By Leila Hatoum
June 9 – DUBAI (Newsweek Middle East) – Qatar may soon find itself vulnerable in the face of regional and global threats, stripped from the protection of its Arab Gulf counterparts, if it decides to continue with its current policies, especially that the United States is also fed up with those policies, according to a top Gulf official.
In an interview with Newsweek Middle East, United Arab Emirates (UAE) Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash warned Doha over its continued support of what he called “terrorist” and “extremist” groups and individuals, a path that, he believes, will only further damage Qatar’s reputation and status.
“If you do not want to be part of this common concord and partnership, [Gulf Council] then you can be alone in the gulf, an island and you handle your own policies,” he said.
Three Arab Gulf states, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE —that are Qatar’s natural bordering neighbors to its north, west and south— have imposed sanctions on Doha. Qatar’s citizens have been banned from residing or visiting these countries, thus putting the tiny Arab peninsula under an aerial, maritime, and land blockade with only one exit option: Iran.
The UAE, and the rest of the nations that followed suit in blocking Qatar, say they were forced into taking such critical measures as a last means to urge it to change its ways. They accuse Doha of harboring wanted terrorists, extremists and suspicious individuals and organizations.
Even the United States, which has a substantially big military base in Qatar, did not spare the country, with U.S. President Donald Trump taking to Twitter to say that all evidence on funding terrorism and extremism lead to Qatar.
“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” said Trump on his personal account @realDonaldTrump, adding that this “will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
In a strong-worded speech on Friday, June 8, Trump accused Qatar of funding terrorism on the “highest level.”
“The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level… So we had a decision to make: Do we take the easy road or do we finally take a hard but necessary action? We have to stop the funding of terrorism. I decided, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals and military people, the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding – they have to end that funding – and its extremist ideology in terms of funding,” said Trump.
And Trump, who has repeatedly said he wants to downsize the number of U.S. troops abroad, may just do so. After all, he did pull out from an internationally recognized agreement when people thought he wouldn’t. And that may well leave Qatar without a proper military shield.
Gargash called Trump’s tweets on Qatar “very frank and extraordinary,” adding that what Trump says publicly “is being said by many Europeans and American politicians and Arab politicians behind closed doors and I think it is essential that addressing the issue of financing and supporting extremism and terrorism is brought to the surface and is dealt with in a public way.”
To the rescue comes Tehran, whose amicable relations with Qatar is another thorny issue for the GCC nations to deal with, which has obliged Doha by opening its airspace and maritime borders to it. It further promised its smaller Arab Gulf counterpart across the waters with food shipments and aid. Turkey vowed the same.
There are some who claim that such measures have further pushed Qatar into Iran’s welcoming embrace, yet Gargash believes such measures are “necessary.”
“You know, that fear is there,” said Gargash of Tehran taking advantage of the situation. However, he explained that they will not stand still on the matter of dealing with Qatar and its “duplicity and support of extremism and terrorism,” just because they “are worried about other circumstances.”
And perhaps those fears have been the reason as to why Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE have taken so long before escalating the matter “because the issue has been complicated throughout.”
Amid all of that, several Iranian officials took to twitter, other social media outlets and even conventional media to criticize the boycott decision taken against Qatar. Some just extended their call for GCC nations to solve their problems via dialogue.
“Neighbors are permanent; geography can’t be changed. Coercion is never the solution. Dialog is imperative, especially during blessed Ramadan,” wrote Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on his own twitter page @JZarif.
“I do not think that we need an advice from Iran. That is the first part. Iran I think will try to exploit the situation as I said it is not in the interest of Qatar to escalate in that direction,” said Gargash, who has always been vocal on Twitter against Iran’s attempts to interfere in its neighbors’ internal affairs.
To him, “Iran is watching the scene to see whether it is going to gain a strategic advantage in what is going on.”
But, when it comes to Qatar, Gargash is quick to point out that it is a partner and that its “natural habitat is the GCC.”
“Qatar, like all GCC countries, has interests with Iran and that is fine, but these interests in a period of polarization you need to send messages of solidarity, not messages of disunity, and I think this is important,” explained Gargash.
And it is in this context that the minister explained that it was not fair for many to accuse the UAE and its allies of bullying Qatar when they wouldn’t even sanction Iran.
“I would say that the comparison is not a fair comparison. There is a huge difference! I mean Qatar is a member of the GCC. This is not a state that is not part of the same club and as a result is pursuing policies that we do not accept totally,” he said.
To him, while Iran is an alien to the group, Qatar has for long sat down with the GCC states on the same table and discussed “areas of integration with us, and discussed areas of defense and security with us” but still maintained a duplicity in terms of how it dealt with issues pertaining to “extremism and terrorism.”
The minister also insisted that the actions that have been enforced so far, are not meant “to hurt the Qatari people,” but rather “to send a clear message to say there is an issue and say let wiser and cooler heads prevail.”
With the ban in place, international and regional airliners, except for those that have boycotted Qatar and belong to the three Gulf Cooperation Council states and Egypt, have now to reroute their trips via nearby Iran, Oman, Kuwait, Iraq and other nations that have not blocked Qatar.
The routes have become longer, and many expect the inflation level will hike if the situation persists, given the fact that Qatar relies more on imports rather than internal production.
Companies in Qatar, especially food-related companies and importers, have posted requests online for new suppliers, with one mall executive in Doha posting a request on her Facebook page asking for possible milk suppliers from Lebanon to export to Qatar.
Doha-based Qatar Airways website was blocked in the UAE, thus depriving many people from rescheduling their tickets online, especially with the rerouting of trips.
The Crisis At Hand
The relationship between the three GCC nations with Qatar have always been tight in the past, but it only became worse after Doha failed to implement any of the obligations it had accepted in the 2014 agreement with other GCC states.
Those obligations included restricting Doha’s media arm, Al Jazeera; cutting support of extremists, suspicious individuals, and terrorists, including figures from the Muslim Brotherhood and organizations related to Al Qaeda, Hamas, Al Shabab group in Somalia and others.
By that, the crisis, according to Gargash “has been an accumulation and is not a sudden decision… Qatar’s support for extremism and terrorism is quite wide… it has taken a very long time and I would say that Saudi Arabia’s patience, for example, has been formidable. They have been so patient about this, but currently things have come to a head and there is a serious crisis.”
Gargash further accused Qatar of duplicity.
“We reached an agreement [in 2014] after a very long process, on what Qatar should do with regards to the issue of the radicalization vis a vis the Muslim Brotherhood and many of the individuals that incite instability in the region… but since 2014 things have gotten worse. We have seen indications that Qatar is supporting Al Qaeda-affiliated organizations in Syria, Libya, and Mali. So I would say that the situation has gotten worse,” says Gargash.
“We know that this is a very precarious and difficult situation but at the same time we understand that we can’t go back to the way things were. We cannot do it,” said Gargash.
He added that the GCC nations pinned “very big hopes” on Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani that he “would change course.”
“Unfortunately we have not seen indications of that over the last 3 to 4 years.”
He further revealed to Newsweek Middle East some of the evidence in possession of the GCC nations, which include the names of “various individuals” whom Gargash said are sanctioned by both the U.S. and the United Nations.
Those individuals, the minister claims, “are currently in Qatar and they are roaming free, they are moving and they are raising funds.”
The list, as per Gargash, includes: “Khalifa Mohammed Turki Al Subaiei, [who] is the supporter and promoter of the famous Khaled Sheikh Mohammed,” adding that Al Subaiei continues his activity of “raising funds for various Al Qaeda-type organizations.”
“He is U.S. sanctioned and UN sanctioned.”
Other names given by Gargash include “Abdel Malek Yusuf Abdel Salam. Also linked with the same Al Qaeda network. This guy is U.S. sanctioned and UN sanctioned. You have this Qatar’s Mohammed bin Eid charity organization which is U.S. sanctioned and UN sanctioned and it is still there and it is still raising money and raising funds. Then you have this guy Abdul Rahman Al Nuaimi, who established a human rights organization called Al Karama. And he is [an] Al Qaeda [affiliate] and is U.S. sanctioned.”
And the aforementioned names are mere “samples of a huge catalogue that extends all the way from Mali to Bahrain,” and other figures such as Hamas figures and conservative Muslim Brotherhood clergyman Yousuf Qardhawi, especially that the Muslim Brotherhood is on the GCC list of terrorist organizations.
But to Gargash, Qatar’s policies “are failing and are [highly] costly in terms of damages to Qatar’s reputation and in terms of finances,” something which neither the minister nor the seven countries that have severed or downsized their diplomatic representation with Qatar, understand.
“I mean Qatar is spending huge amounts of money to fuel all of this and for what? Really the question is for what?” he questioned, and for him, as U.K. Prime Minister said recently: “Enough is enough.”
With that, Qatar as a state, in the eyes of many, has become “the biggest… promoter of terrorist [and] extremist narratives in various areas: money, logistics, media and in terms of all of those radical sheikhs. I mean all these sheikhs with radical fatwas [are] there in Qatar.”
On the other hand, Gargash denied Qatar’s accusations to other GCC states of trying to practice hegemony over it to confiscate its decision and independence.
“Nobody is claiming stewardship over Qatar’s independence as they have pointed out.”
Further explaining the situation, Gargash pointed out to the fact that many GCC countries “have over the years had independent policies and it hasn’t been a problem. People have not agreed on various things,” including the relationship with Iran, which Gargash said it varies from one GCC nation to another.
While ties between Riyadh and Tehran are on the less amicable side– if at all existent– with traded accusations of sponsoring radical groups, the UAE maintains a careful official relation with Iran; the former still accuses the latter of occupying three of its islands. Oman, on the other hand, enjoys strong relations with Iran.
Citing the common currency issue, Gargash said that despite “some differences within, we still held together.”
The GCC nations have for years tried to reach a common-currency policy but two nations have walked out of the agreement in the past, including Oman, with reservations from the UAE on the HQ of the GCC Central Bank, which Saudi Arabia decided to host.
“This is about a subversive partner who is basically using duplicity and is supporting extremism and terrorism,” reiterated Gargash.
A New Agreement
With years of negotiations behind them now and sanctions in place with a possible further escalation as Gargash told Newsweek Middle East, the 2014 agreement’s clauses must be first fulfilled by Qatar before new points are brought to the table.
Qatar “has to respect the 2014 agreement” because it has taken “various obligations,” and it needs “to respect that commitment, then come and address other things.”
Though he refused to say whether there are new rules imposed on Qatar this time– circulating rumors suggest the closure of Al Jazeera TV Channel may be on the table– Gargash said: “Qatar has not kept any of the obligations under that agreement. There was a crisis and now there is a bigger crisis, because at the crux of it, you have to deal with the issue and not the symptoms. You don’t deal with it through media,” he added.
If there is a real chance at a solution to this crisis, explained Gargash, then it lies in Qatar making a “U-turn… put a plan and you ensure that it is successful unlike what happened in 2014 when we put a plan and Qatar didn’t abide by it.”
“I was part of the process in 2014 and it was excruciating and it was long and difficult and at the end of the day no one kept their commitments. They [Qataris] did not keep their commitments which had the signature of the [Qatari] emir on it. So really we cannot repeat the same process again and expect different results. We need a clear commitment by the Qataris saying we are going to change our behavior with regards to our sponsoring of extremist and terrorist agenda throughout this region… and the catalogue includes Bahrain and it includes supporting groups such as Al Shabab in Somalia, Al Nusra in Syria, paying hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom money to various [terrorist] organizations, and being the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood, and supporting instability in Egypt.”
So far, Gargash said, they have not seen a real intention from Qatar that it would make that U-turn.
If anything, comments from Qatar have indicated defiance with official comments like “we have hedged for this,” which do not seem promising.
To Mediate or Escalate
So far, over three nations have expressed their intentions to exert good offices to mend fences between the feuding sisterly states. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has contacted the Emir of Qatar. The U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tellerson has offered his country’s support to help fix the situation, saying that a united GCC is in his country’s best interest.
And then there is Kuwait, whose 87-year-old Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah took swift action and traveled to three nations in less than three days trying to bring viewpoints together.
Calling the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Sheikh Sabah asked him to ease the tension and refrain from inciting his neighbors with any action out of line. Sheikh Tamim obliged by canceling a scheduled speech, while Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs welcomed Sheikh Sabah’s initiative.
Sheikh Sabah met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and UAE’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, before doubling back for a short pit stop in Qatar to relay the same message he heard from both states: Make the U-turn first, according to diplomatic sources.
“We also want to fix the situation and the mediator in fixing the situation can be Kuwait, it can be the U.S. But the issue is that to start the process, you need a clear confirmation from Qatar that it will actually change course in supporting extremism and terrorism. This is the crux of the matter. You know this is not the discussion of ‘allow me to support terrorism 50 percent instead of 70 percent, or allow me to support [Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria] Al Nusra Front with half the money that I used to give. No, this is really about the change of direction and I think once we have that indication of the change of direction, then a sort of executive plan can be put in place,” said Gargash.
“The Emir of Kuwait is an experienced leader with many years of international relations expertise and he is highly respected. But you know, the mediator is as successful as the Qatari message is,” he added.
“If the Qatari message is: We didn’t do anything wrong and this is an issue of misrepresentation, then we are not going to get anywhere,” he said, adding that Qatar needs to admit the problem, and once it accepts that, “as a principle of course the mediation is accepted.”
However, Gargash ruled out the possibility of Qatar accepting its fault by saying: “I think they are still in denial, you can still see it in their press they are in denial.”
“What I am seeing currently… there is this sort of denial that this issue will be sorted through [Qatar’s] formidable media assets. [Qatar has] been twisting the story and changing the narrative by counting on time. Time will actually break this consensus that is building around Qatar.”
For now, Gargash says the measures that have been taken “should be enough to bring rationality to Qatar’s calculations. And should lead to a positive change.” However, he warned that the three nations and their allies “are ready for more measures.”
“All these measures are saying if you are ready to be our partner you should not undermine us. You should not try and undermine Bahrain. You should not try and support you know secessionists in Saudi Arabia or opposition figures there.”
UAE’s stand on extremism
Gargash proudly says that his country has always been “very clear in its position on extremism and terrorism and that is zero tolerance. It is black and white. There is no justification.”
Aside from messages of condolences to the countries that have been victims of terrorism, including the U.K., Gargash says the UAE believes that “the only way to address this is to tackle the issue of radicalization and militancy in Islam and to counter the extremist narrative.”