New rift among Arab states adds to Middle East security threat

March 26, 2014

A bitter feud among Arab states over relations with radical Islamic groups and how to confront regional rival Iran is threatening to bring new volatility to the already raging insecurity in the Middle East.

Qatar_rel95The feud pits the oil-rich emirate of Qatar against Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States of the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. At the heart of the rift is the financial and moral support by Qatar for militant Islamic groups in North Africa, Egypt and rebels fighting the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria, some of which are linked to Al Qaida and other jihadist groups.

Of special concern is Qatar’s vocal and financial support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a network of radical Islamic followers throughout the Middle East and North Africa and which has been declared a terrorist organization in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Another irritant is the Arabic news network Al Jazeera, which is financed by the Qatari government of Emir Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani, and which the other governments accuse of unfairly criticising their own administrations while slanting news reports in favour of radical Islamic groups.

Thus the three Al Jazeera journalists, Australian Peter Greste, Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, and local Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, who are on trial in Egypt on charges of “spreading false news” and aiding terrorists, are collateral damage in this broader dispute. The trial of the three is to resume next week.

The military-backed government in Cairo makes a more general accusation against Al Jazeera, saying it supports the Muslim Brotherhood of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by the army last July.

Indeed, the Qatari government in Doha has given refuge to Muslim Brotherhood leaders who fled Egypt after the coup. One, Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who also has Qatari citizenship, has been allowed by Doha to make inflammatory public statements against Saudi Arabia and the governments of the United Arab Emirates.

Further fuel was thrown on the fire of the dispute this week when an Egyptian court sentenced 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death for their actions during protests last August following the army’s ouster of Morsi and his brotherhood-backed government.

The roots of the dispute go back to the early 1990s when increasingly wealthy Qatar started to assert its own foreign policies. Doha tried to shrug off the regional domination of Saudi Arabia, with its insistence on giving paternal guidance to the small neighbouring states.

There were border skirmishes between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in 1992 and 1993 when Riyadh attempted to install an emir in Doha it thought would be more supportive of its regional leadership.

That didn’t work and in 2002 Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Doha in protest at Al Jazeera’s reports of domestic Saudi politics. Diplomatic relations were not fully restored until 2007 after Qatar agreed to moderate the network’s coverage.

But the friction re-ignited three years ago as the wave of pro-reform rebellions known as the Arab Spring swept across the region.

The Saudi Arabian and Gulf State governments believed that Qatar’s support for radicals endangered the security of the region, and attempted to rein in the Doha regime through a joint security accord agreed last November under the auspices of the Gulf Co-operation Council.

But on March 3, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain decided Qatar was in breach of the November pact because of its continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Two days later the three took the dramatic step of withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha.

They have followed up by demanding that their nationals who work for Al Jazeera resign from their posts. The three have stopped their sports teams from taking part in events in Qatar, and their government officials have refused to attend some meetings in Doha. Shops on the Saudi side of the border have stopped accepting Qatari currency, which they used to take at par with the Saudi riyal.

These actions have only increased the tensions within the region and efforts by Kuwait and Oman, working through recent meetings of the Gulf Co-operation Council and the summit of the Arab League in Kuwait this week, appear to have got nowhere.

Saudi Arabia is holding out the threat of further sanctions unless Qatar shows real commitment to joint regional security, including closing down the Al Jazeera news network.

There are reports that at a meeting of Gulf Co-operation Council foreign ministers in Riyadh earlier this month the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Faysal threatened to close the border with Qatar unless the Doha government falls into line. Qatar, with its limited channels to the outside world, is vulnerable to economic sanctions like this, and the damage could be even more serious if Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates follow Saudi Arabia’s lead.

Sanctions by its neighbours could disrupt Qatar’s preparations to host the World Cup of soccer in 2022. Extreme embargoes, such as the closing of national airspace to Qatar Airways, would be severely disruptive, especially for flights to Europe and Africa.

The Qatar issue is going to be top of the agenda for United States President Barack Obama when he visits Saudi Arabia on March 28. But there is little expectation that he can succeed in healing the rift when the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council have, so far, failed.

Indeed, there is a strong strain of thought in the region that Riyadh is so incensed at the insolence of the upstart Qatari emir that it is merely waiting for the Obama visit to be over before increasing the pressure on Doha.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014


Further reading:
Reporters Without Borders Egypt page

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