Three years on, Qatar frustrated by boycott but unwilling to mend ways

Economically exhausted by the Arab quartet’s boycott, it is hoping that lobbying the US administration and reliance on PR and media spin could offer it a way out.
Friday 05/06/2020
A 2017 file picture of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, right, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Doha. (AP)
A 2017 file picture of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, right, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Doha. (AP)

LONDON –As Qatar’s diplomatic crisis with its Arab neighbours enters into the fourth year, the small Gulf emirate is still playing a game of international mirrors, hoping the intervention of Washington or the use of PR can help resolve the ongoing dispute in its favour.

Economically exhausted by the Arab quartet’s boycott, it is hoping that lobbying the US administration and reliance on PR and media spin could offer it a way out.

Both have been tried before and proven to be no substitute for adherence to the fundamental demands of its neighbours, including that it distance itself from extremists and adopt policies that show more awareness of the threats posed by Iranian and Turkish interference in the region.

Beside the exchange of visits at the high level, Doha has crossed the rubicon a few times with Tehran and Ankara. Turkey, for instance, has established two military bases in Qatar, with Ankara boasting of its work to protect the Qatari dynasty from unexpected coups.

Over the last few weeks, Doha has focused its lobbying effort on trying to convince Washington that the Arab quartet’s boycott goes against US interests and complicates the US strategy in the Middle East. Doha, which hosts Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US base in the region, is saying that flights from Qatar over Iran’s airspace could pose a threat to the US military’s air travel.

Having not addressed the region’s fight against the terrorist threat of ISIS for a long time, it is now suddenly claiming to be the standard bearer of the cause.

Friday, Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani proclaimed during a meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Small Group that despite the coronavirus pandemic, his country remains “committed to combating ISIS in Iraq and Syria and to the goals of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS to create conditions for a permanent defeat of the terrorist group through a comprehensive and multifaceted effort.”

But many question Doha’s sincerity about combating extremism, as it continues to face accusations of providing financial and military assistance to Islamic extremists, including those designated terror organisations. Qatar has in fact developed a reputation of being an unabashed financier of extremism. It is suspected of providing millions of dollars to terrorist groups under the guise of paying ransom. It stands accused of funding groups like the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood and hosting some of their figures on its soil, where they are often provided with media platforms to speak out against the West and Qatar’s Arab neighbours.

US President Donald Trump has previously accused Qatar of funding terror “at a high level” and said that they had to end such conduct.

In recent years, Qatar has tried to seize on statements by US officials about the need to resolve the Gulf dispute, spinning them to create the impression that Washington is on Doha’s side in the crisis and is seeking to have the boycott against it lifted. The truth of the matter, however, is that official US statements about the crisis were often routine statements of American foreign policy that in no way validate Qatar’s “jubilant” interpretations. In some other instances, conflicting messages from the White House about the issue seem to have cancelled each other out.

News and leaks about the staggering amounts Doha has spent on lobbying personalities and organisations close to the White House have also undermined the credibility of its mouthpieces in the US.

US publication The Daily Beast reported Thursday that radio show host John Fredericks and former member of President Trump’s election campaign received $180,000 from Qatar to interview “highly ranking Qatar officials, business leaders, experts” about “Qatar’s progress.” The radio host defended the money he received as payment for “advertising.”

Besides, Washington is unlikely to focus on Qatar’s entreaties as it has many domestic and foreign policy issues to worry about, including the turmoil created by the George Floyd case, the feud with China and the road to upcoming elections.

Experts say the essence of the matter today for Doha is its economic hardship as the country continues to suffer from economic and financial fallouts, despite its denial. It has been three years since an air, land and sea blockade was imposed on Qatar by fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, as well as non-GCC member Egypt.

Expatriate workers are protesting over unpaid wages. Its national airline carrier, deeply hurt by the costly detours it has to make to avoid neighbours’ airspace, is slashing its workforce and seeking government rescue.

There have been episodic attempts at mediation. Each time, according to diplomatic sources, Qatar has been asked to mend its ways.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, told the world last November there was “small progress” in resolving the dispute  but that Doha would “not make any concessions that will affect our sovereignty and interfere with our domestic or foreign policy.” He has repeated the same position over the last few days.

In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the Gulf rift, Qatar’s exasperation became increasingly clear as reports surfaced that Doha was considering leaving the GCC.

Before that, it tried to give the impression of diplomatic movement with a flurry of trips by the Qatari foreign minister, who travelled to Oman and Kuwait in an attempt to help break the country’s diplomatic isolation.

During his visits, al-Thani conveyed messages from Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani to Kuwaiti Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah and Omani Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq al-Said.

On May 27, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al Sabah arrived in Saudi Arabia for a short visit to deliver a written message to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud from the Kuwaiti emir.

Despite the impression of movement, the sought-after breakthrough in the crisis remained elusive. Doha’s main self-contradiction, experts say, has been in trying to wiggle its way out of the quandary without changing its policies.

Making things worse is Qatar’s temptation when all else fails to conduct media campaigns against boycotting GCC states.

During the next few weeks, Gulf region watchers expect to see a few of those.