Bullish Saudi behind GCC split over Qatar

The attack on Qatar is a ploy to deflect attention from Saudi policies which are causing mayhem.

The rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has split the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and threatens to undermine the stability of the oil-rich Gulf region. Qatar has been blockaded from land and air and Qataris sent home by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which, along with Egypt and others, have cut diplomatic rela­tions with Qatar. The GCC is divided three ways. Neutral Oman is transhipping Qatar-destined supplies to Doha while pro-Saudi Kuwait is trying to mediate.

Qatar has backing from Iran, Turkey, and Morocco which have sent food supplies to Doha to provide for 313,000 Qataris and 2.3 million expatriate workers, 25% from India. Turkey has also dispatched soldiers to Qatar to take part in joint military exercises and, eventually, establish a base.

A peninsula jutting into the Gulf, its only land border with Saudi Arabia, Qatar has long annoyed Arab leaders. Al-Jazeera, the Arab world’s first “independent,” professional Arabic satellite television channel launched in 1996, has been accused of being a mouthpiece for Qatar’s al-Thani ruling family, which funds the channel.

Al-Jazeera has broadcast programmes critical of Arab rulers who have said the channel is interfering in their domestic affa­irs and has a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias. Reception has been blocked from time to time and al-Jazeera staff deported.

Following the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, Al-Jazeera carried interviews with Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for the operation, angering Washington. The channel also broadcast live coverage of the 2003 US-led war on Iraq and its dire consequences, upsetting Britain as well as the US.

The establishment in 2006 of an English language channel enabled Al-Jazeera to provide world-class coverage of global events. But both channels’ broadcasts of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and the 2013 Brotherhood reaction to the ousting of Egypt’s President Muhammad Morsi, a Brotherhood stalwart, renewed Arab anger over Al-Jazeera. Saudi Arabia, in particular, regards the Brotherhood as a rival for the fealty of Sunni Muslims.
The Saudis and their allies have rightly charged Qatar with funding and arming “terrorist” organisations, notably al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and affiliates. The accusation, however, did not surface until the May visit to Riyadh of US President Donald Trump who called on Arab leaders gathered there to join the fight against “terrorism.”

Since Saudi Arabia’s puritan Wahhabi ideology has been adopted by radical fundamentalist factions, thousands of Saudi jihadis have fought in Syria and Iraq, and Riyadh has been the principal patron of jihadi factions, Riyadh’s attack on Qatar is all too clearly a ploy to deflect attention from Saudi policies — including the export of Wahhabism — which are causing mayhem in West Asia, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Qatar-Iran ties
Sunni Saudi Arabia and its allies were also angered when Qatar asserted its independence from Riyadh by refusing to cut ties with Shia Iran which the Saudis regard as its chief regional antagonist. Qatar cannot afford to acquiesce in this demand as the emirate shares with Iran the world’s largest natural gas field.

In April this year, Qatar decided to go ahead with its development which had been postponed from 2005 while studies were made of potential output. This may have led the Saudis to act.
Qatar has balanced the sponsorship of Al-Jazeera, the Brotherhood and “terrorist” factions by hosting the largest US airbase in the region. Al-Udaid, built in 1991 and expanded in 1996, is used by the Qatari, US and Brit­ish air forces to launch air operations and is the headquarters of the US Central Command which carries out operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

Al-Udaid was a major staging area for the 2003 US war on Iraq. Although accused of “terrorism” by Trump as well as the Saudis, he agreed to sell the Qataris F-15 fighters worth $12 billion and ordered the US navy to stage exercises with Qatari naval vessels. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the Saudis to ease their blockade.

The GCC split over Qatar is a direct consequence of Saudi assertiveness. Since taking the throne in early 2015, King Salman and his favourite son, Crown Prince Muhammad, have adopted risky policies. They have waged an unwinn­able war in Yemen, stepped up warfare in Syria, and tried to bully or bribe other GCC rulers and Arab leaders to follow the Saudi line, particularly against Iran.

Muhammad bin Salman, 31, has been the prime mover of the kingdom’s shift from chequebook diplomacy to warfare, dragging in the UAE, Pakistan, Egypt, and other countries. The adventurist young man can be expected to cause further mayhem in West Asia and consternation in the region and the inter-national community.

Crown Prince Muhammed’s decision to take on Qatar’s equally ambitious ruler, Shaikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, 37, is a major mistake. He is determined to defend his country and its global reach through Al-Jazeera.

While he might be prepared to reduce support for jiha­di groups, Turkey, another sponsor, is likely to exert counter-pressure on Qatar to continue its backing. On this issue, Qatar is caught between the Saudi rock and the Turkish hard place.

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