August 20, 2017

Saudi leaders bestow legitimacy on potential contender to Qatari throne, show loss of confidence in Sheikh Tamim

New interlocutor. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud walks with Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassem al-Thani in Tangier, on August 16. (SPA)

London- Saudi leaders have had high-profile talks with a key member of a disgruntled wing of Qatar’s royal fam­ily, signalling a loss of con­fidence in Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The talks have also been interpreted as an attempt to bestow legitimacy on an alternative interlocutor to Qatari rulers.

Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassem al-Thani met with Saudi leaders in Jeddah and Tangier. Sheikh Abdullah is the brother of Sheikh Ahmed bin Ali al-Thani, who was overthrown in 1972 by a cousin, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, the grandfather of Sheikh Tamim.

Initial talks between Sheikh Ab­dullah and Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in Jeddah were said to focus on en­suring access for Qatari pilgrims to Muslim holy sites during the haj. Doha had alleged restrictions had been placed on citizens wishing to perform the pilgrimage, triggering speculation that it might be consid­ering support for internationalisa­tion of the annual pilgrimage.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al- Jubeir said any calls for internation­alising the pilgrimage were tanta­mount to a “declaration of war.”

The Jeddah talks led to a deci­sion by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to open the land border be­tween Saudi Arabia and Qatar and send aeroplanes to Doha to pick up Qatari pilgrims and host them at his expense.

On August 16, a day after his meeting with the Saudi crown prince, Sheikh Abdullah travelled to Tangier to meet with King Salman, who is vacationing in Morocco.

In tweets following the meeting, Sheikh Abdullah thanked King Sal­man for “accepting his mediation” on the haj issue and hinted at a wid­er role he could continue to play in the future.

Based on a request, which he said he had made to the king, “an opera­tions room staffed by Saudis will be created to take care of the Qataris’ affairs and will be under my own supervision considering the sever­ing of ties,” he said.

Saudi media, which welcomed the role of Sheikh Abdullah, extolled the virtues of his branch of the Tha­ni family, saying its members are “known for their good governance and administration of the coun­try and good diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries in the last century.”

The talks between the Saudi leadership and the special role that Sheikh Abdullah is trying to take on — as a mediator on all issues of con­cern to Qataris and not just as a haj facilitator — led official Gulf sources to describe the Saudi-Qatari con­tacts outside the official realm as a turning point in the stand-off be­tween Doha and the Saudi-led Arab bloc of countries since the start of the boycott against Qatar in June.

The highly publicised meetings with Sheikh Abdullah fuelled spec­ulation about the possibility that Saudi leaders are grooming the Qa­tari royal figure for a role in a regime change scenario in Doha, especially given that Sheikh Abdullah’s branch of the Thani family considers itself better positioned and more entitled to rule Qatar than the branch of the current emir.

Gulf leaders have said they are promoting “policy change” and not “regime change.”

Considering traditional Gulf re­gion dynamics, other Gulf capitals that are supportive of the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar are likely to pick up on Riyadh’s cue and possibly start dealing with Sheikh Abdullah as an alternative to Qatari rulers.