Why the Qatari-Arab tension may remain despite possible settlements

Why the Qatari-Arab tension may remain despite possible settlements

On the 6th of June, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE announced in a coordinated move to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar.

The move, which was later followed by other nations, is amongst a series of steps taken against the tiny Gulf state including cutting land, air and sea travel to and from Qatar, as well as giving a two week ultimatum for Qatari citizens to leave the four nations. These drastic steps against one of the Arab world’s smallest but richest nations can been attributed to four main factors.

Qatar’s controversial relationship with Iran

The steps taken against Qatar were triggered by a recent row between the country and its neighbours, namely the majority Sunni of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, following comments made by the Qatari Emir Tameem Bin Hamad. The prince criticized the hostile stance of his neighbours and the US towards Iran a few days after Trump’s “historic” visit to Saudi Arabia and meeting with leaders of the Arab World.

Despite a full-fledged media campaign by the Saudi and Emirati media against Qatar over the last few days, Prince Tamim had a call with Iranian President Rouhani, a move considered as a complete disregard of the Saudi and Emirati criticism and explicit warnings about Qatar’s unwelcome relationship with the Islamic republic. An estimated USD 1billion ransom paid by Qatar to Tehran backed militias to free members of the royal family kidnapped in Iraq, also sparked anger amongst Qatar’s Sunni neighbours.

Qatar’s relationship with Iran was described as a “backstab” to the Arab countries and a factor that undermined the Saudi and Emirati efforts to combat and limit Iranian influence in the Arab region. This includes the Saudi led military campaign against the Houthi Shia rebels in Yemen that are backed financially and militarily by Iran.

Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood

Qatar’s vocal support of the Muslim Brotherhood (“MB”) has been subject to controversy over the last few years. The organization is banned and classified as a terrorist group in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE consider the organization a threat to their regimes’ stability and have frequently chased and jailed MB members.

Qatar hosts fugitive MB leaders and members who fled Egypt following the military ouster of the brotherhood’s regime in Egypt in 2013 and had previously extended citizenship to some of the group’s most notorious leaders. MB members are regularly hosted on the Qatari satellite news channel, Al Jazeera, and the Qatari government rarely denounce the group’s practices.

Qatar’s support for militant Islamist groups

Besides the MB, Qatar has been widely accused of supporting several militant and armed groups in Syria, Libya and Iraq, most of which fall under the umbrella of radical Islamists. Several high profile Qatari citizens are known to finance these groups despite the government’s denial. Radical militias, presumably supported by Qatar, were bombed twice by Egypt’s and the UAE’s air forces.

Saudi Arabia has been previously criticized for supporting similar groups, particularly in Syria. However, it is currently active against fighting some of the Islamic State factions, after suffering from a series of home grown terrorist attacks, against local targets as recent as last year.

Qatar also maintains relationships with the Taliban, whose only representation office overseas is in Doha, and hosts the exiled leaders of Hamas, the MB’s branch in Palestine that rules the Gaza strip.

Qatar’s “naughty” media

To position itself as one of the region’s power players, Qatar used its media, notably Al Jazeera’s satellite news channel, as a tool to influence events in the region. Whilst the channel started off in the 90’s with a pan Arab nationalist tone against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, a tone which attracted much Arab viewership, it has slowly shifted towards criticizing Arab regimes and rulers, and motivating popular movements against some of them. Its role in supporting the Arab Spring movements in 2011 have been much criticized by Arab leaders.

The channel’s rhetoric has been frequently described as a “threat to the regional security” and “backstabbing” to Qatar’s fellow Gulf and Arab nations. Although the channel has lost a significant amount of audience over the last five years following its explicit support and bias to the MB, it remains a headache to many forces in the region.

Qatar’s ambition to play an influential role in the region, using conflicting alliances and vocal media, has long angered its neighbours and viewed as an obstacle to the Gulf’s integration efforts and the wider Arab unity. It is not the first time several Arab countries severe relationships with Qatar. In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar citing the same reasons listed above. The dispute was then resolved after Qatar signed the Riyadh agreement and vowed to not let the MB operate from its territory.

Several countries including Kuwait, Oman and other Arab countries have recently offered mediation to resolve the current crisis between Qatar and its neighbours. Qatar showed readiness to “sit and talk” with fellow Gulf countries but not with Egypt. Although an agreement could be reached over the next few weeks, the lack of trust and tension will remain and may possibly lead to further future escalation against Qatar. Fragile relationships between Qatar and its neighbours will remain unless Qatar’s leadership radically changes its regional policy which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

About Author

Ahmad Taleb

Ahmed is a Business Intelligence Analyst for a multinational financial advisory services company. He received his graduate education in Business & International Commerce in Egypt and France. He obtained a master’s degree in Comparative Politics from the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po Aix) in France.