Hamid Hussein’s Second Post on the ‘Arab’ World …

Posted on July 1, 2017. Filed under: Pakistan, Uncategorized |

On June 05, 2017, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates (UAE) severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and also placed land and air embargo. The simmering differences between Qatar and its Arab neighbors reached the boiling point.

Qatar is a small country but in the last two decades it has shown its presence on the international scene. Qatar began as a broker of negotiations and mediator of conflicts. This combined with humanitarian and cultural interactions earned recognition and respect. However its recent involvement in armed conflicts had negative fallout. Its policies clashed with interests of Saudi Arabia and Egypt – two heavy weights of the Middle East.

Older generations of Saudi royal family worked on the Bedouin traditions and avoided public clashes with fellow Arabs. The new generation is removed from the traditions of their fathers, are more ambitious and at times reckless.

There are three main players in the current showdown and include the 37 year old Emir of Qatar Shaikh Tamim bin Hammad al Thani, 31 year old son of King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Muhammad Bin Salman (known in western circles as Mr. Everything) and 56 year old Crown Prince of UAE Shaikh Muhammad Bin Zayed al Nahiyan. Their interests are a complex set of ideology, opportunism, ambition, tribal, clan and family dynamics.

The Q – How did Qatar embark on an ambitious foreign policy agenda that ran afoul of these powerful countries?

The 1868 treaty with Britain ensured Qatar’s territorial integrity especially against the expanding power of al Saud – next door big brother. British guarantee came with control of its foreign policy. In 1971, Britain departed and Qatar’s territorial integrity was guaranteed by the United States but Qatar now controlled its own foreign policy. And Qatar hosted a U.S. Air Force base (al-Udeid base near Doha).

Internally, Qatari population is more cohesive with majority Sunni. Qatar is the only other country apart from Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabi school albeit a softer version and ruled by a Sunni Arab tribal family al-Thani considered first among equals (this is in contrast to neighboring Bahrain where a Sunni family rules a disenfranchised Shia majority).

Native Qatari population of a little over 300’000 out of a total of about 2.2 million and with a sovereign wealth of over $240 billion makes the job of rulers easy. They provide cradle to grave benefits to all native Qataris. Natives are content with free education, overseas education scholarships, first rate healthcare, secure lucrative jobs and a worry free future. This ensures legitimacy of al-Thani ruling family and there is no threat from a disgruntled population.

It is in this background that Qatar felt confident and embarked on policies that ran contrary to the policies of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Qatar also hosts Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera that gives coverage to dissidents of many Arab countries. This has been a bone of contention between Qatar and several Arab countries. However, major irritant is Qatar’s support for Islamist groups of the Arab world especially Muslim Brotherhood branch of Egypt.

Initially, Qatar tried to mediate between Islamist opposition groups and ruling Arab regimes.

The Arab spring of 2011 changed Qatar’s calculus. Qatar saw it as an emerging trend and tried to ride the wave. It openly supported President Muhammad Morsi of Egypt and provided $12 billion to prop up his government amidst economic crisis. But a year later, Morsi was overthrown by strongman Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sissi . Saudi Arabia and EAE rushed to his aid provided financial support worth of several billion dollars.

Sissi cracked down on Muslim Brotherhood and several leaders found refuge in Qatar. Now Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE are in one corner and Qatar is in the other.

In 2011, Libya erupted and Qatar supported Libyan Islamists with arms and money. Qatar’s two main armed proxies in Libya were Ali al-Sallabi and Abdul Hakim Belhaj. After Gaddafi’s removal and death, the country fractured into militia fiefdoms. Two main rival umbrella groups are now involved in civil war of Libya between Islamist controlled General National Congress (GNC) and secular Libyan House of Representatives (LHR).

Different armed groups and militias have joined these rival groups for control of the country. Qatar is supporting armed groups of GNC and rival armed groups of LHR are supported by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is the head of Libyan National Army; the name given to LHR armed groups.

Qatar replicated the Libyan template when protests started in Syria against President Bashar al Assad in 2011. Shaikh Hammad (Tamim’s father) was a personal friend of Bashar and their wives were also close friends. Hammad dumped his friend and provided arms and money to opposition groups – mainly Islamists.

Muslim Brotherhood played a major role in Syrian National Congress (SNC); an umbrella group of different opposition groups. Qatar had significant influence over SNC in view of general support of the Brotherhood. However, when Iran and Hezbollah openly sided with Bashar and early military gains of the opposition groups were reversed, Qatar also hedged its bet.

It now embarked on a dangerous journey in search for a more effective armed proxy and found itself in bed with Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate). This was followed by support for Ahrar al Sham al Islamiyyah; a salafist militant group that became most effective in the military campaign against Assad.

In the byzantine world of Middle East conflicts, Saudi Arabia was initially supporting salafist militant groups but later Qatar and Turkey became main supporters of Ahrar al-Sham. Saudi Arabia is now supporting Ahmad al Jarba whose fighters are trained by U.S. Special Forces.

In Palestine and occupied territories, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are also supporting opposing groups. Qatar has been supporting Hamas in Gaza strip while Saudi Arabia and Egypt support Palestinian Authority (PA) in West Bank. Qatar’s financial support to Hamas and residence of some Hamas leaders in Qatar is resented by PA. They are of the view that Hamas rule in Gaza would have collapsed long time ago without Qatar’s help.

Qatar and Iran have shared economic interests and Qatar kept economic, diplomatic and security channels open with Tehran despite hostility of Saudi Arabia and UAE towards Iran. Qatar tried to walk a fine line to avoid open hostility of both Saudi Arabia and Iran. If one policy ran afoul, Qatar tried to compensate with other gestures.

For example in Syria, Qatar was openly supporting armed groups fighting Iranian and Hezbollah fighters but softening the friction by directly signing security and economic treaties with Tehran. Qatar also supported U.S.-Iran nuclear deal that all other Arab countries opposed. It cooperated with Saudi Arabia in many areas to allay their anxieties.

The biggest unknown is unpredictability of new US president Donald Trump. The most serious concern will be if President Trump throws his lot with Saudi Arabia. In that case a simple threat of moving the U.S. troops from al-Udeid base in Qatar to neighboring UAE will take out the life insurance policy of Qatar. This will force Qatar to make concessions.

This move may also embolden Saudis and end up in more reckless decisions. Qatar on its own part will try to appease the new American administration by another American weapons purchase binge.

Kuwait is the preferred mediator as it understands local dynamics. There are several concessions that Qatar will likely offer especially in areas not directly affecting Qatar’s vital interests. The list will include asking Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood members as well as Hamas leaders to find a new home most likely in Turkey and pulling some support from its proxies in Syria and Libya.

It will also ask Al Jazeerah to tone down criticism of neighboring countries. Qatar’s relations with Iran will be kept at current levels with no new agreements in the short term.

If these concessions satisfy Saudi Arabia and Egypt then de-escalation process can start. However, it must be remembered that Shaikh Tamim is also an Arab and he will need some face saving to maintain his dignity and not be seen as capitulating.

A side show of the side show will be the impact on occupied territories in Palestine. PA is taking advantage of the precarious situation of its main backer of Hamas. It has decreased payment to Israel for electricity supply to Gaza and increased tariffs on diesel fuel that may result in forty percent cut down of electricity supply to Gaza. PA has already stopped medicine and medical equipment supply to Gaza. This is complemented by complete blockade of Gaza by Egypt. The hope is that this squeeze of Gaza population will force them to re-think about their support of Hamas.

Thoe new Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar was summoned to Egypt and read the riot act. He was bluntly asked to start thinking about rolling back Hamas rule in Gaza and allow some space for Muhammad Dahlan – an old PA hand in Gaza and potential successor of Mahmud Abbas. Dahlan is based in Dubai and close friend of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed and Egyptian President al-Sissi.

Hamas is already feeling the heat from several directions and considering concessions on many grounds. The clear and present danger is that this multi-faceted conflict between Palestinians and worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza will provide the perfect breeding ground for Daesh to get a foothold in the fertile terrain of hopelessness, misery, anger and resentment.

Thanks to Palestinian infighting and changed ground realities, if ever a deal is reached it will not be a two state but a three state solution.

The price of brinkmanship is usually paid by subjects and ripple effect goes beyond the borders of their countries. Leaders surrounded by court jesters and with modus operandi of making decisions on whims and in fits of anger without serious thought and without informed counsel usually end up in blind alleys.

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