Is there more to the situation in Qatar than immediately meets the eye?
On June 5th, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt all cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. Yemen and Jordan soon followed. The aforementioned countries expelled Qatari diplomats, while subsequently recalling their own from Qatar. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have closed their borders and airspace, forcing Qatari flights to fly longer routes around the two countries. The two countries have also given Qatari nationals living within their borders two weeks’ notice to return to Qatar.
This dramatic turn of events comes as a result of allegations of Qatar supporting terrorism and destabilizing the region. Some countries also accused Qatar of being pro-Iranian after state-run news network QTV published an article in which the ruling emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani was quoted praising Hamas and Iran—and criticizing the Trump presidency saying it won’t last for long. Qatar denounced the article, claiming it was fake news planted by hackers, but it wasn’t a sufficient explanation for the other Gulf States who immediately blocked all Qatari news outlets. Saudi Arabia closed the Al Jazeera’s offices in the region and revoked their broadcasting license claiming that it has supported Iran backed Houthi rebels who Saudi Arabia are fighting in Yemen although there is little evidence supporting this claim.
The media of these states has been publishing scathing headlines against Qatar for the past few days. Curiously, Bahrain and the UAE have outlawed any statements which sympathize with Qatar. Anyone in Bahrain and the UAE who sympathizes with Qatar or questions the government’s decision to break ties with Qatar could be imprisoned for up to 5 and 15 years respectively.
What further chips away at the legitimacy of these claims is the fact that the leader of the bloc, Saudi Arabia, has a well-known and well documented history of funding and supporting radical terrorist organizations. If the diplomatic freeze of Qatar is not about Terrorism then what is it about?
To answer this question, we need to go back to 2011, the time of the Arab Spring. Before this time, Qatar’s foreign policy was to act as a neutral mediator for conflicts in the region, thus holding international relevance as well as appeasing all its neighbors. When the Arab Spring arrived, Qatar foresaw the current governments of countries like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. It stepped out of the role of neutral mediator to an active participant in regional affairs by backing the people led movements in these countries, despite the anger of its neighbor Saudi Arabia who supported the authoritarian regimes that were then in place. Qatar was essentially investing in the future in terms of global influence, and it did so through its pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera. In the case of Libya, it even provided weapons and training. These bold actions marked the beginning of tensions between Qatar and its neighboring gulf states.
Fast forward to the current situation and it looks like Qatar’s investment didn’t pay off. In 2013 President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood who had risen to power during the Arab spring was overthrown in a military coup. After this, the UAE and Saudi Arabia funded the new Egyptian government with 30 billion dollars. In Libya, the UAE and Egypt are backing General Khalifa Haftar in his fight against the current Libyan government. The message is very clear. The rest of the GCC wants to return to the old days of authoritarianism and orthodoxy. And Qatar is not helping.
This isn’t the first time that Qatar’s independent foreign policy has caused trouble. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE had pulled their ambassadors from Qatar over allegations of interference in their internal affairs.
The freeze against Qatar can be likened to a modern-day siege. The GCC countries have surrounded the fort waiting for Qatar to surrender and submit to their demands. Saudi Arabia chalked up a list of 10 demands on Wednesday which included severing all ties with Iran, expelling members of Palestinian militant group Hamas and the pan-Arab political Islamic group Muslim Brotherhood. A major demand was curtailing the freedom of state media outlet Al Jazeera. However, in response Qatar said it will “not surrender” its foreign policy. It looks as though there’s a long way to go for this rift to be resolved.