Showdown escalates over Doha’s policies
London- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have stepped up pressure on Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism to destabilise the region, a charge the Gulf state denies.
The four Arab countries on June 5 announced they were cutting of diplomatic relations and closing of transport ties with Qatar in what is seen as their strongest measures yet against Doha. Qataris living in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain were given two weeks to leave and the country’s diplomats had just 48 hours to head home.
Qatari aeroplanes are banned from using Saudi and Egyptian airspace and the country’s only land border — with Saudi Arabia through which it imports about 40% of its food — is shut. The moves are expected to hurt Qatar, despite its reassurances that everything is under control.
The three Gulf countries withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in 2014 for Doha’s alleged interference in their internal affairs but relations were restored nine months later. The Gulf states are now arguing that Qatar failed to meet obligations that it agreed then and said that unless they see a change in Qatari policies, ties will remain cut.
“This is not about regime change — this is about change of policy, change of approach,” Emirati State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told Agence France-Presse (AFP). Gargash said the four Arab countries seek a “political commitment (from Qatar) to change course” as Doha’s foreign policy “has gone wild.”
Gargash vowed stronger economic pressure against Qatar if it does not respond to their requests. “If this (current measure) doesn’t work then we will have to also escalate our economic steps,” he told France 24 television.
Doha, however, remained defiant, with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al- Thani saying: “We are not ready to surrender and will never be ready to surrender the independence of our foreign policy.”
The United States, which has a major military base in Qatar that hosts 10,000 troops, appears to have given mixed signals. US President Donald Trump initially backed the measures against Qatar but later offered “to help the parties resolve their differences,” only to back them again by accusing Qatar of funding terrorism “at a very high level.” An hour earlier, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked Qatar’s neighbours to ease their measures against Doha, urging “calm and thoughtful dialogue.”
It remains unclear if the dispute would be resolved soon as previous Kuwaiti and Turkish mediation efforts have yet to bear fruit. Turkey enjoys good ties with Saudi Arabia but is viewed as more allied to Qatar. Both Turkey and Qatar host Muslim Brotherhood members and support similar rebel groups in Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan approved a bill by parliament allowing Turkish troops to be deployed in Qatar, where they also have a military base, in a move that is viewed as an attempt to break the isolation that Doha faces.
The Turkish announcement and an Iranian pledge to help Qatar with food supplies prompted Gargash to accuse Qatar of seeking the aid of Turkey and Iran in its dispute with the Gulf states.
“The great escalation from the confusing and confused brother country and the request for political protection from two non-Arab countries and military protection from one of them could be a new tragic and comic chapter,” Gargash wrote on Twitter.
Sheikh Mohammed visited Moscow to discuss the crisis with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. “We call for all contradictions to be resolved at the negotiation table through a mutually respectful dialogue,” Lavrov said.
Kuwait and Oman are the only two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members that have not cut ties with Qatar but they are likely to come under pressure from Riyadh not to veer too close to Doha.
The problem the four Arab states have with Qatar can be explained in a statement issued June 8, in which they branded 12 groups and 59 people linked to Qatar as being involved in terrorism. Qatar dismissed the statement as “baseless allegations.”
The list included 26 Egyptian nationals, most notable of whom are Muslim Brotherhood-linked cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Salafi preacher Wagdy Ghoneim. The Muslim Brotherhood is designated as a terrorist organisation by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and those countries want Doha to expel Brotherhood members as well as officials from the Palestinian movement Hamas.
Five Libyans were named, including former Islamist commander Abdelhakim Belhadj and other militia leaders opposed to Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Egypt. Both the UAE and Egypt want Qatar to stop its alleged backing of militias opposed to Haftar.
Iranian-linked Bahraini opposition groups were also included on the blacklist and Manama wants Doha to side clearly with the Bahraini government.
What is likely to be the most difficult part for Doha to stomach, however, is the list’s naming of 18 Qataris, some of whom are members of the ruling family, politicians and businessmen. It includes names like Abdullah bin Khalid al-Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family who previously served as the country’s minister of the interior.
The Gulf countries also want Qatar’s Al Jazeera television to change what they see as a pro-Islamist editorial line.
Unlike the row in 2014, the three Gulf countries appear less inclined to settle for less than a real change of Qatar’s policies.