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Why have the other Gulf states severed ties with Qatar?

For those of us who have watched the region for decades, this crisis did not come out of nowhere.

It was 50 years ago this week – the June 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours, that is. Among the proximate causes of this conflict, which has in many ways defined the subsequent history of the Middle East, was the expulsion by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of UN observers from the Sinai and the closing of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.

On 5 June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt announced they were cutting diplomatic relations with the small Gulf state of Qatar; closing their land, air and sea borders, giving Qatari nationals within their borders two weeks to leave and, in the case of the first four countries, instructing their nationals to leave Qatar.

Yemen, the Maldives and the Tobruk government in Libya have subsequently joined in. In addition, 200 members of the Al ash-Sheikh, the Saudi descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, after whom Wahhabism is named, recently accused Qatar, which claims to be orthodoxly Salafi, of not following his true teachings.

Qatar is not an enemy entity as Israel was for the Arabs in 1967. It was a founder member of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) in 1981 and has sought in the past 20 years to establish a position as a mediator in intra-Arab and intra-Islamic disputes. In per capita terms – dependent
on energy prices – it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

For those of us who have watched the region for decades, this crisis did not come out of nowhere. Qatar’s relations with its neighbours in an increasingly polarised region have been uneasy for a long time. In 1971 the plan was that both Qatar and Bahrain would join the neighbouring sheikhdoms to the south-east in a federation of the lower Gulf. Each decided they would be better off as small but independent entities. Qatar grew rich but stayed sleepy until 1995, when the father of the current ruler deposed his own father, who was out of the country at the time, in a bloodless coup, to the dismay of Saudi Arabia.

That was the beginning of a period of rapid physical and political development in Doha, with Sheikh Hamad using his massive revenues to turn a place that had remained much as it had been in the 1950s into a packed metropolis of towers, gleaming glass, grandiose offices and hotels, reclaimed land and modern museums. He decided that Qatar should make its mark internationally, not necessarily in alignment with the GCC. Qatar mediated between Hamas and Fatah, between various factions of the Afghan Taliban, over Yemen and with Iran. It reportedly financed ransoms for hostages held by any number of violent Islamist groups.

The Saudis believed that Qatar was somehow involved in a half-baked plot by Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi to assassinate then Crown Prince Abdullah in 2003. The Bahrainis and the Saudis believed – and still do – that Qatar has sought to manipulate the tribal loyalties of some of their nationals. The UAE was outraged by public attacks on the legitimacy of its rulers carried by Al Jazeera and other Qatari-funded news outlets. When the revolution in Libya kicked off in February 2011, Qatar was one of the very first states to establish a presence on the ground and gave support to elements of the opposition. It did the same in Syria.

The trouble was that much of this cut across what its partners in the GCC, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, wanted. And there was very little in the way of traditional Arab consultation. More recently there was an extraordinary episode in Iraq, where Qatar, in direct negotiations with Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran and al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, reportedly secured the release of a party of senior Qataris, including members of the ruling family, who had been kidnapped by an Iran-backed Shia militia while on an ill-advised hunting trip near Basra in December 2015.

That is presumably in part behind the allegations by Manama that Qatar supports armed and violent Shia dissident groups in Bahrain. Yet behind all this lies a wider fear in those states that see organised Islamist movements – Sunni or Shia, violent or not – as a major threat not just to their own stability but to the stability, security and prosperity of the region as a whole; and solidarity as the foundation of any response. That includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.

You might want to argue about the precise nature of this threat. But it’s very hard to claim that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Lebanese Hezbollah, Jabhat al-Nusra, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Hamas – to name a few with which Qatar is alleged to have maintained material links – are harmless. And when your neighbours view the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole as the original source of much of the ideational risk to their political and social dispensations, to make so much of your support for them looks like a mistake.

This was all supposed to have been sorted out in 2014 when the current emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim, came to power after his father stood down. Saudi Arabia and the UAE had threatened to take similar action against Qatar then. Tamim came to Riyadh for a reconciliation meeting with the late King Abdullah and GCC colleagues. He reportedly agreed to dial down Qatar’s pursuit of exceptionalism, only asking for time to fix what had been built over a decade.

It looks now as if time has run out. During President Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh, there were reports of heated private disagreements between Qatar and some of the other countries present, including the hosts. A week or so ago there were reports in the regional press, denied by Qatar, that the emir had criticised the intense focus on Iran.

Whatever the truth, this and Qatar’s continued dealings with those whom other GCC states regard as their sworn enemies at a time when the Saudis and the UAE are seeking a realignment of anti-Iranian forces in the region and a more structural alliance with Egypt – in spite of all its difficulties still the linchpin of any Arab security order – seems to have persuaded Riyadh, Cairo, Manama and Abu Dhabi that enough really is enough. 

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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Bold frogs, helpful dogs and teen spies: the best children's books for the summer

From toddlers to discerning teenagers, there’s something out there for everyone.

Like soft fruit, summer books can be rich and juicy – or dull and disappointing. Why pick from the glut of American teen romances, stories about running away to join the circus, or books by the ubiquitous David Walliams when you could enjoy something with more flavour?

For toddlers, Once Upon a Jungle (Words & Pictures, £12.99), with its vivid animals moving through brilliantly coloured flowers, is stunning; its dreamlike shapes for children aged two and above are inspired by Rousseau. Nikki Dyson’s Flip Flap Dogs (Nosy Crow, £8.99) is beautifully original, taking the idea of mix and match to describe crosses in dog breeding and temperament that would appal Crufts. Lively fun for dog lovers of three-plus.

The Giant Jumperee (Ladybird, £12.99) brings together two titans of children’s books, Julia Donaldson and Helen Oxenbury, in a tale of animals being tricked by their own fears – and by a bold little frog. It’s perfect comedy for reading aloud to children of three-plus, and an instant classic. The sublime Emily Gravett is less gentle despite her exquisitely imaginative illustrations, and any child that’s ever had a hint of bullying will appreciate Old Hat (Two Hoots, £11.99). Harbert has a hat that other creatures deride as “old hat”, and his increasingly desperate attempts to fit in go wrong until, in a wonderful twist, he shows his inborn originality. Neon Leon by Jane Clarke and Britta Teckentrup (Nosy Crow, £11.99) concerns a chameleon who just wants to fit in, changing into a variety of colours before meeting his match. It’s joyously written and illustrated, for readers aged four and older.

Those too young for Pirates of the Caribbean will still enjoy Sunk! (HarperCollins, £12.99) by Rob Biddulph. With rhyming couplets and a rollicking story, its graphic elegance will inspire the over-fives. The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer (Words & Pictures, £14.99) takes readers on a journey to the centre of the earth, layer by layer; it’s imaginatively conceived for budding geologists aged six and up. In the same age group, the late Michael Bond’s hero returns (before the second film) in Paddington’s Finest Hour (HarperCollins, £12.99). Our most endearing fictional immigrant resists a stage hypnotist, redesigns a neighbour’s chairs, and has a run-in with the police.

In Meg Rosoff’s Good Dog McTavish (Barrington Stoke, £6.99), a rescue dog saves the chaotic Peachey family from late dinners, grime and lost keys. Common sense has rarely been so charmingly conveyed to readers of seven up. An enchanting debut is Lorraine Gregory’s Mold and the Poison Plot (OUP, £6.99). Dumped in a dustbin as a baby, big-nosed, big-hearted Mold must save his adoptive mother from execution when she’s accused of poisoning the king. To succeed he’ll need the help of an unlikely friend and a working knowledge of the palace drains. I love this book, as will any sharp-witted reader aged eight or up – it reeks with talent, great jokes and characters.

Tanya Landman’s protagonist Cassia in Beyond the Wall (Walker, £7.99) is a British slave girl raised for her master’s lusts; when she maims him instead, she goes on the run with a bounty on her head and a slick Roman spy by her side. Interweaving elements of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, the Carnegie-winning Landman has created her best heroine yet in a historical thriller that never releases its ferocious grip. Elizabeth Wein’s heroine also travels to Scotland, for a last summer in her family’s ancestral home. A prequel to the award-winning Code Name Verity, The Pearl Thief (Bloomsbury, £7.99), set in the 1930s, is a vivid mystery from page one, when posh, fearless Julie is encouraged by her grandfather to shoot a poacher.

Reluctant teen spy Alex Rider makes a welcome return in Never Say Die (Walker, £12.99). In mourning for his housekeeper and mother-substitute Jack, Alex gets a hint she might have survived Scorpia’s vengeance. A heart-in-mouth pursuit of the rich and nasty begins. Anthony Horowitz is overdue for a gong as a writer who, like J K Rowling, has kept the nine-plus crowd reading long after lights out.

Acclaimed for her witty, topical teenage tales, Sophia Bennett has gone back to Victorian times in Following Ophelia (Stripes, £7.99). By day a scullery maid, Mary becomes after hours Persephone, the stunning red-headed muse of a handsome Pre-Raphaelite painter who takes London by storm. How long can she maintain this double life? Virtue battles vice, and sense succumbs to sensibility in a luscious story that readers aged 12 and over will devour. Keren David’s hero River is another deceiver, and The Liar’s Handbook (Barrington Stoke, £6.99) is both funny and suspenseful for 11-plus. His inventive excuses for flunking school are rooted in unhappiness about his absent father – but the truth, based on a true story, is stranger than you might guess.

My favourite young-adult novel for those aged 12-plus is by Sebastien de Castell (author of the superb Greatcoats fantasies). In Spellslinger (Hot Key, £12.99), Kellen’s dilemma is that he seems to have no magic in a world where teenage mages are required to duel. Brave, funny and vulnerable, he discovers that his true problems lie closer to home. With a talking squirrel and a fabulously hard-bitten trickster on his side, his steps into both magic and manhood are told with the conviction of Ursula Le Guin and the dash of Alexandre Dumas. It’s a peach of a summer read.

Amanda Craig’s new novel “The Lie of the Land” is published by Little, Brown

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder