September 24, 2017

British government must not turn a blind eye to Doha’s dangerous foreign policy

Strong ties. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) shakes hands with British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon after signing agreements in Jeddah, on September 19. (Saudi Press Agency)

The United Kingdom has much to lose from a permanent split in the Arabian Gulf. A landmark conference aimed at promoting trade between Britain and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) this year in London is reported to have been postponed because of the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.

Talks over a potential UK-GCC trade deal, a cornerstone of Britain’s post-Brexit international trade policy, are on hold until GCC members are willing to sit together at the negotiating table.

A united GCC is in Britain’s interests and, for that reason, the British government is en­tirely right to urge a resolution to this dispute but there will be no resolution unless the causes of the crisis are addressed.

Qatar stands accused by its neighbours of supporting extrem­ism and terrorism. These claims must be taken seriously. No mat­ter how much Qatar invests in the United Kingdom, the British government must not turn a blind eye to Doha’s dangerous foreign policy.

At its very core, this dispute is about competing visions for the future of the Middle East. The quartet countries support stabil­ity and security across the region. Qatar, for tactical and ideologi­cal reasons, has backed political Islamists whose objective across the region is revolution.

This is most obviously apparent in Qatar’s support for the Mus­lim Brotherhood in Egypt. Doha was an early backer of Muham­mad Morsi’s abortive Islamist gov­ernment. Other parts of the Gulf view the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. They argue that the Brotherhood’s ideology is a gateway to terrorism.

The Qataris argue that this crisis is simply a dispute over designa­tions. They say that the groups they support are not terrorist organisations. They argue that hosting Hamas and the Taliban in Doha and providing their officials with funds and safe haven do not constitute support.

In some cases, Qatar’s claims might be accepted. The status of the Muslim Brotherhood divides international opinion, although the British government views membership as a “possible indica­tor of extremism.”

Other examples are more clear-cut. Western media have been reporting on links between Qatari intelligence officials and leaders of the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, which rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, in Syria. A US think-tank cited 18 instances in which Qatar facilitated ransom payments to al-Nusra Front.

In Libya, Qatar has long sup­ported militias linked to al-Qaeda. There is Al Jazeera footage of Hamad al-Marri, who leads Qatar’s special forces, alongside members of a Libyan al-Qaeda affiliate, which is designated as a terror­ist group in the United Kingdom. There is no dispute over the designations of these groups and Qatar’s support for them cannot be ignored.

It is clear Qatar takes a wilfully soft approach to terror financi­ers. Five Qatari citizens feature on the British Treasury’s sanction list accused of financing al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. All five men are designated terror­ists by the United States and the United Nations. Qatar claims they “have been arrested, prosecuted, banned from travelling and had assets frozen” — and yet there is no suggestion that they are in prison. Should the British govern­ment not ask why that might be?

Qatar has ignored these issues in the belief that it has the wealth and resources to ride out the crisis. It has opened its cheque­book and signed defence deals with Britain, Italy and others. It has engaged in headline-grabbing, soft-power initiatives, such as Paris Saint-Germain’s extravagant purchase of Neymar. Qatar has sought closer ties with Turkey and renewed diplomatic relations with Iran.

Rather than seeking dialogue with its neighbours, its actions have made a resolution to the dispute more distant.

Western officials have shuttled between Gulf capitals seeking to end the impasse but the crisis risks collapsing the GCC. At a time when the Middle East is engulfed by war and instability, a division of this kind would be a deeply un­desirable outcome. A united GCC is in all our interests.

If Qatar is innocent of the charg­es against it, then let it demon­strate its innocence. The fact that it has ignored them and engaged in ad hominem attacks against its accusers should raise suspicions. If the country is guilty, then its actions are a threat to global peace and security. If Qatar’s invest­ments are the price for our silence, then we are selling it too cheap.