by Emile Nakhleh
Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, not surprisingly, skipped the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] annual summit, which was held in Saudi Arabia on December 9, 2019.
Despite the Saudi king’s personal invitation to the Qatari ruler to attend the meeting and his call for GCC unity, the Saudi and Bahraini foreign ministers indicated that no reconciliation would occur with Qatar until it accepts the 13 demands that the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet [ATQ] had set in July 2017.
The Saudis and its three partners Qatar haughtily ordered Qatar to comply with these demands within 10 days or suffer the consequences.
Qatar, as expected, did not comply, and the ATQ has failed not only to enforce the demands; its members choked on every other devious plan they cooked up for Qatar.
The demands, which among other things required Qatar to shutter Al Jazeera and sever relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, were intended to place Qatar’s domestic decision making and foreign relations under Saudi control. In effect, Saudi Arabia wanted to change Qatar’s status from a sovereign state to a vassal state, much as it did with Bahrain.
Qatar refused to yield to Mohammed bin Salman’s [MbS] power grab or become a subservient state in the orbit of the new bully on the block. MbS obviously failed to drag Tamim into his grandiose architecture of regional hegemony.
Despite MbS’s serious threats against Qatar, Tamim has remained the ruler of his country and has continued with his strategic plans to advance his country’s economic and diplomatic reach globally.
His withdrawal from OPEC as of the first of January 2019, and decision not to attend the GCC summit point to the effectiveness of his regional and global efforts against Saudi bullying.
Qatar’s recent multi-year LNG contracts with Britain and China indicate that the industrial nations have accepted Qatar as a world leader in liquified natural gas.
As the Saudi-controlled OPEC cartel is gradually losing its clout because of the shale revolution and the dramatic increase in oil extraction through fracking in non-OPEC countries like the United States, Qatar is actively pursuing a global economic path free of Saudi influence. Now that Tamim has freed himself of OPEC, will he take the next logical step and pull out of the Saudi dominated GCC?
MbS’s well-financed lobbying effort in Washington, London, and other Western capitals has failed to gain traction against Qatar or to convince the outside world of the legitimacy of the Saudi anti-Qatar belligerency. Western senior policy makers have for the most part seen through MbS’s dubious machinations against Qatar and its ruler.
Aside from his farce claims against Qatar, his involvement in the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been the most obvious cause for MbS’s recent decline in the United States and internationally.
According to US Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, the CIA reportedly has concluded with high confidence that MbS was implicated in the heinous crime from start to finish.
He was aware of the plan to lure Khashoggi into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He was also kept abreast with the actual killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi’s body after he was murdered.
Despite the vocal support that MbS has so far received from President Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and the American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, MbS’s fanciful denials have not convinced even Trump’s most ardent supporters in the United State Senate.
Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, told journalists he has “zero question in my mind that the crown prince, MbS, ordered the killing, monitored the killing, knew exactly what was happening, planned it in advance. If he was in front of a jury he would be convicted in 30 minutes. Guilty. So, the question is what do we do about that.”
The first name friendship between “Jared” and “Mohammed,” as was recently reported in The New York Times, has not saved MbS’s condemnation in the United States Senate or in the court of world opinion and is not likely to erase his reputation as a blood thirsty power grabber any time soon.
Despite Trump’s public support of MbS, the Senate has passed a resolution to halt military aid to the Saudi war in Yemen, has debated a resolution holding MbS responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, and is considering halting nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia.
Shaky Foundations of Saudi-Qatar Policy
The Saudi decision to boycott Qatar and isolate it regionally and internationally has failed because of several faulty assumptions and disingenuous accusations against the Qatari ruler, as illustrated by the 13 demands at the heart of the boycott.
These sham charges include Qatar’s perceived anti-Saudi public relations campaign through the Qatari-based and owned Al Jazeera television; close relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and support for terrorism; undermining the GCC; and friendly relations with Iran.
These claims were no more than a PR gimmick designed to sell the Saudi policy to Western leaders, especially to President Trump, and seek their support. However, MbS’s fundamental intent has always been to effect a regime change in Doha.
In order to realise this goal, MbS pursued a multi-pronged policy, which has included intensive propaganda campaign against the Qatari ruler and covert contacts with some members of the ruling al-Thani family with an eye toward cultivating a potential replacement of Emir Tamim.
MbS coupled this “soft power” approach to depose Tamim with a military invasion plan to attack Qatar and remove Tamim by force. MbS foolishly thought that invading Qatar would have been as easy as when Saudi troops rolled over the causeway into Bahrain in 2011 to shore up the discredited al-Khalifa regime.
The Trump administration, fortunately for the region, viewed MbS’s invasion plan as a dangerous and cockamamie idea and stopped it.
MbS and his friendly autocrats in Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE have frequently denounced Al Jazeera‘s coverage of Arab political and social issues and called on Qatar to shutter the news network.
Their opposition stemmed from the faulty belief that Al Jazeera‘s coverage and live political, religious, and social programmes threatened their autocratic hold on power. They loathed the network’s advocacy for reform, democracy, anti-corruption, and freedoms of speech and assembly.
Qatar was the first Gulf Arab state in the 1990s to start a professional news service dedicated to relatively fair, free, and open dialogue. Millions of Arab listeners reportedly flocked to Al Jazeera‘s news and political analysis programmes.
When the United States government tried to undermine Al Jazeera‘s message after 9/11 by establishing Radio Sawa and Al-Hurrah network, public opinion polls reported that the Arab youth would tune into Sawa and Al-Hurrah for music and then switch back to Al Jazeera for news and analysis. Neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia and its allies were able to silence the Qatari-funded network.
Washington accused the channel of giving a platform for Osama bin Ladin’s messages, which, by the way, which many Saudis watched.
Riyadh, however, objected to Al Jazeera‘s Arab nationalist message and calls for reform and open dialogue with Qatar’s neighbours, including with Israel. In fact, Al Jazeera had a full-time correspondent in Jerusalem who covered Israeli politics and political debates in the Israeli parliament or Knesset. Having failed to silence the network’s relatively reformist and inclusive message, Saudi Arabia and its allies foolishly embarked on trying to kill the messenger.
This is exactly how MbS dealt with Jamal Khashoggi – he killed him because he failed to silence him.
Bogus Charge of Terrorism
Let’s be clear, the Muslim Brotherhood [MB] has not been declared a terrorist organisation in any Western country, including in the United States. Egypt’s autocrat Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared the MB a “terrorist” organisation after he toppled its popularly elected president Muhammad Morsi in a military coup July 3, 2013.
The Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini regimes followed suit for regional political reasons. Before Sisi’s coup, most Arab and Muslim states had cordial relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, including of course Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other GCC states. The MB was not then nor is it now a terrorist organisation.
Founded by Hasan al-Banna, a school teacher in 1928 in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has become the face of community Islam across the Sunni Muslim world. It is the oldest, largest, most visible, and most organised Islamic Sunni political organisation in the Islamic world.
Most, if not all, mainstream Sunni Islamic political parties and movements are grounded in MB ideology. Many of these parties in Muslim majority countries have been elected to national legislatures and have been part of the governing process in their respective countries.
As a mainstream political movement focusing on Islamising society from below, the Muslim Brotherhood is a mainstream movement that believes in gradual political and social change through elections wherever they are allowed.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the MB declared that political reform can only come through the ballot box not bullets. Tens of thousands of MB political prisoners are languishing in Egyptian, Saudi, UAE, Bahraini, and Syrian jails based on illegal arrests, trumped up charges, and sham trials.
For MbS to claim that Qatar supports and funds terrorism is like the pot calling the kettle black. Before and since 9/11 Saudi Arabia, not Qatar, has been the main exporter of terrorism globally – through a radical, intolerant ideology and lavish financing.
Fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, not Qataris. So did Bin Ladin and al-Qaeda. Most of the extremist foot soldiers in the ranks of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group [IS] have been Saudis. So are many of the members and leaders of the more lethal al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP]. No wonder Western countries have not bought into MbS’s yarn about Qatar and terrorism.
The two other unsubstantiated charges levied by MbS against Qatar to justify his blockade include Qatar’s “undermining” the GCC and its cosying up to Iran. Neither charge is truthful or based on facts. From its inception in 1981, the GCC was a Saudi driven organisation designed to preserve the tribal Shaykhly rule in the Gulf Arab states.
Disagreements, especially regarding joint defense agreements, emerged in the early 1980s with the start of the Iran-Iraq war. Such disagreements continued into 1990-1991 following Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
Following Saddam’s eviction from Kuwait in early 1991, Washington and other Western capitals urged GCC leaders, including Saudi Arabia, to form a joint defense front but they balked at the idea and opted to act as individual states.
Neither the Saudis nor other tribal rulers were committed to GCC unity because of distrust of each other or jealousy. When I was conducting research in the Gulf in the early 1980s for my GCC book, I asked a minister from one of those countries what he thought of the GCC, he replied in Gulf slang Arabic, “Hatchi,” which meant “just talk.”
It’s patently disingenuous for MbS now to accuse Qatar of undermining GCC unity, especially where none ever truly existed. If Emir Tamim is serious about striking an independent path, might he not be interested in exiting the GCC and put an end to this charade?
The Saudi political and economic blockade of Qatar and the closing of the overland Saudi-Qatari trade route to the Qatari Peninsula has forced the Qatari government to import most of the country’s food supplies from Iran. It has been a matter for survival for Qatar, not an ideological proclivity toward Iran. Furthermore, Qatar shares the world’s largest natural gas field, the North Dome, with Iran.
Qatar’s recent decision to leave OPEC and expand its natural gas business, by necessity it must deal with Iran. MbS’s “line in the sand” against Qatar’s relations with Iran has even led him to dig a trench in the sandy border with Qatar with the aim of changing its geography from a peninsula to an island, thereby further isolating it. Here too MbS has failed to coerce Qatar to change course to suit Saudi regional hegemonic aims.
Since assuming de facto control, MbS has bungled Saudi relations with Gulf neighbours and globally. He lashed out at Qatar because of his failure in other areas – domestic and foreign. The protective shield that he has erected around him has shattered, and his reputation in Washington and elsewhere has tarnished.
Assuming the royal family and its Allegiance Council are interested in restoring the Saudi-American partnership to its pre-MbS days and in steadying the ship of the Saudi state, will they have the courage to ease MbS out of power and appoint someone else other his brother to represent the kingdom in Washington? Will they pursue ways to end the disastrous war in Yemen, settle the childish tiff with Qatar, and work toward rapprochement with Iran for the sake of gulf and regional stability?
Reprinted, with permission, from The New Arab.