Boycott-hit Qatar losing regional clout

The decline of the Muslim Brotherhood weakened Qatar’s foreign policy, exposing its role in supporting terror groups.
Sunday 09/06/2019
A near-eclipse. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani (C) during a meeting in Doha.(Reuters)
A near-eclipse. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani (C) during a meeting in Doha.(Reuters)

ABU DHABI - Two years after a coalition of Arab countries imposed an economic and diplomatic boycott on Qatar, Doha has lost significant influence in the region and appears no closer to ending the standoff.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Qatar because of its alleged support for terrorism and relations with Iran. Doha was issued a list of demands that included shutting down broadcaster Al Jazeera, ending the country’s alleged support for designated terror groups and downsizing ties with Iran.

Speaking at the emergency Mecca summit in May, Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf indicated that Qatar had made no headway in solving the crisis and that a resolution would only be possible if Doha returned to the “right path.”

Assaf shrugged off speculation that Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani’s attendance at the summit was a sign of possible reconciliation, signalling that the dispute has no end in sight.

Qatar, a leading backer of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, has taken a hit from the crisis, losing allies and influence across the region. The first blow to Doha’s regional influence was in 2013 when Egypt’s Islamist President Muhammad Morsi was ousted from power. Morsi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official, had been a close ally to Turkey and Qatar.

Qatar stands to lose clout in other African countries as well, where its allies are increasingly on the defensive. This was most evident in Sudan with the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir, a Qatari ally who long received foreign aid from the energy-rich country.

“Doha has lost influence in Sudan amid the revolution,” noted Andreas Krieg, a professor at King’s College London.

Doha has begun a media campaign against Sudan’s Transitional Military Council, which has been ruling the country since al-Bashir’s ouster. In response, Sudanese authorities reportedly closed Al Jazeera’s Khartoum office and withdrew staff members’ work permits.

In Libya, an offensive by the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, to capture Tripoli from Islamist militias loyal to Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord is threatening Doha’s interests.

Qatar and Turkey backed Islamist militias in Tripoli, even allegedly supplying them weapons in violation of international embargoes.

Qatar’s alleged support for Islamist groups in Libya was highlighted in a sanctions list issued by the Arab Quartet. Listed among 71 Qatari-linked organisations and individuals were leading forces in Libya, including al-Qaeda-aligned Benghazi Defence Brigades.

Since Libya plunged into civil strife in 2011, Doha is believed to have funnelled arms and other material support to Libyan militias through radical Ali Mohammed al-Salabi and his brother Ismail, a leader of the Benghazi Defence Brigades.

The Benghazi Defence Brigades has ties with Ansar al-Sharia, the group behind the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi that killed US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. Ansar al-Sharia is also suspected of engaging in terror activities in Tunisia.

Another Libyan on the sanctions list is jihadist leader Abdel Hakim Belhadj, the former military commander of al-Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

Qatar has also been accused of providing financial and military assistance to designated terror groups.

In June 2017, a report in Newsweek magazine stated that Haftar accused Qatari intelligence General Salim Ali al-Jarboui of supporting al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood by transferring $8 billion from a Qatari bank account.

The LNA also accused Doha of complicity in the assassination of senior Libyan officials, producing a letter from Qatar’s acting charge d’affaires to Libya stating that Doha had deployed military units to the country.

Given the strained relationship between Qatar and the LNA, a Haftar victory would likely deal a serious blow to Qatar’s influence in North Africa.

Qatar’s foreign policy, often described as overly ambitious, relies on a complex web of relationships with rival powers across the region, including radical Islamist groups.

To advance its interests, Qatar has used its abundant financial resources, including by paying ransoms to radical groups to mediate the release of hostages, contributing to regional and international funds and investing heavily throughout the world.

However, the decline of the Muslim Brotherhood weakened Qatar’s foreign policy, exposing its role in supporting terror groups and provoking its neighbours to disengage with it.