Qatar in no-win situation as tensions flare in Gulf

The current crisis poses a serious test to the United States that has thus far called for restraint and unity amongst its Arab allies

By Riad Kahwaji

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Published: Wed 7 Jun 2017, 10:32 PM

Last updated: Thu 8 Jun 2017, 12:34 AM

What started off as a minor spat between the Arab Gulf neighbours has ended in severing of ties and harsh tit-for-tat moves. The latest showdown between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates indicates that the "grey zone" has vanished and the region is headed towards an escalation in the "war on terrorism" and a confrontation with Iranian expansionist schemes.

For several years, the tiny oil and gas-rich Arab Gulf State of Qatar has managed to play a role that has puzzled many observers. Qatar has been a bundle of contradictions for a long time now. While being a member of the Saudi-led Arab Alliance that is fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi forces that took control of Yemen couple of years ago, it continues to praise Tehran and underlines its role in the stability of the region. Doha has endorsed decisions of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in condemning the Muslim Brotherhood movement, while providing shelter and a safe haven to many exiled members of the movement. The country's powerful media outlets continue to support the movement and other groups regarded by its neighbors as extremist.

Qatar has managed to operate in a "grey zone" as it remained a strong and active member of the GCC and the US-led Alliance fighting terrorism, while at the same time advocating policies and positions that contradicted their agendas. It established powerful media outlets in Arabic and English - the most famous of them being Al Jazeera -- that targeted many Arab governments, branded US forces in parts of the region as occupiers and invaders and provided a platform to leaders of extremist groups to voice their agendas. It funded the creation of armed groups in Syria and Libya that were meant to take part in national movements to overthrow dictatorships there but afterwards turned into extremist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda. It paid tens of millions of dollars to Sunni and Shia extremist groups under the pretext of ransoms to free hostages.

Qatar managed to get away with its policies during Barak Obama's term as US president, which had adopted a policy of appeasement with regard to Iran leading to the signing of the Vienna nuclear agreement. Being the base for the US Central Command and the home for the largest American air base in the Middle East, Qatar believed it was a power player. Officials have often told their guests in private sessions that US forces in Qatar would protect it from any foreign aggression, not necessarily Iran but even from Arab countries. Hence the US military presence in Doha seems to be part of the country's agenda of securing a foreign protector to enable it to adopt whatever policies it chooses. It is worth noting that when Saudi Arabia asked the US to remove its bases from the Kingdom after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Qatar was quick to offer to host the bases and even built the Al Udeid Air Base.

However, Saudi Arabia and UAE have now drawn the line and appear determined to make Qatar change course. They appear to have gathered strength from the more hawkish American administration under President Donald Trump.

Qatar has a history of coup d'états and Tamim's father Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani came to power after ousting his own father in 1995. Sheikh Hamad abdicated in favour of his son Sheikh Tamim in June 2013. It was an unusual move that raised many questions that remain unanswered. However, many Qatari and Gulf officials and analysts still believe that Sheikh Hamad, 65, is still the ruler in the shadows.

The current crisis poses a serious test to the United States that has thus far called for restraint and unity amongst its Arab allies. Washington will certainly be glad to see Qatar clamp down on charity organisations suspected of funding terrorist groups while repositioning itself on Iran. However, the US does not want at this stage to take sides openly. It will most likely prefer a covert mechanism of mediating and pressuring the concerned parties to reach a settlement soon. A strong leverage in US hands is the fate of the Al Udeid base that Doha regards as an essential component of its national defence policy. However, if mediation fails and Qatar decides to be defiant and seeks to counter Saudi actions by enhancing partnerships with players like Iran, Russia and Turkey, then Washington could reconsider its position and embark on moves that will secure its interests, especially the fate of its bases on the island. Qatar appears to be in a state of shock due to the severity and scale of actions by Saudi Arabia and UAE. Its economy will be hard hit and its small population of less than half a million is feeling the impact already. The leadership must resolve the situation, and soon.

The West is concerned as this crisis plays out. Sheikh Tamim is in a no-win situation and the only way forward is to make concessions and agree to most of the Saudi and Emirati demands to clamp down on terror funding.

- Riad Kahwaji is the founder and director of Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis

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