Qatar cannot be allowed to sabotage the region
Nowhere is the Trump effect being felt more strongly than in the Middle East. Following the recent Riyadh summit meetings, the Trump administration’s determination to create a powerful international coalition to combat terrorism and extremism, and roll back Iran’s regional hegemony, is already having serious political and strategic consequences.
One of the most important manifestations of this is the renewed campaign to get Qatar to finally cooperate with its Arab and American allies rather than continuing its dangerous ideological and diplomatic double-dealing.
The current controversy between Qatar and several of its key Gulf Cooperation Council allies has its proximate cause in remarks attributed to the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim. According to reports carried on Qatari websites, he spoke respectfully of Iran, criticised US and GCC policies towards Tehran and suggested its regional ambitions should be accommodated, not opposed. He also reportedly boasted about Qatar’s good relations with Israel while praising Hamas and Hizbollah.
Qatar claims that he never said such things, and that its state-of-the-art cyber networks were “hacked” in a “fake news” frame-up. Not only does this seem technically far-fetched, the remarks precisely reflect Qatar’s practical foreign policies, leaving little reason to doubt their authenticity.
Additionally, in a telephone conversation with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, Sheikh Tamim appeared to welcome Iran’s call for dialogue without mentioning the fundamental conditions laid out by the GCC in a January letter to Iran delivered by the Kuwaiti foreign minister: Tehran’s non-interference in other countries’ affairs, not trying to export the Iranian revolution and not claiming to represent Shia communities in GCC countries.
The broader context is long-standing Qatari efforts to have it both ways on multiple key issues at the expense of its partners. After years of Qatar supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups around the region, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain finally lost patience with Doha in March 2014, withdrawing their ambassadors. They only relented after Qatar agreed to scale back support for Islamist extremists, including the Brotherhood, and respect the sovereignty of its partners.
In recent years, Qatar has somewhat stepped back from exclusive support of Islamist groups and added a rather anachronistic left-wing Arab nationalist component to its formidable international soft power and propaganda arsenal. That’s a change, but it’s hardly an improvement.
Meanwhile, Doha’s support for violent extremist organisations such as Hamas, and fomenters of extremism such as Brotherhood preacher and Al Jazeera superstar Yusuf Qaradawi, was never really attenuated.
Moreover, while much of the rest of the Arab world is dismayed at recent changes in Turkish foreign policy, Qatar’s alignment, including a growing military alliance, with the Islamist regime in Ankara has intensified.
Worst of all, Qatar has consistently maintained a public position critical of Iran while quietly and practically pursuing a policy of appeasement. After all, Doha shares with Tehran the source of most of its revenues, the massive South Pars/North Dome natural gasfield.
Now, however, the walls are closing in on this unsustainable and indefensible duplicity.
As the Trump administration’s priorities of targeting both terrorism and Iranian hegemony became clear, the tolerance for these shenanigans started to dry up quickly.
In Washington, a major campaign, led by conservative and, especially, pro-Israel groups, to pressure Qatar over its ongoing support for radical Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, has been gaining steam for several months.
Sheikh Tamim’s impolitic frankness about his country’s actual, rather than usually stated, policies has prompted inevitable anger among Qatar’s GCC partners, who, like Washington, are growing weary of Doha’s deceit. Qatar probably feels hard done by, because it has indeed distanced itself somewhat from the Brotherhood of late, supported anti-Iranian rebel forces in Syria, and promised to stop interfering in its neighbours’ internal affairs. Doha undoubtedly believes those reflect some big concessions and is sure it has improved. But it’s an understatement to say that it is nothing close to good enough.
Obviously there must eventually be Arab dialogue with Iran. The questions are: on whose terms and under what conditions? Qatar is in no position to define those, particularly when its financial health is dependent on maintaining a degree of cooperation with Tehran.
Plainly Qatar’s American and Gulf partners have had enough. Doha may indeed have a national interest in not provoking Iran too much. But with a mere 300,000 citizens and just 11,000 military personnel, it needs its partners’ good will – including the 10,000 American troops in Qatar – much more. Qatar has to start respecting, rather than undermining, its allies’ vital interests.
Nobody expects Doha to lead the campaign, which appears to be rapidly taking shape as a practical programme, to deal a crushing blow to violent Islamist extremist organisations and roll back Iran’s encroachments into the Arab world in Syria and beyond. But its key partners are now insisting that Qatar at least stop sabotaging these efforts.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
On Twitter: @ibishblog