Ahmadinejad in Cairo

Morsi opposes Assad regime, while lining his pockets.

Last August, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran that the Syrian regime had “lost legitimacy.” "We must announce our full support for those who demand freedom and justice in Syria,” he said. His speech was so inflammatory that his Iranian hosts stormed out of the room.

It could therefore be assumed that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo this week will be extremely uncomfortable. Syria is high on the agenda and it seems Bashar Al Assad’s closest ally could be at loggerheads with Cairo. Egypt is, after all, a product of a revolution similar to Syria’s. Its government enjoys support from Sunni Gulf states, who are actively working to bring down Assad and weaken his support from Shi’a Iran. The recent $10m Egypt received from Qatar indicate Morsi’s government can not afford to have its loyalty questioned on this issue.

Yet there is more that concerns Morsi than revolution, and Qatar is not the only state that has been offering loans recently. In the same month that Morsi spoke at the NAM summit, he turned down a US request to inspect the cargo of Iranian ship. It was travelling to Syria through the Suez Canal and suspected to be carrying arms. In fact, while Morsi publicly calls for Assad to step down this week, he will be helping Syria circumvent EU and US sanctions. Funding for the Syrian regime comes from crude oil exported to Asian markets via Iran. It gets there by travelling through Egypt's Suez Canal.

Ismael Darwish of the Syrian Economic Task Force (SETF), which acts on behalf of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, says that before the Syrian uprising in March 2011, oil accounted for nearly half of all Syrian exports in value and around 25% of all Syrian government revenues. Now, daily production of Syrian crude oil is estimated by the regime to be around 140,000 barrels per day; all under government control, according to Darwish. In March last year, Reuters reported Syrian oil exports to China via Iran, gave Bashar Al Assad’s regime a “financial boost worth an estimated $80m.”

Iran tries to conceal the movement of its ships by disrupting ship tracking systems and sailing under various names and flags. They are trackable only by their unique IMO number. The Iranian ship, the TOUR 2, has flown under the flags of  Malta, Bolivia, Sierra Leone and Togo. Previously registered under three shell company owners in three different countries, the ships  beneficial owner is the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). It has made at least three circuits between Iran and Syria via Egypt, calling at Syrian ports last March and July. Most recently, the TOUR 2 departed from Iran to load crude oil in December 2012 and sailed through the Canal northwards on 30 December.

Another Iranian ship, the BAIKAL, which was until recently travelling under the Tanzanian flag, also departed from Syria in December 2012 and sailed through the canal on 30 December.

Egypt claims that it is under no obligation to stop Syrian oil tankers, but turns a blind eye to international commitments that may require it to do so. November 2011 Arab League sanctions, for example, require it to halt “ financial dealings and trade agreements with the Syrian government.” The Irano Hind Shipping Company, which owns the TOUR 2 has been sanctioned by the UN. Member states are required to freeze Irano Hind’s assets. Egypt still lets the TOUR 2 pass.

Despite Morsi’s grandstanding on foreign affairs, domestically, his country’s situation limits him.  Egypt’s foreign reserves have dwindled by more than half since January 2011, reaching $13.65bn. The state struggles to import food and petroleum products. Recent protests in Egypt can not be disassociated from anger people feel that their lives are worse under the Muslim Brotherhood. The Suez Canal is one of the greatest sources of revenue for Egypt. A loss of profit from the canal would be a great blow.

With a crippled economy and divided state, the Egyptian president’s hand in these Syria negotiations is weaker than he would have us believe. As well as offering to “dialogue” on Syria this week, Iran’s premier offered Egypt “a big credit line.” Meanwhile, the situation of Syrians, deemed essential earlier this year, has fallen by the wayside.
 

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes the victory sign ahead of a meeting in Cairo on 5 February 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.