Gulf Crisis Turns Qatar into “Region’s Israel”

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by James M. Dorsey

Prominent US constitutional lawyer and scholar Alan M. Dershowitz raised eyebrows when he described Qatar as “the Israel of the Gulf states.”

Known for his hard-line pro-Israel views, Dershowitz drew his conclusion following an all-expenses paid trip to the Gulf state.  Dershowitz argued that Qatar like Israel was “surrounded by enemies, subject to boycotts and unrealistic demands, and struggling for its survival.”

He noted that while he was in Qatar an Israeli tennis player had been granted entry to compete in an international tournament in which the Israeli flag was allowed to fly alongside of those of other participants.

In response, Saudi Arabia took Qatar to task for accommodating the tennis player and almost at the same time refused Israelis visas to take part in an international chess tournament. To be fair, with US President Donald J, Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it may have been difficult for the kingdom to have done otherwise.

“This episode made clear to me that the Saudis were not necessarily the good guys in their dispute with Qatar. The Saudis have led a campaign to blockade, boycott and isolate their tiny neighboring state. They have gotten other states to join them in this illegal activity,” Dershowitz said.

His remarks were likely to have surprised Arabs and Jews as well as pro-Israeli circles. Israel, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sees Qatar as a state that supports militants like Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip, and Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been designated a terrorist organization by Qatar’s detractors.

Dershowitz’s similarities notwithstanding, the differences between Qatar and Israel are multiple. Most importantly, Qatar does not occupy foreign territory, nor does it deny the rights of others or employ its military to achieve geopolitical objectives. It is Qatar’s soft power approach and idiosyncratic policies that provoked the ire of its Gulf brethren and accusations that it supports violent and non-violent militants.

Nonetheless, the trappings of the eight-month-old Gulf crisis, sparked by the imposition last June of a UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott, would seemingly to some degree bear out  Dershowitz’s view.

Much like Arab maps of the Middle East that for the longest period of time, and often still do, failed to identify Israel, a map of the southern Gulf in the children’s section of Abu Dhabi’s recently inaugurated flagship Louvre Museum omits Qatar. The map would seemingly turn the Gulf dispute into an existential one in which the perceived basic principle of recognition, existence, and right to stake out one’s own course is at stake.

Yet, protagonists in the Gulf crisis, much like those on the pro-Palestinians side of the Arab-Israeli divide, ensure that some degree of crucial business can be conducted, albeit often surreptitiously, and that common or crucial national interests are not jeopardized.

Money exchangers in the UAE still buy and sell Qatari riyals. Natural gas continues to flow. Neither Qatar nor the UAE have tinkered with the sale of Qatari gas that is supplied through a partially Abu Dhabi-owned pipeline that accounts for up to 40 percent of Dubai’s needs.

A similar picture emerges with aviation. Like Israel, which does not bar Arab nationals entry, Qatar has not closed its airspace to Bahraini, Emirati and Saudi aircraft even though the three states force it to bypass their airspace by overflying Iran. This has nevertheless not stopped aviation from becoming the latest flashpoint in the Gulf, signalling that the region’s new normal is fragile at best.

Tension rose this month with when Qatar twice charged that military aircraft jet had violated its airspace. Qatar used the alleged violations to file a complaint with the international aviation authority. The UAE, beyond denying the allegations, asserted that Qatari fighters had twice intercepted an Emirati airliner as it was landing in Bahrain.

In what may be a significant difference, Israel, unlike Qatar is not in the business of fostering opposition, if not regime change, in the region. Israel largely feels that autocratic rulers are more reliable partners and less susceptible to the whims of public opinion.

By contrast, regime change figures prominently in the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s toolkit, at least in the public diplomacy part of it, albeit with mixed results. Emirati and Saudi efforts to foster opposition from within the ruling family to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. appeared to have backfired.

Projected by Saudi and UAE leaders and media they control as a leader of opposition to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali al-Thani, a little-known member of the ruling family, appears to have pulled a Saad Hariri, on his Emirati and Saudi sponsors.

Like what happened to Hariri, who last year resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister while on a visit to the Saudi Arabia, only to withdraw his resignation and adopt policies that contradict those of the kingdom once he was allowed to leave, Sheikh Abdullah has accused his hosts of pressuring him to the point that he wanted to commit suicide.

In two video clips, Sheikh Abdullah, the son of Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah al-Thani, a former emir who was deposed in 1972, initially charged that he was being held against his will in the UAE. Once he was allowed to leave for Kuwait, Sheikh Abdullah accused the crown princes of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, of having sparked the Gulf crisis “to usurp the wealth and riches of Qatar,” a likely reference to Qatar’s gas and financial reserves.

The UAE appears to have been successful in a third case of seeking to influence the shape of government elsewhere by pressuring real and potential players. Former Egyptian prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. who went into exile in the UAE in 2012 after losing a presidential election, asserted in November that he was being held against his will in the country. He was expelled to Egypt within hours, where he declared that he would not run in forthcoming elections in March.

Dershowitz no doubt did Qatar a favor by visiting the country and by coming out in its defense. Comparing Qatar to Israel, however, may not go down well with significant segments of Arab and Qatari public opinion as well as pro-Israel groups. In doing so, he may have dampened the impact of his comments.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa. Reprinted, with permission, from The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog. Photo: Alan Dershowitz (courtesy Today Show).

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6 Comments

  1. Cyrus asked: “Why do these same talking heads keep showing up in the media long after they’ve been discredited?”

    Because they provide easy copy for the stenographers – sorry, I mean journalists.

  2. Well, ya’ can’t say Ol’ Dershie ain’t consistent.

    No matter what the topic.
    No matter who are the participants.
    No matter what the circumstances.

    Doesn’t matter, because whatever it is all about, Dershie will insist that it is really All About Israel.

    Qatari isolation? Sure, but let’s talk about how cruel it is to pick on Israel for lording it over the Palestinians like a feudal baron.

    Saudi boycotts? Sure, but let’s talk about how unfair it is that Arab countries won’t buy Israeli goods.

    UAE demands? Sure, but let’s talk about how unreasonable it is to demand that Israel abide by international law.

    The man is the very definition of a one-trick-pony.

  3. This is the same Dersh who wrote in his book “The Case for Israel” that the Palestinians were partially responsible for the Holocaust and as such can be legitimately ethnically cleansed, and this should be viewed as a form of “Affirmative Action” for Jews akin to opening university positions for minority members. Then he tried to block tenure for Prof Finklestein at DePaul just because he had the temerity to point out the obvious errors in Dersh’s book. I kid you not. Why should anyone care what this clown has to say? Why do these same talking heads keep showing up in the media long after they’ve been discredited?

  4. Gotta love Qatar, a hotbed of radical Islamist groups. Some information from the CIA Factbook:

    Government type: absolute monarchy, ruled by the Al Thani family since the mid-1800s
    citizenship by birth: no
    citizenship by descent only: the father must be a citizen of Qatar
    cabinet: Council of Ministers appointed by the amir
    elections/appointments: the monarchy is hereditary; prime minister and deputy prime minister appointed by the amir
    Legislative branch:
    description: unicameral Advisory Council or Majlis al-Shura (35 seats; members appointed by the monarch)
    Political parties and leaders: political parties are banned

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