June, 2017

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Comment: Qatar's policies, many of which were until recently mainstream in the Gulf, have led it to be hounded simply for not toeing the regional line, writes Barak Barfi.
The Arab coalition isolating Qatar is just the latest iteration of a cyclical spat that periodically afflicts the Arab world. 

The current tiff however is more rancorous, owing to the dire straits in which the region finds itself. A rudderless Arab polity whose leaders are unable to enforce their will, are increasingly frustrated with dissenters to their policies.

But many of the countries aligned against Qatar are guilty of the very same crimes for which it stands in the docket.
 
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to which Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia belong has never been a happy family.  Its members have often staked an independent line. 

Oman always bucks consensus. Yet its warm relations with Iran have never drawn harsh Saudi rebukes. And it was the first Gulf country to publicly welcome an Israeli prime minister in 1994. In the 1970-80s, Kuwait was the GCC's black sheep, embracing the Soviets and supporting various Palestinian factions. But after Iraq invaded the tiny principality, it fell into line and fully accepted American patronage and Saudi tutelage. 
 
Next to adopt an independent streak was the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which as early as 1994 clamored for reintegrating Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein back into the Arab fold even as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia feared his machinations. 
Today, the Muslim Brotherhood plays a key role in parliamentary politics in countries such as Bahrain and Kuwait
Qatar has only continued the trend. But its activist foreign policy sometimes takes on an interventionist hue which contradicts Emirati and Saudi objectives. Moreover, Arab politics are not what they once were. The centre of gravity has definitively shifted from radical states such as Iraq, Libya and Syria to the more conservative Persian Gulf. 

This has transformed Saudi Arabia from a regional player into its linchpin. The kingdom has vacillated between uneasiness with its new-found power and overcompensation. 

Its intervention in neighbouring Yemen has become a quagmire. Its support for rebels in Syria has not turned the tide in the civil war there. And there is little Riyadh can do to push back against an Iran encroaching everywhere. 
  Read more: Qatar and the risky politics of bullying
For this reason, the Saudis wish to unify their GCC tent before they embark on patching up the rest of the Arab world and protecting orthodox Sunnism from an Iran spreading its heterodox Shia tentacles in every country, territory and fiefdom. 

Qatar's main sin is that it has the misfortune of being the GCC outcast at the very moment the Arab system has definitively broken down, necessitating a scapegoat.
 
Indeed, many of Qatar's current policies were just recently de rigueur in the Gulf. For decades, the same Gulf countries bashing Qatar for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood opened their borders to its members. 
For decades, the same Gulf countries bashing Qatar for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood opened their borders to its members
These nations viewed the organisation as a counterweight to the secular pan-Arabism threatening to topple them.  They also needed its cadres to fill their understaffed ministries, especially the education department.

The Egyptian Brotherhood Guides Muhammad Mahdi Aqif and Mustafa Mashhur lived in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait respectively. One teacher of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was a Syrian member. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood plays a key role in parliamentary politics in countries such as Bahrain and Kuwait.
 
Another point of contention has been the ransom Qatar allegedly paid Iranian backed Shia militias in Iraq to secure the release of royal family members. But GCC countries have traditionally made similar payoffs. 
 
After a 1985 Central Intelligence Agency plot funded by the Saudis to kill Shia cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Fadlallah failed in Lebanon, Saudi pursers sprung into action. They provided the ayatollah $2 million worth of food, medicine and education expenses.

Undoubtedly this benefitted people who eventually joined Hizballah, the Saudis' chief nemesis in the country. "It was easier to bribe him than kill him," former Saudi Ambassador to the United States Bandar bin Sultan said.
 
In rebuking Qatar, President Donald Trump said last week, "Stop teaching people to kill other people. Stop filling their minds with hate and intolerance." Unfortunately, this is a problem that has infected the entire region rather than just one small country.

The late Saudi Grand Mufti Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz issued a legal ruling prohibiting travel to Europe, terming it a "great risk" that could corrupt Muslims. In other legal rulings, senior Saudi clerics prohibited Muslims from living with "infidel American families" to learn English.

Intolerance pervades an insular region in which the stress lies on antipathy to the other.
In an Arab world desperately trying to stich itself back together, independence is frowned upon
Qatar has instead sought to carve out a niche that bridges Islam to the West. It has opened its borders to American universities and think tanks. It hosts an American military base that is prosecuting the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It has reached out to disaffected Arab youth. 

Yet in doing so, it sometimes tilted too far toward the deplorables in the Islamic world. Relations with al-Qaeda affiliates and the Taliban were bound to draw the ire of an Arab world whose leaders are supposedly shifting away from mixing religion with politics.
 
Qatar's biggest mistake however was its belief that it could punch with the heavyweights without any repercussions. Its successful role in toppling the Libyan regime, its influence with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and its support for rebel factions in Syria appears to have kindled a hubris that blinded its leaders to their limitations. 

When Qatar was a small country arbitrating disputes, it was seen as a mere nuisance. But when it vied for leadership of the Arab world, it threated the regional order. When Qatar's allies collapsed, it could not rescue them, only able to offer them sanctuary and a pulpit on al-Jazeera.
 
In an Arab world desperately trying to stich itself back together, independence is frowned upon. It is not Doha's policies which are anathema, but rather its belief that it has a right march to its own tune. As long as it does, the coalition aligned against it is unlikely to relent.



Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation, where he specializes in Arab and Islamic Affairs.


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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