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HENRY SREBRNIK: Has Qatar overplayed its hand?

Henry Srebrnik
Henry Srebrnik

The little Persian Gulf state of Qatar, with just over 300,000 citizens, has been described as punching above its weight.

It has sought to parlay the financial muscle it derives from its enormous oil and natural gas reserves into a diplomatic status otherwise undeserved by its size.

But has it now become collateral damage in the escalating and complex conflicts in the Middle East?

Citing Qatar’s support of “terrorists,” three of the emirate’s partners in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, broke off diplomatic relations on June 5. So did Egypt, Yemen and the Maldives.

They imposed a land and air blockade that left the small nation with only a single access route for essential supplies.

On June 22, they issued a 13-point list of demands as a prerequisite to lifting the sanctions, including the shutdown of the news network Al Jazeera, which they accuse of being a platform for extremists and an agent of interference in their affairs. Qatar rejected all of the demands.

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Qatar has supported anti-government movements, both secular and Islamist, with diplomatic support, money, and sometimes weapons. It is among the most active backers of Islamist fighters in Syria and Libya

In particular, the current issue revolves around Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian branch in Gaza, Hamas.

Qataris were ecstatic when Mohamed Morsi was elected president of Egypt in 2012 – something the man who overthrew him, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has not forgotten.

To Saudi Arabia, though, the uprisings imperiled both the regional order and, potentially, its own rule; populist Islamist movements had long challenged it at home.

Qatar’s ambassador to Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, has pledged continued support to the coastal enclave. “Despite the crisis in Qatar, we will continue to support you,” he promised Gazans on June 9.

Over the past five years, Qatar has already pledged $1.4 billion worth of reconstruction money, which has been going to hospitals, housing units, and upgrading roads to housing projects.

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani maintains that Hamas is a legitimate resistance movement. “We do not support Hamas, we support the Palestinian people,” he asserted during an interview June 10.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir three days earlier had insisted that Qatar end its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood before ties with other Gulf Arab states could be restored.

Jubeir added that Qatar was undermining the Palestinian Authority and Egypt in its support of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar has also maintained cordial relations with its Iranian neighbour, partly because the two countries share a giant offshore gas field in the Persian Gulf.

The Saudis now view Iran as an existential threat and have stated that they want to block Iran before it can gain yet more strength in the Middle East. They consider the emirate too friendly with Iran.

So, from their perspective, it is time for Qatar to choose where it stands with regard to both Iran and the Islamists.

Washington has an interest in seeing this issue resolved, because more than 11,000 American and coalition forces are stationed at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

It is the largest U.S. military facility in the Middle East, from which U.S.-led coalition aircraft stage sorties against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

 

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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