Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Persian Gulf Crisis Over “Rogue Qatar” & Her Al Jazeera

Arab states cut ties to Qatar for backing terror. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and UAE accuse Doha of meddling in internal affairs, supporting Iran-backed terrorism and destabilizing region:

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt all announced they were cutting ties to Qatar and booting the country from an Arab coalition fighting in Yemen early Monday, amid a deepening fissure between Gulf Arab nations. The move came two weeks after US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia, calling on Arab and Muslim leaders to fight extremism and terrorism, and isolate Iran.

The dispute between Qatar and the Gulf’s Arab countries started over a purported hack of Qatar’s state-run news agency, running a false story quoting a top official touting relations with Israel and Iran. The crisis has spiraled since.

Bahrain blamed Qatar’s “media incitement, its support for acts of terror and financing for armed groups associated with Iran to carry out subversive attacks and spread chaos” for its decision. Saudi Arabia followed with an announcement that it too was cutting diplomatic ties to Qatar and it had pulled all Qatari troops from the ongoing war in Yemen.

Saudi news agency SPA said Riyadh cut diplomatic ties and closed borders with its neighbor to “protect its national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism.” Both the UAE and Egypt made announcements on their state-run news agencies within minutes of each other a short time later.

The UAE accused Qatar of “destabilizing security of the region.” Egypt said Doha was supporting “terrorism.” The foreign affairs ministry said in a statement that its ports and airports were closed to Qatari vessels and planes. Qatar had no immediate comment.

The announcements come a day after a report that the Palestinian Hamas terror group, partially funded by Iran, was being forced out of Qatar, with Doha citing “external pressures.” Hamas denied the report but said some officials were leaving the tiny, energy-rich Gulf nation anyway.

Bahrain’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it would withdraw its diplomatic mission from the Qatari capital of Doha within 48 hours and that all Qatari diplomats should leave Bahrain within the same period.

The ministry’s statement said Qatari citizens needed to leave Bahrain within two weeks and that air and sea traffic between the two countries would be halted. It wasn’t immediately clear how that would affect Qatar Airways, one of the region’s major long-haul carriers.

Ties between Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council spiralled down in late May. Qatar said hackers took control of the website of its state-run news agency to publish what it called fake comments from its ruling emir about Iran and Israel, roiling relations with its neighbors. Doha-based satellite news network Al-Jazeera remains blocked in several countries over the row.

Sunni states hit ‘fifth column’ Doha, severing diplomatic and economic ties, put high price tag on its support for the Muslim brotherhood and budding relationship with Iran. Qatar, a tiny nation jutting into the Persian Gulf, woke Monday to find itself less a peninsula and more an island, surrounded by capitals that no longer want anything to do with it.

On Monday morning, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates announced they had cut all ties with Qatar (Kuwait and Oman did not join the announcement). Yemen, the Maldives and one of Libya’s ruling factions followed suit later.

The severance here is all ties, not just diplomatic ones — the cessation of flights from to Doha, the cutting of economic ties, the removal of all Qatari citizens from their territories, and more. The move will have enormous economic consequences for Qatar.

The UAE’s FlyDubai, for example, announced that all of its flights to and from Qatar would be discontinued starting Tuesday morning. And what will happen with Qatar Airways, one of the Gulf’s blue chip airlines and the sponsor of FC Barcelona, now that it can no longer use Saudi airspace? Uncertainty is sky high.

The Qatari foreign ministry issued a statement that, as expected, condemns the decision of the countries. But Doha also attempted to calm nervous investors, who sent the Qatari stock exchange into a free-fall in the wake of the announcement. “Qatar will take all necessary steps to thwart attempts to influence the Qatari society and economy,” it said.

But with the statement unlikely to steady financial jitters, the richest and most enthusiastic supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood is learning that there is an economic price to its policies.

Qatar, which for years tried to act as a Western partner for business, has simultaneously invested tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, in terrorist organizations that attack the West and Israel at every opportunity.

This includes funding news channel Al Jazeera, seen as a Muslim brotherhood mouthpiece against other Gulf States, and financing the Nusra Front terror group in Syria. But it was Doha’s budding relationship with Iran, and new winds blowing from Washington, that apparently made the severing of ties possible.

The warm embrace US President Trump gave Riyadh was all the signal Saudi King Salman needed to know the time had come to settle accounts with the Qatari “fifth column” — a Sunni country that has done quite a bit to attack and undermine its Gulf neighbors, in their account.

Although the Trump government is in no rush to join the Qatari beat-down, the decision of the four countries was likely made with Washington’s full knowledge. Despite Qatar’s deep pockets, Doha has refused to come to the rescue of Gaza to solve the electricity crisis a second time, even though the amount required would be relatively insignificant for the Qatari treasury.

Doha is also taking steps to improve its image by distancing itself from Hamas. It recently expelled a number of heads of the terror group’s military wing including Saleh al-Arouri and Musa Dudin, who are known for their ties to West Bank terror cells. Al-Arouri is believed to have orchestrated the 2014 kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank that precipitated that summer’s Israel-Hamas war.

According to a report, the Qatari’s cited “external pressure,” and one can guess that the demands likely came from both Jerusalem and Washington. But these cosmetic changes proved too little and too late.

Four Arab nations lead diplomatic break with Qatar. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain said they would cut air, sea and land links with Qatar.  

The Arab states of the Persian Gulf are in the grips of an unprecedented regional crisis. In Monday's early hours, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt released coordinated statements, announcing a diplomatic break with the tiny-yet-wealthy peninsular nation of Qatar. They cut air, sea and land links and ordered Qatari officials and nationals stationed in their countries to return home.

Qatar, with just over 300,000 citizens, has played an outsize role on the world stage because of its great wealth of oil and natural gas. Global oil prices wobbled Monday as both sides dug in their heels. Already, as my colleagues reported, panic over a Saudi blockade of Qatar's only land border saw supermarket shelves in Doha cleaned out by spooked residents.

The move is a reflection of long-running frustrations with the Qataris, who the Saudis and Emiratis claim are supporting terrorist groups as well as being far too cordial with Iran, their regional archrival. A complicated and uncertain state of affairs is playing out, with far-reaching stakes — Qatar, after all, is home to a crucial forward base for U.S. Central Command. Here's our attempt at a quick primer on what you need to know.

What's behind the dispute?

For years now, officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been angry over what they perceive to be Qatar's rogue, activist foreign policy. Unlike neighboring Bahrain, for example, which largely toes the Saudi line, Qatar has diverged from other members in the Gulf Cooperation Council, a bloc of six Arab monarchies, and used its vast coffers to project its own influence far and wide.

After the political upheavals of the Arab Spring, for instance, Qatar aligned itself with Islamist political parties such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, believing it right to back movements with genuine popular support.

Much to the ire of its neighbors, Qatar's state-funded news network Al Jazeera also seemed to take up the cause of these groups, often championing democracy and dissent in a region ruled by secular autocrats or unaccountable royals. And Qatar was among the most active backers of Islamist fighters in rebellions in Syria and Libya.

Now, Qatar's critics say it has failed to rein in its support for certain Islamist militant groups — including Hamas and the main al-Qaeda-linked organization in Syria. The Qataris were also accused of backing Yemen's Houthi rebels, a startling claim given that Qatar, until the day before, was part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis, who are loosely backed by Iran.

“The countries of the region can be divided into two camps: one that seeks to advance its foreign interests through support of Islamists, and one whose foreign policy is guided by opposition to the rise of Islamists,” wrote Middle East expert Hassan Hassan. Qatar, in Hassan's scheme, falls into the former camp, while the Saudis and Emiratis are in the latter.

Qatar’s foreign ministry called the measures “unjustified” in a statement and said the decision to sever ties was a violation of the country’s sovereignty, and “based on claims and allegations that have no basis in fact.”

Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the U.A.E. also support various rebel groups and Islamist factions in Middle East conflicts. But the two countries have stood against political Islam in places like Egypt, championing current President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who came to power in a 2014 coup that ousted the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and was followed up by a vicious, bloody crackdown on Islamists.

The embattled Yemeni government, which is almost wholly propped up by Riyadh, the Emirati-backed leadership in eastern Libya and the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives — whose president increasingly seems a Saudi client — all joined the break in relations with Qatar.

The U.A.E., in particular, has bridled at Qatar's continued role in backing Islamists in Libya and elsewhere and appears to have led the charge in pushing for Qatari isolation.

But that doesn't explain why this is happening now.

There are a number of theories for why things have drifted toward such an extreme. Two separate possible hacking incidents have framed the escalating feud. First, a statement was posted on an official Qatari site that attributed comments to the emir that were sympathetic to Iran and Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Even after the Qataris rejected the report and said it was the creation of hackers, Saudi and Emirati outlets continued to spread it as fact. Meanwhile, the leaked emails of the Emirati envoy in Washington seem to show his country's long-running desire to counter Qatari influence.

Some experts believe Mohammed bin Zayed, the influential crown prince of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, has found a willing and eager partner in the youthful Saudi deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who has presided over Saudi Arabia's marked foreign policy assertiveness in recent years and pushed for a regional anti-Iran alliance.

In a fascinating tidbit reported by the Financial Times, Qatari officials apparently paid close to $1 billion in ransom for the release of a Qatari falconry party abducted while hunting in southern Iraq. The bulk of the funds allegedly made their way to Iranian officials and affiliated Shiite militias — payments that were “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for Qatar's critics in the Gulf, according to a source quoted by the British newspaper.

But a leading driver also has to be President Trump, whose friendly visit to Riyadh last month and embrace of the Saudi agenda in the Middle East seems to have emboldened officials there.

The Saudis and Emiratis, said Andrew Bowen, a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, “saw this as a key moment after Trump's visit to bring Qatar to heel.” According to a leading Emirati journalist, officials in Abu Dhabi want to extract huge concessions from Doha, including the shuttering of Qatari media outlets abroad and the abandoning of Qatar's independent, maverick foreign policy.

What's at stake?

It's hard to gauge what happens next. Two GCC countries caught in the middle of the spat — Oman and Kuwait — may try to exert what limited clout they have to push for a compromise. The United States could do so as well, though the Trump administration made little meaningful comment about the impasse on Monday. It may have to, though, given that the sprawling al-Udeid air base on Qatari soil is a pivotal staging ground for U.S. counterterror operations.

Beyond U.S. support, Qatar has significant fiscal reserves, retains the political support of the Turkish government and is a key energy partner for countries like Russia and China. The Saudis and Emiratis may realize that isolating Qatar is no easy feat.

“They think they can strangle Qatar and get it to capitulate,” said Theodore Karasik, a senior analyst at Gulf State Analytics, to BuzzFeed News. “This could backfire on them completely. The number one problem is that it will force Qatar to seek new security partnerships with Turkey. Doha can also turn to Iran.”

“I do worry that they’re going to misjudge each other’s positions, which could lead to this conflict taking a little bit longer to play out,” Bowen told Today's WorldView.
The spat also dramatizes the complexity of the divisions in the Middle East, which commentators in the United States often try to reduce to a simple binary between a Sunni Arab-bloc led by Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.

“The tension between Qatar and its neighbors shows that the old geopolitical lines can no longer explain the Middle East,” wrote Hassan.

It remains to be seen how Trump, who exulted in his grand, lavish reception in Riyadh, will reckon with this challenge. After all, the White House insisted the president had “united the entire Muslim world in a way that it really hasn’t been in many years,” as one Trump aide put it last month. This week's events show how laughably false that assertion was.