Qatar’s designs in Yemen are opportunistic and dangerous
While much ink has been spilt on Qatar’s shadowy links with the Muslim Brotherhood and alleged support for extremist groups, little has been said about Doha’s intervention in the Yemeni conflict. The recent assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, however, put Doha’s meddling in the war-battered country back into the spotlight.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, on December 2, posted on Twitter that there was evidence of Qatari attempts to mediate on behalf of Houthi militias, which, he said, “will not succeed because it is against the will of the Yemeni people.”
The remarks suggest that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani had offered to mediate a truce between the Houthis and forces loyal to the former Yemeni president. The proposal was presumably rejected by Saleh.
While Qatar, through its QNA news agency, denied the allegations, statements by a member of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) gave further credence to the claims.
Speaking with Asharq al-Awsat, GPC member Adel Shujaa claimed that multiple Qatari officials had attempted to mediate between the Houthis and Saleh. On the first occasion, the Qatari Foreign Ministry contacted Saleh’s bureau to propose mediation efforts. Doha then approached former Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qarbi and proposed to host talks on mediation between the GPC and the Houthis.
These decisions reveal two main things: First, Qatar’s move was not made for the sake of peace or to end hostilities but to slow any action by Saleh’s forces. Second, Qatar is desperately looking for temporary allies amid its crisis with four Arab countries.
Qatar’s latest involvement in the Yemeni conflict brings back memories of its murky dealings in Yemen in 2007, when a ceasefire between the Yemeni Army and the Houthis ended the fourth Saada war.
Unsurprisingly, the peace-broker at that time was former Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Qatar’s special rapport with Iran, which was then accused by the Yemeni government of backing and radicalising the Houthis, played a key role in putting Doha in a comfortable position to mediate.
The Qatari peace plan, which took shape in June 2007, offered Houthi leaders Abdulmalik al-Houthi, Abdul Karim al-Houthi and Abdullah al-Ruzami temporary exile in Doha. Fighting in the north, however, did not subside and several Yemeni political groups and officials condemned the Doha Agreement for giving the Houthis a respite and leverage over the Yemeni government.
There are also questions relating to Qatar’s financial dealings. While Qatar, the Aden-based Madar Strategic Studies stated, was believed to have sent more than $1 million to Yemen for reconstruction purposes in Saada, no reconstruction work took place. It is likely that the money was channelled elsewhere, possibly to support and arm Houthi rebels.
This is supported by a recently leaked letter that documents the Houthis’ gratitude to Qatar for its help. In the letter, which was written, signed and stamped by Badreddin al-Houthi in February 2010, the Houthi leader acknowledged, with immense gratitude, the invaluable support of the former Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad, who was designated as the “Caliph of Muslims” in the letter.
The Houthis’ gratitude is understandable: Had it not been for Qatar’s support, the extremist group would have been destroyed a long time ago. The rebels even tried to return Doha’s favour when its rift with the Arab quartet erupted, expressing support and readiness to cooperate with the country.
Qatar’s foreign policy in Yemen was not limited to the Houthis. Al- Islah party, a political group dominated by the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, also enjoyed substantial support from Doha. With that support, the already powerful al-Islah played a key role in the uprising that ousted Saleh in November 2011.
At that point, it was widely reported that Qatar had funded pro-Muslim Brotherhood news organisations such as Yemen’s Shabab and the Turkey-based Belqees TV, which is owned by al-Islah member Tawakkol Karman.
While Saleh rejected Qatar’s attempts to meddle, saying in a 2011 speech that “We derive our legitimacy from the strength of our glorious Yemeni people, not from Qatar,” the tiny Gulf emirate’s policies have left lasting repercussions.
Indeed, Qatar’s destructive presence goes far beyond its attempts to mediate, finance or forge alliances. Early last June, the Arab quartet revealed that, according to trusted intelligence sources, Qatar decided to join Operation Decisive Storm — the military intervention in Yemen made up of a coalition of nine African and Middle East countries — to provide the Houthis with coordinates of the Saudi-led coalition. This led to the killing of several Saudi and Emirati soldiers in Yemen, the sources said.
Qatar, in the end, has overlooked several important factors regarding Yemen: its Arab identity, the threat it might pose to neighbouring states, the fragility of the country’s state institutions and the complex political and tribal landscape that exists there. All told, Qatar’s role in Yemen is another example of the country’s reckless opportunism in a region that is reeling from turmoil and conflicts.