Is Qatar paying the price for its ‘Hamad Doctrine’?
London- The roots of Qatar’s breakdown in relations with its Gulf partners Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain date to the rule of former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
Sheikh Hamad became the emir of Qatar in June 1995 following a soft palace coup against his father. In June 2013, Sheikh Hamad abdicated and passed power to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
The move was viewed as an attempt by the father to ease tensions with Qatar’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbours by having a fresh start led by his son. “It’s time we open a new page in the march of our nation where the new generation takes responsibility using their infallible energy and creative thoughts,” Sheikh Hamad said at the time.
Observers, however, said the country’s foreign policy did not change much with the new ruler, who either took guidance from the former emir or preferred to walk in his father’s footsteps.
“Sheikh Tamim is his father’s son — and of Sheikha Moza, the glamorous and equally nonconformist former first lady of Qatar,” wrote Roula Khalaf in the Financial Times. “He inherited their unconventional spirit and their penchant for mischief. It was always an illusion to believe he would chart a radically different course.”
In November 1996, Qatar launched Al Jazeera satellite television, whose programmes and reporting have often been a thorn in the side of many GCC and Arab countries.
“For many years Al Jazeera has been a bone of contention for the Gulf states and Egypt, even before its heyday of rolling news coverage during the ‘Arab spring’,” wrote Emirati commentator Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi.
“In September 2002, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Qatar over what it regarded as critical coverage of the Saudi peace plan, which offered Israel the normalisation of ties in exchange for peace with the Palestinians,” he said. “In 2014, the very same three Gulf states withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar for ‘interfering in their internal affairs, jeopardising regional security’ as well as supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Doha’s critics accuse it of supporting Islamist groups across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are demanding that Qatar make a clean break from its past policies.
“We had an agreement in 2014, on paper, signed by the emir of Qatar, pledging that he would abide by the various grievances that were put in the agreement. They have not held to that agreement, so clearly there is a lack of trust,” Anwar bin Mohammed Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, told CNN.
“Various countries — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt and other countries — are fed up with this sort of duplicity that we’ve seen, that has been undermining the region… It is time for cooler heads, to restructure Qatar’s approach on foreign policy,” he said.
Riyadh accused Doha of backing Islamic extremism, a charge Qatar denied, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir demanded that Qatar end its support for the Palestinian group Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to restore ties with its neighbours.
Critics of Qatar say it has benefited from hosting the region’s biggest US military base but Washington’s support may be coming to an end under the presidency of Donald Trump who appears to have given his approval of the Saudi-led measures against Doha.
One incident that observers touted as being the cause of the latest crisis is Qatar’s alleged payment of $1 billion in April to radical groups to secure the release of members of the Qatari royal family held hostage in southern Iraq.
“Commanders of militant groups and government officials in the region told the Financial Times that Doha spent the money in a transaction that secured the release of 26 members of a Qatari falconry party in southern Iraq and about 50 militants captured by jihadis in Syria,” the newspaper said. “By their telling, Qatar paid off two of the most frequently blacklisted forces of the Middle East in one fell swoop: An al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria and Iranian security officials.” Qatar denied the report’s allegations.
France called on Qatar to answer the questions its neighbours had asked. “Qatar must be completely transparent and answer precisely the questions that have been asked notably by its neighbours. That’s what France is asking for,” French government spokesman Christophe Castaner said.
Most of the points of contention between Qatar and its adversaries — which include alleged relations with Iran and its proxies — were inherited from the days of Sheikh Hamad. It is unclear whether Sheikh Tamim is willing or able to change them.
“We can shift any position if we believe that this is the wrong position and if the parties would sit with us and convince us that we are wrong,” Meshal bin Hamad al- Thani, Qatar’s ambassador to the United States, told Al Jazeera.