The crisis in the Gulf turned sour over the weekend and is clearly far from over, following a phone call on Friday between Qatar’s Emir Tamim Bin Hamad and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
Initial reports said that Tamim offered to sit down and discuss the ongoing dispute with members of the Quartet – an alliance headed by Saudi Arabia that includes Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE. Those states collectively broke off relations with Doha in June, accusing the 37-year-old emir of cuddling up to Iran, embracing non-state players that spread terror throughout the Arab World, allying himself with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and spreading “hate and venom” through the region via the Qatari state-funded al-Jazeera TV.
Viewed by millions around the world, al-Jazeera has played host to notorious figures in the past such as Osama Bin Laden, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, and Abu Mohammad al-Golani, leader of the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra. Qatar has, of course, denied all charges of state terrorism and refused to alter its policies, claiming that the Quartet’s demands “infringe” on its sovereignty.
Whatever was discussed over the phone between the Qatari and Saudi leaders, the outcomes were not good. Hours later, Saudi Arabia suspended any further talks with Qatar and a chief adviser to the royal court in Riyadh accused Tamim and his father, Hamad Bin Khalifa, of spreading unrest and terror in the neighborhood, branding the latter “Gaddafi of the Gulf.”
Al-Jazeera said the phone call had been arranged by US President Donald Trump, who had received the emir of Kuwait, Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah – a Gulf leader who has been trying hard to contain the Saudi-Qatari rift – at the White House. Al-Sabah reported that Qatar was willing to negotiate, despite having rejected the Quartet’s demands. His mediation has been rejected.
Meanwhile, preparations are underway in London for a high-profile conference organized for the Qatari opposition. It will be chaired by the veteran opposition leader Khaled al-Hail and hosted by the British Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski, who is a strong ally of Saudi Arabia.
Scheduled for 14 September, the event aims at “bringing democracy and constitutionalism” to Qatar, or in other words, bringing down the regime of Emir Tamim Bin Hamad, who inherited power from his father in 2013.
“The event is mostly directed at the international audience rather than at Qataris” said Cinzia Bianco, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Gulf State Analytics firm. Speaking to Asia Times, she added: In the agenda posted on the conference’s website, it clearly says that support of the world powers is essential for change in Qatar. This is particularly the case as the presence of Turkish troops on Qatari soil is a key deterrent for any action to unseat the current Emir. Therefore, the aim of the conference seems to be building international consensus around the idea of a new Emir in Doha.”
Bianco added that regime change in Doha, at present “does not appear within reach,” and that “It doesn’t appear that many Qatari reformists are involved beyond Mr al-Hail.”
Prominent Kuwaiti journalist Fouad Hashem agreed with that assessment. He told Asia Times: “Khalid al-Hail says that there are 32,000 Qatari opposition members living abroad. That number is untrue. The real opposition is within Qatar, not abroad, and can be found in the armed forces and within the royal family itself.”
The royal challenger is Abdullah Bin Ali, a distant cousin of Emir Tamim who appeared out of nowhere last August and is being marketed as an “emir-in-waiting” by Saudi media. On August 17, he was received by Saudi King Salman at his summer residence in Morocco, where he was also given a high-profile audience with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
“Khalid al-Hail says that there are 32,000 Qatari opposition members living abroad. That number is untrue. The real opposition is within Qatar, not abroad, and can be found in the armed forces and within the royal family itself”
Abdullah Bin Ali, aged 60, is a member of the ruling Al Thani dynasty. His father Ali was emir before him, and so were his grandfather and brother Ahmad, who was toppled by Tamim’s grandfather back in 1972.
At the time, Abdullah Bin Ali was serving as Chairman of the Equestrian and Camel Racing Federation in Doha. After his property was confiscated in Qatar, he lived in exile for years, and only returned after Tamim came to power in 2013.
Abdullah Bin Ali will be the star guest at the London conference and is earmarked to replace Tamim at the next Arab Summit Conference in Saudi Arabia, in March 2018. This could be a turning point in his career path and the history of Qatar. If regional and international consensus is reached, he could indeed be the next emir, parachuted into the job or brought to it by means of a palace coup.
If Tamim pulls the right strings, which looks increasingly unlikely, he could send Abdullah Bin Ali into the exclusive club of exiled royals – men living in transit and waiting to return to their lost, or stolen, thrones. Men like Fouad II of Egypt or Reza Pahlavi of Iran.
Tamim is an arrogant and flamboyant ruler who fails to realize that one cannot reign in the Gulf without the support of Saudi Arabia. No-one has achieved this in the last 100 years and it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. Qatar is simply incapable of standing up to Riyadh, a hard fact that Tamim will have to digest sooner or later.