A nasty war of words has broken out between two bittersweet allies and economic heavyweights in the Persian Gulf. Beneath a veneer of normality, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are reft by animosity and rivalry, which surfaced last week after the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, visited Saudi Arabia.
In meetings involving the heads of government of Muslim countries, including the Saudi king, and US President Donald Trump, Sheikh Tamim called Iran a force for stability.
At the Riyadh summits, the heads of government appeared to agree to keep Iran in political and economic quarantine – even though Iran and Qatar have a strong relationship. They also appeared to agree to try to counter the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is blacklisted in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, but has a privileged status in Qatar. The chief ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, is a celebrity in Doha. He has unparalleled direct access to the emir and the emir’s father and predecessor, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
If left unchecked, the row could open big rifts in the ostensibly united Gulf Cooperation Council – eventually, perhaps, affecting the price of oil and prompting the rivals to settle old scores on battlefields in Yemen, Libya and Syria.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis warned Qatar that maintaining its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood might be costly, and that Trump was considering classifying the organization as a terrorist group. The Qataris ignored the warning, refusing to sever their ties with the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian armed forces removed from power in a coup d’état three years ago. Qatar is also a generous patron of the Syrian and Palestinian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Emir of Qatar is no fanatic, but uses the Muslim Brotherhood to increase his leverage in Arab politics.
The Emir of Qatar left the summit meetings in Riyadh dissatisfied and upset. He had expected Trump to begin his tour of the Middle East in Doha, rather than Riyadh, and so acknowledge the new status that Qatar has attained. For years the emir and his family have been spending billions of dollars trying to make Qatar a champion of modernity and herald of change in the Arab world.
The discovery of huge gas reserves turned Qatar from one of the most obscure countries in the world into one of the wealthiest, wielding political clout and exerting economic influence well beyond the Gulf. Qatar will put on the soccer World Cup in 2022. It has set up the Qatar Education Foundation, which has put satellite campuses of US universities such as Carnegie Mellon and Georgetown in Doha.
Qatar denied the emir had said what he said. The government asserted the website had been hacked to make it seem he had uttered words he never uttered
In 1991 Qatari forces took part in the US-led military campaign to reverse Iraqi expansionism, contributing to the liberation of the Saudi Arabian city of Khafji from Iraqi occupation. Qatar now contains the biggest US military base outside the US, where 10,000 servicemen and women are stationed.
Two days after his return from Riyadh, the emir made a speech at a military ceremony, which was broadcast on state-run television. He spoke of his excellent relations with Iran, describing the Iranians as “stabilizers” of the region who “cannot be ignored.” The emir disputed the implication of the US position at the Riyadh summits, saying: “Nobody has the right to accuse of us of terrorism, just because they declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group or because they are not ready to tolerate the kind of resistance embraced by Hamas or Hezbollah.” And he took a swipe at Saudi Arabia, saying: “The real danger lies in the behavior of certain governments which have bred terrorism themselves, by adopting an extreme version of Islam.”
Soon after, the recording of the speech was removed from the website of the state-run television station. The Qatari government denied that the emir had said what he said. The government asserted that the website had been hacked to make it seem the emir uttered words he never uttered. Yet the recording of the speech also appeared on the Qatar News Agency Instagram account.
Saudi Arabia responded to the emir’s words by having its news media smear him. Al-Arabiya television broadcast a report that the US forces that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden found documents in bin Laden’s home in Pakistan which showed a direct link between al-Qaeda and Qatar. The newspaper Okaz accused Qatar of siding with “enemies of the nation” and fiercely attacked al-Jazeera, the international broadcaster backed by the Qatari royal family.
Al-Jazeera has often been accused of being a channel for al-Qaeda propaganda, especially after it was the first television station to broadcast Bin Laden’s speech claiming credit for the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. In the past week, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have all blocked broadcasts by al-Jazeera and other Qatari television stations. All four countries have also withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar.
Showing no inclination to mend broken bridges, the Emir of Qatar telephoned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on his re-election. The telephone call set alarm bells ringing throughout the Arabian peninsula. It opened cracks in the united front the Arab World has been trying to present to Iran – cracks which the Iranian government is sure to try to widen.