Guest Column

Why the gulf turned on Qatar

2017-06-11 06:10
US AND THEM US President Donald Trump poses with Muslim leaders after the US-Gulf Summit at the King Abdul Aziz International Conference Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 21 PHOTO: /Getty Images

US AND THEM US President Donald Trump poses with Muslim leaders after the US-Gulf Summit at the King Abdul Aziz International Conference Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 21 PHOTO: /Getty Images

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Thembisa Fakude

The isolation campaign of Qatar led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain demonstrates the political anomaly of the Gulf.

The sudden and drastic political sanctioning of Qatar is unprecedented and demonstrates the level of harshness they can inflict on their own if they “misbehave”.

Qatar – together with Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait – is part of the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC). The GCC is a political and economic union that was founded in 1981 to serve the interests of the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia has dominated the GCC from its inception, including its foreign relations positions.

However, over the years, Qatar has adopted independent foreign positions that conflicted with certain countries within the GCC. Among those was the establishment of Al Jazeera Media Network in 1996. The establishment and the continued funding of Al Jazeera by Qatar has heightened the political tension within the GCC.

Most members of the council regard Al Jazeera as an extended arm of Qatar that is meant to destabilise the region. The expectation is for Qatar to control Al Jazeera, including influencing its editorial independence whenever necessary. Qatar has insisted, correctly, that Al Jazeera is an independent entity from government. Indeed, its manpower and composition are different to those that have dominated the news media space in the region.

Two incidences

The latest political rift in the Gulf can be traced to two incidences.

First, there was a report that was published by the Qatar News Agency (QNA) on May 23 this year that attributed false remarks to the Emir of Qatar, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, “that appeared friendly to Iran and Israel and questioned whether President Donald Trump would last in office”. Qatar issued a statement soon after those remarks were published, refuting the reports as fake news. In a statement, Qatar claimed that the report was as a result of hacking of the QNA website. Those claims were confirmed on June 7 in an exclusive report released by CNN that stated that “intelligence gathered by the US security agencies indicates that Russian hackers were behind the intrusion first reported by the Qatari government two weeks ago”.

The fake news reports where published and reported widely by some news organisations in the region, even after Qatar’s government refuted the reports.

Second, days after the intercept, an online publication based in the US released the first batch of leaked emails of the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba.

The intercept leaks “show a close relationship between Al Otaiba and a pro-Israel, neoconservative think-tank – the Foundation for Defence of Democracies”. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

David Hearst, the editor in chief of the Middle East Eye, told Al Jazeera the emails laid bare the “mechanism behind a high-stakes campaign that is being launched against Qatar”.

The sequence of events above attempts to explain the reasons for the latest political spat. However, there is other political tension between certain Gulf states and Qatar that are worth mentioning to put everything into perspective.

Qatar is the second-largest natural gas exporter in the world after Russia. It shares gas exploration activities with Iran in the Gulf – it is one of the many ties that binds them. Qatar’s gas exploration fields are in the southern portion of the Gulf known as North Field, while Iran explores to the north in what is called South Pars.

Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement and his indication to pull out of the P5+1 Agreement, also known as the Iran Nuclear Agreement, put Qatar in a difficult political position. The sources of revenue for most Gulf states remain undiversified – they are still largely dependent on petroleum. Gas is the preferred energy of the future and it puts Qatar and Iran in a different position to those of the GCC. Qatar and Iran stand to benefit more in the gas-dominated economy of the future. It is expected, therefore, that Qatar and the rest of the Gulf states will differ on many policies, including blanket endorsement of Trump’s decisions, the Paris Agreement and the possibility of pulling out from the P5+1 Agreement.

The isolation of Qatar

Unlike most Gulf countries, the P5+1 Agreement was welcomed by Qatar.

The normalisation of Iran will certainly facilitate business for the country. Qatar has a substantial fleet of gas carriers that could be used by Iran as it re-enters the lucrative gas market.

Gas exploration at such a scale has placed Qatar firmly as an important force in the world. It has therefore become boisterous in its demonstration of political independence. The wealth that the country accumulated over a short space of time has further strengthened its resolve. Qatar has used its wealth to buy influence and support throughout the world. According to The Telegraph, “Qatar owns more of London than the Queen”.

Moreover, Qatar’s foreign policy has tended to mirror the aspirations of the masses of the Middle East. It was quite vocal in its support of the Arab Spring and opened Doha into a meeting space for the revolutionary and progressive forces of the region. When the Arab Spring backfired in Egypt, many fled to Doha for political refuge.

Qatar and Turkey were also the first among Muslim countries to condemn the coup in Egypt. Consequently, Turkey and Qatar host the largest numbers of Ikhwanul Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood) in the Middle East.

Qatar also hosts the leadership of Hamas, which was given a safe passage into the country when the conflict in Syria ensued in 2011. Qatar’s relationship with Hamas and other Palestinian factions has elevated the status of Qatar within the rank and file in the region. The country is also engaged in mediation in various conflicts in Africa and the Middle East.

Finally, the red carpet that was rolled out for Trump, notwithstanding his declared negative sentiments about Islam and Muslims, was humiliating to many in the Arab and Muslim world.

Most felt that the unelected leadership could have, at least, stood up to Trump on basic issues. They could have demanded clarifications on his past comments that were laced with Islamophobia.

Instead, Trump was allowed to present a “lecture on Islam” to the Arab and Muslim leaders gathered in Riyadh and thereafter left the country scot-free.

The isolation of Qatar couldn’t have come at a better time; it will absolve Qatar from the negative perception of the collective Arab leadership, particularly after Trump’s visit to Riyadh.

Fakude is the head of the English unit at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies in Doha, the former bureau chief of Al Jazeera in southern Africa and the former chairperson of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Southern Africa

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