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Saudi ups the ante: What next for embattled Qatar?

Qatar's position remains stronger than it might appear, with both funds to outlast blockade and friends from Ankara to Tehran, it may outplay its GCC foes

Issuing a set of "demands" late on Thursday, Saudi Arabia and its fellow travellers, including the United Arab Emirates, have now significantly upped the ante in their long-running dispute with Qatar. 

While some of the demands are clearly bracketed as counter-terror measures, at least according to the Saudi interpretation of terrorism, others - including the closure of Qatar’s flagship news broadcaster Al Jazeera and the reduction of Doha’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran and Turkey - are evidence of a much broader Saudi-led campaign to eliminate, or severely curtail, the emirate’s autonomous foreign policies. 

Long perturbed by Qatar’s use of Al Jazeera to gain leverage over Arab governments – as detailed in leaked US diplomatic cables – and, in 2011, the obviously powerful influence of the channel in supporting uprisings against Saudi-allied governments in Tunisia and Egypt, the inclusion of such a demand comes as no surprise. 

Similarly, the request that Doha stops providing asylum, financial backing and a media pulpit for the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership was also quite predictable. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE were greatly alarmed by the group’s ability to win elections in the post-Arab Spring aftermath and thus offer an alternative model of religiously conservative governance to the Islamic world that is ultimately at odds with the hereditary monarchies of the Gulf. 

Indeed, despite its own princes having historically helped fund the Brotherhood, and despite the fact that its own universities have long provided a pulpit for Brotherhood scholars, in 2014 Riyadh went as far as designating it a terrorist organisation.

Shifting alliances

In this context, pushing Qatar to distance itself from Turkey also makes sense from Riyadh’s perspective, as Ankara has also been providing the Brotherhood with support and, even publicly, does little to disguise its contempt for Saudi Arabia’s monarchical system.

Recent reports that Turkey might increase the size of its small military deployment in Qatar undoubtedly raised the stakes, with Riyadh genuinely concerned that a new Ankara-Doha axis might form in the region, potentially capable of countering Saudi Arabia’s supposed leadership of the Sunni world.

As for Doha’s relations with Iran, these now seem to have evolved from mere cordiality and cooperation over shared offshore gas fields into full-blown expressions of public solidarity after the announcement of Iranian "food aid flights" to help circumvent the Saudi-led sanctions against Qatar. This has raised a fear that another Tehran-led bloc may form to challenge Riyadh’s position and, ultimately, the integrity of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council club of Arab Gulf monarchies. 

If both Qatar and Oman are out, then the GCC is pretty much dead in the water

Already, of course, there have been signs that the Sultanate of Oman is drifting this way, with its leaders recognising the great potential of future economic cooperation with Iran. So if both Qatar and Oman are out, then the GCC is pretty much dead in the water.

Pot, kettle, black?

Calling on Qatar to stop funding and arming "terrorists" is a bit murkier and, quite rightly, has led to accusations of Saudi Arabia, if not the UAE, being the "pot calling the kettle black".

After all, as recently as 2009 a secret US Department of State cable written by the secretary of state herself complained that "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide" and that the kingdom remains "a critical financial support base for Al-Qaeda". 

More recently, of course, the 9/11 lawsuits working their way through the US justice system have seen lawyers representing the families of the victims claiming that they have "tonnes of evidence", pointing to the involvement of agents and institutions of the Saudi state.

On the other hand, there is little doubt that in recent years wealthy Qatari individuals, including some officials and perhaps also some state-backed charities, have also been playing a key role in the funding and weaponising of Sunni extremist groups around the region.

Certainly, an argument can be made that, on a per capita basis, Qatar is actually home to the greatest number of such financiers, with both Syria and Libya’s respective al-Qaeda franchises having evidently benefited from substantial Qatari support and – indirectly at least – also the Islamic State itself. 

After all, in the context of his support for Syrian rebels, in late 2012 Qatars deputy foreign minister explained to a security conference in Manama that "I am very much against excluding anyone at this stage, or bracketing them as Al-Qaeda."

More worryingly, in leaked correspondence from summer 2014, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton made it quite clear to one of her key advisers that "we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region".   

What next?

So, given all these demands – legitimate or otherwise – will they actually lead to anything, and what might happen next? After all, similar requests were put forward by Saudi Arabia and the UAE back in 2014, but eventually fizzled out after a series of protracted negotiations.

This time, at least from Riyadh’s perspective, there seems to be a real chance of winning, as they believe they have successfully courted the new US administration by underwriting significant new US arms purchases (or perhaps more accurately promising to honour earlier mothballed arms purchases) while also pledging to invest in US infrastructure. 

On top of this, Riyadh has likely also assured the US that its military facilities in Qatar, including the forward headquarters of US Centcom, will be guaranteed in the event of instability in Doha or a Saudi-sponsored regime change if its demands are not met.

A series of recent Donald Trump tweets, pointedly aimed at Qatar, seem to confirm Riyadh’s view, even if the US Department of State has tried to play things more cautiously.

But realistically can Qatar be expected to back down? Dismantling Al Jazeera, for example, would be the equivalent of stripping away its ruling Al-Thani family’s crown jewels, given that it has been lavished with support over the years and without doubt remains Qatar’s most influential "soft power" asset. Similarly, turning its back on the Brotherhood seems far-fetched, especially after so many years of close relations and mutually beneficial objectives.

Skeletons in the closet

Doing anything about terrorist funding also seems tricky, especially in the short or medium term, as not only are most of the networks in Doha seemingly operating at a sub-state level, but also many of Qatar’s more dubious activities in the wider region have clearly had either the de facto blessing - or at least a blind eye turned - by Western intelligence agencies. 

In late 2012 and 2013, for example, no less than 85 flights from Qatar to Turkey and Jordan transported weapons and other such equipment for undisclosed Syrian rebel groups. With the CIA confirmed by US officials at the time as having been involved in a "consultative role", and with many of these weapons now certainly in the hands of jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, Doha most definitely knows about some rather sinister "skeletons in the closet".

It is also possible, of course, that Qatar doesn’t even need to try to respond to Saudi Arabia’s demands. After all, with its apparent Turkish and Iranian backing, which was likely underestimated, it seems its adversaries can’t really launch any sort of military operation (although a palace coup remains a distinct possibility).

Meanwhile, Qatar’s access to still substantial sovereign wealth funds not only means Doha can buy some significant breathing room by stabilising its economy, keeping banks afloat and keeping the imports flowing, even if from far-flung origins, but it also means that it can keep competing with Saudi Arabia for US favour. 

In recent days, for example, Qatar has not only announced US arms purchases of its own, but has even indicated its willingness to make a strategic investment in the beleaguered American Airlines and, more broadly, the US airline industry – a sector Doha has correctly identified as one of the closest to the heart of the current US presidency.

Christopher M Davidson teaches at Durham University in England.  He is the author of a number of books on the region, including most recently Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye

Photo: A man walking past the Qatar Airways branch in the Saudi capital Riyadh in June 2017 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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