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9 June 2017

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.

By John Jenkins

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.

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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. 

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special