By Fouad al-Ibrahim
(Al-Akhbar): What is happening is far more than a spat and an ensuing withdrawal of ambassadors. It is a relentless war in every sense of the word, albeit a low-profile one. Neither side seems to be willing to make concessions or show flexibility. The result: The most serious crisis the Gulf Cooperation Council has witnessed so far, with repercussions that will affect the entire region, from Egypt to Syria, via Palestine and Lebanon.
Despite the fierce nature of the battle raging under the surface, the statements from the two sides were so far “softly worded.” A triple statement by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain was the opening salvo in the war that Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal had vowed to launch on his kingdom’s smaller neighbor Qatar, in the event its emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, did not abide by the written pledge he signed in Riyadh on November 23, 2013, after mediation from the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad.
The wording of the joint statement was not too sharp, with a long introduction about the need for cooperation – a term that was repeated frequently throughout the text – before concluding with the decision to recall the three Gulf countries’ ambassadors from Doha.
The statement made public an element that was previously missing in the analysis of pan-Gulf relations, namely, the backdrop against which the Gulf security pact was established, with the aim of “agreeing on a path and approach…within the framework of a unified policy.” In other words, what is desired is to reestablish Saudi hegemony over the GCC, and this is exactly the issue that is at the heart of the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in particular.
The joint statement paused at the meeting held in Kuwait on February 17, 2014, under the auspices of Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad, attended by the emir of Qatar and the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
So what happened exactly during that meeting?
Gulf sources said that Saud al-Faisal seemed strained during the meeting, and was curt in addressing the Qatari head of state. Faisal made direct accusations against Qatar of threatening the security of Saudi Arabia and Egypt by backing the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming that Qatar had turned into a haven for and a supporter of anyone wishing to destabilize Egypt and the Gulf, including the Houthis in Yemen.
Faisal, in the same bellicose tone, read a list of punitive measures in the presence of the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar and GCC foreign ministers, to be implemented in the event Qatar did not abide by the pledge mentioned earlier. These measures included: recalling ambassadors; closing down land borders; preventing Qatari airliners from using Saudi airspace; and expelling Qatar from the GCC and the Arab League in agreement with Egypt.
Political sources close to Saudi Arabia blamed the former Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani for what happened, because of his support for the Muslim Brotherhood even after the impeachment of former President Mohammed Mursi. Doha was generally silent over the Saudi media escalation that preceded the decision to withdraw the ambassadors.
The emir of Kuwait had asked Riyadh to postpone the decision to implement punitive measures until his efforts to mediate and resolve the dispute are concluded. For their part, the Qataris did not want the dispute to come to a head, but at the same time, they rejected the logic of dictates meant to force Doha to alter its foreign policy, relations with other countries, and attitudes on major regional, Arab, and international issues.
This is what the toned-down statement issued by the Qatari government tried to convey, by framing the dispute in a specific scope. The statement said,
“The move made by the brothers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain has nothing to do with the interests of the Gulf peoples, their security, and their stability, but is rather linked to differences over issues that exist outside the countries of the GCC.”
Worth paying attention to is the fact that the Saudi-Qatari dispute is not confined to the reasons stated in the joint statement. In truth, there are profound differences between the two dating back to at least 1913, when Abdul Aziz, founder of the modern Saudi state, decided to annex Qatar to the Ahsa province, after occupying it. Abdul Aziz did not recognize Qatar’s borders until two years later, under pressure from Britain.
Although an agreement over the borders was signed between Qatar and Saudi in 1965, the latter sent its military forces over the border in September 1992, and seized al-Khafous border post. After a military coup was thwarted in Qatar in 1995, the Qatari government revealed that the Saudi government was involved in collaboration with the Murra clan in Qatar. Hundreds of the clan’s members were stripped of their Qatari passports and many were deported.
There were intermittent periods of calm between Doha and Riyadh, followed by periods of tension. This happened for example when Qatari TV channel Al-Jazeera carried in 2002 a documentary about the history of Saudi Arabia, and interviewed Saudi and Gulf figures who explicitly criticized King Abdul Aziz. At the time, Saudi withdrew its ambassador from Doha, Hamad Saleh Taimi, for six years.
Normal relations between Riyadh and Doha were resumed after the former Qatari emir visited Saudi Arabia and met with the late Crown Prince Sultan in March 2008, and a new Saudi ambassador was dispatched to Doha. Before, during the period of estrangement between Saudi and Qatar, the latter forged broad alliances with Syria, Iran, and resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon, and became an influential regional actor, brokering reconciliations in Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine, and elsewhere in the Arab world. This contradicted Saudi Arabia’s vision of itself as being the leader of the Gulf’s foreign policy.
At any rate, disputes erupted again between Riyadh and Doha, on the back of their divergent positions regarding the Israeli assault on Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009. Qatar wanted to convene an emergency Arab summit in Doha to produce a unified Arab position and put pressure on the UN Security Council to force the Israelis to end their aggression, but Saudi Arabia boycotted the summit.
In May 2010, relations improved again. The former emir of Qatar agreed to the Saudi king’s request to pardon a number of Saudis involved in the 1995 coup attempt.
With the start of the Arab Spring, what could be described as an alliance of necessity formed between Qatar and Saudi, and the rest of the GCC, to counter the repercussions of the popular protests, which began to get too close to the Gulf for comfort. Then with the outbreak of the crisis in Syria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia initiated a phase of unprecedented cooperation and coordination, in support of the Syrian opposition’s efforts to topple the regime. At the same time, Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood-led administration in Egypt, much to the chagrin of Saudi and the United Arab Emirates.
There are two things that perhaps best sum up the serious nature of the Saudi-Qatari dispute.
The former Qatari foreign minister described the regime in Saudi Arabia as “antiquated,” revealing that the U.S. and Britain had asked him to report on the situation in Saudi Arabia, and told him of their intentions to topple the monarchy there, albeit expressed fear of the alternative, which could be the undesirable Islamists.
The second is a provocative statement made by Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan, who said Qatar was “300 people and a television channel, not a country.” The statement was made at a time when Saudi Arabia moved to take over the Syrian issue from Qatar and Turkey, and to plan and finance a military coup – with popular support – in Egypt on June 30, 2013, dealing a severe blow to Qatar’s ally, the Muslim Brotherhood. The new administration of Egypt subsequently broke with Qatar over its support of deposed President Mohammed Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led regime.
The Saudi-Qatari dispute rose to new heights, especially after a Friday sermon delivered by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is close to the rulers in Doha, in which he railed against the Emirati position regarding events in Egypt after Mursi’s ouster. Subsequent Saudi threats did not work in dissuading Qatar from continuing its policy in Egypt, whose events Doha believes are a coup led by the military and backed by Saudi and the Emirates.
Now that Saudi, the Emirates, and Bahrain have implemented the first of their threats against Qatar, the latter is expected to respond by declaring its commitment to its pledge. If Qatar sticks to its guns, however, the other side is expected to retaliate further, and indeed, judging from the language of the Qatari statement, Doha does not seem to be caving in.
No doubt, Qatar faces immense challenges. But the small Gulf emirate has many cards that it can play in more than one place, for example by repositioning itself politically, and resolving differences with the countries it was once allied to. In the end, the unstable and rapidly shifting situation in the region and the world opens the door to many possibilities.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.