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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Blood runs deep: the Arabian Gulf's long prelude to the Qatar crisis

The Qatar crisis was a surprise for some, but for fellow GCC members the decline has been more gradual

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim Al Thani, have been on opposite ends of the diplomatic spat that broke out last year. Fayez Nureldine / AFP
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim Al Thani, have been on opposite ends of the diplomatic spat that broke out last year. Fayez Nureldine / AFP

When Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut relations with Qatar last year, it was not the first time that their fellow GCC member had spurned regional unity.

Between 1991 and 1996, Doha claimed that it should have land that was controlled by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Fears of an all-out war between the nations intensified in 1992, when a tribal clash along the Saudi border with Qatar led to several deaths.

The establishment of Al Jazeera – which the four Arab countries have demanded be closed because it has been used as a platform for extremist ideologies – was a further snubbing of the nose to Doha’s neighbours.

The network broadcast the message of AlQaeda and other militant groups. It also often criticised Qatar’s neighbours and was seen to glorify dissident groups.

Doha’s claim to the other countries’ territory was quietly resolved through closed-door arbitration after the international community urged restraint. It was, after all, less than a year after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and taste for regional strife was low.

But Al Jazeera continued to be a sore point, and one that Qatar would not salve.

In 2002, Saudi Arabia pulled its ambassador from Qatar after the network ran interviews that were highly critical of the kingdom’s ruling family. Relations remained turbulent throughout the decade, with several Gulf countries suspending or closing Al Jazeera.

Tensions flared again in 2006, when a pipeline deal between Qatar and Kuwait was blocked by Saudi Arabia. The pipeline was never approved, but in the interests of regional security, Saudi Arabia later agreed to a settlement of Qatar’s territorial claims in the early 1990s.

But one of the major sticking points between Doha and its neighbours has been its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed as a terrorist organisation by countries, including the Arab Quartet.

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In 2011, Riyadh and Doha found themselves on opposing sides of the Arab uprisings, entrenching themselves in affiliations that remain until today.

Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood was undermining stability in the region, the Quartet said, and Al Jazeera served as the organisation’s platform for dissent.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, claiming that Doha was not adhering to a GCC agreement on preserving security in the region.

Saudi Arabia also closed the local office of the Qatari-owned news network.

By supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Doha was stoking the possibility for a coup in neighbouring countries, spurred by Yousef Al Qaradawi, the leader of the organisation, who was based in Qatar.

Relations were restored between the countries in November 16, 2014, in what is known as the Riyadh Agreement. The accord, which was signed by the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, committed the countries to non-interference in the internal affairs of others.

It was the last chance the quartet given to Doha before cutting relations and isolating it in the boycott last year.

The four will not return to the negotiating table with Qatar until a list of 13 demands and principles are agreed to by Doha.

They include that the rogue nation will fulfil its obligations to the Riyadh pact, close down Al Jazeera, and stop cultivating the close relations with Tehran that led to a major trade conference and reopening of reopening of the Iran-Qatar Joint Economic Commission last month.

Doha received a delegation of 70 officials and businessmen from Iran at the two-day conference, to try to plug the damage to its economy caused by the boycott of the four neighbours and trading partners.

The support for Tehran – which is interfering in the affairs of other countries through its proxies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as its own Republican Guard Corps – has further emphasised the concerns of the Quartet.

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