THE extraordinary excoriation of Qatar in the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s May dance in Riyadh was almost certainly premeditated. Before his foray into a region about which he knows next to nothing, the US president was briefed by princes from Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Hence he knew what to harp on in his one-on-one chat with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Having been informed that Qatar was the chief culprit in the context of Gulf funding for terrorism, he reiterated the point several times even as he rejoiced at the prospect of selling Qatar ‘beautiful’ American weaponry. Perhaps no one told him that his hosts and the UAE fell in very much the same category. And there is some doubt as to whether he was aware that Qatar hosts the region’s largest US military base.
Shortly afterwards, Qatari news websites quoted Sheikh Tamim as declaring the Saudi-led hostility towards Iran to be unwarranted, and wondering how long the Trump presidency would last. The concerns are valid in both cases, but Doha immediately claimed the websites had been hacked — and a subsequent investigation, with FBI assistance, purportedly shows that Russian hackers might have been responsible, quite possibly as freelancers hired by a foreign power.
The fact that it challenges Saudi hegemony may be seen as a positive.
By then Saudi Arabia and the UAE — alongside Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen (whose supposed government lacks legitimacy and any meaningful authority) and one of the factions claiming to rule Libya — had already broken off diplomatic ties with Qatar.
Qatar has been in the naughty corner before, just three years ago. But it’s much more serious this time around, effectively the equivalent of not just being ostracised or imprisoned, but also being subjected to the pain and humiliation of a hundred lashes.
Not only diplomats but all Qatari citizens have received their expulsion orders. The sealing of borders has had the consequence of depriving Qatar of 40 per cent of its food supplies. If the militant Islamic State group and its associates can be accused of violating the sanctity of the holy month of Ramazan through terrorist attacks, doesn’t Saudi-UAE belligerence towards Qatar deserve comparable condemnation?
After all, families have been divided, and risks of food scarcity enhanced in a nation that doesn’t grow much, but has the resources to purchase what it requires — and plenty to spare for developing its regional clout.
The fact that it challenges Saudi hegemony in the process ought to be something of a positive in the eyes of the rest of the world. It cannot match Saudi Arabia, or even the UAE, for that matter, as a consumer in the US-led arms trade.
It is nonetheless interesting that whereas Trump has closely aligned himself with the Saudi stance, the less stupid members of his administration, including Rex Tillerson, the ex-Exxon secretary of state, are considerably more balanced in their pronouncements.
Qatar has reputedly been among the sponsors of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Syrian outfit formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, and Qatari individuals — albeit not necessarily the ones sanctioned by the Saudis — are suspected of helping to finance Al Qaeda and IS. But that suspicion extends pretty much across the Gulf states. Going by their own statements, what concerns the Saudis a great deal more is Qatar’s attitude towards Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hezbollah and Hamas pose no direct threat to the Saudis. They are both the consequence of Israeli policies, in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories, and therefore perceived as foes by Israel. Could it be purely a coincidence that Saudi Arabia shares this attitude, as well as Israel’s implacable hostility towards Iran? And — surprise, surprise — another key demand is that Qatar must rein in, if not abolish, Al Jazeera, the television network that has regularly caused kerfuffles in the Middle East, and has been a particular bête noire for Egypt’s dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The Muslim Brotherhood, in all its incarnations, is not to be commended on any number of counts, yet Saudi disenchantment with this alternative to hereditarily reinforced Salafism most likely stems from its association with democracy. The very idea of a popular say in governance is anathema to the Gulf autocracies — including Qatar. Yet Qatar is at least able to weigh alternatives, albeit outside its own terrain. Much to Saudi dismay, it backed the Arab Spring uprisings. The fact that none of them has come to fruition owes at least something to the ready supply of Saudi petrodollars for authoritarian alternatives.
The Saudis have also succeeded in exposing the facade of ‘Sunni unity’ set up for Trump’s benefit as a farce. Turkey, alongside Iran, has offered to meet Qatar’s food needs, and neither Kuwait nor Oman is complicit in punishing the recalcitrant. Qatar has much to answer for, but hypocritical Saudi Arabia is hardly fit for the role of inquisitor-in-chief.
Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2017