As the Qatar standoff nears the end of its second month, the core issues which provoked the crisis have been buried beneath a pile of claims and counter-claims. The Washington Post’s July 16th report suggesting the UAE planted the inflammatory quotes attributed to Qatar’s Emir (which allegedly triggered the conflagration) has further muddied the waters. Doubts about the allegations made by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt against Qatar and questions regarding the actual motives driving this quartet’s decision to blockade the tiny emirate have been present since the beginning of the conflict. They have been accompanied by a series of narratives which frame Doha as the victim of a targeted and (mostly) baseless campaign.
To continue to accept these “Qatar narratives” at face value would be a mistake.
Since the beginning of July, there have been a number of significant revelations, most notably the publication and authentication of three secret agreements negotiated between Qatar and GCC member states in 2013 and 2014. In light of these and other recent disclosures, this article assesses four key narratives underlining the claim that Qatar should be exonerated, concludes that they are more fiction than fact, and, in so doing, re-strengthens the quartet’s allegations.
Myth #1: The decision by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt to impose a boycott on Qatar was sudden and ill-planned.
Proponents of this narrative argue that President Trump’s landmark Riyadh speech issued a blank check to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to take whatever measures they deemed necessary to combat terror and extremism. Seeing an opportunity, the two nations hastily assembled a coalition and sold the Qatar boycott to the US as a means of fulfilling the President’s request. The fact that it took the quartet until June 23rd to issue a set of 13 demands is cited as further proof that the Saudi-UAE action was spur of the moment.
While President Trump’s speech probably did encourage the coalition to act, the three secret agreements show that prior to his speech, GCC states diligently pursued nearly four years of quiet diplomacy with Qatar aimed at resolving most of the issues addressed in the 13 demands.
The first of these agreements was handwritten and signed by the Emir of Qatar, the King of Saudi Arabia, and the Emir of Kuwait on November 23, 2013. This accord was followed by The Riyadh Agreement. Negotiated among GCC foreign ministers it enshrined the commitments laid out in the first pact and expanded the circle of signatories to include the UAE and Bahrain. In November 2014, GCC rulers drafted another accord with the express purpose of “rescuing” The Riyadh Agreement after nearly a year of Qatari non-compliance. The King of Bahrain, the Emir of Qatar, the Emir of Kuwait, the King of Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and the Vice President of the United Arab Emirates (representing Dubai) all signed this agreement.
This rescue pact called for the immediate (and public) implementation of all provisions of The Riyadh Agreement within thirty days. Despite Doha’s failure to comply, the signatories took no
immediate action when this deadline passed. More precisely, they waited exactly 902 days before finally announcing their embargo. In fact, from the signing of the November 2013 tripartite meeting up until the June 2017 embargo Qatar was given exactly 1,290 days to comply.
The three agreements also undermine the assertion that the quartet’s demands were hastily cobbled together. Both the three agreements and the 13 demands oblige Qatar to abide by a policy of non-interference in the affairs of neighboring states, end backing for terrorist and opposition groups and expel their members, including the Moslem Brotherhood, and cease media incitement, specifically from Al-Jazeera; the principal difference between the three agreements and the 13 demands is in presentation, level of detail, and time to implementation, not substance.
Viewed in this context, the imposition of the embargo was neither sudden nor ill-planned. On the contrary, its declaration was a public acknowledgement by the quartet that nearly four years of quiet diplomacy had failed to change Qatar’s behavior. The fact that the policy positions put forward in the three agreements and 13 demands are almost identical proves that the quartet’s demands, which Doha repeatedly agreed to, are long-standing and largely unchanged. That these long-standing positions were finally made public two weeks into the embargo suggests that it was not the content that was significant but the decision to publicize that content. In doing so, the quartet probably put a final nail in the coffin of quiet diplomacy.
Myth #2: The allegations against Doha are false. The Washington Post’s report alleging that the statements attributed to Qatar’s Emir which triggered the crisis were the product of a UAE-led hack proves this.
On May 24th, Qatar news and social media sites, including Doha’s state-run news agency QNA, appeared to show the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim, making a series of provocative foreign policy statements. In response to the Emir’s alleged provocations, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt proscribed all Qatar media, including Al-Jazeera, prior to declaring the June 5th embargo. According to this narrative, because the quartet cited these declarations as proof positive that the Emir was actively working against his allies and casus belli for their decision to isolate Doha, the revelation that they were most likely planted by the UAE, or someone working on their behalf, removes the rationale for the boycott.
Critics have, quite correctly, called out the alleged hack as poorly-conceived and clumsily-executed. However, even if the quotes attributed to the Emir were never spoken, Qatar still needs to contend with the fact that most, if not all, of Sheikh Tamim’s “falsified” statements accurately reflect Doha’s past and current policies. In other words, while it can be argued that the alleged hack undermines the quartet’s immediate pretext for imposing the boycott, it does absolutely nothing to weaken the substance of the allegations that actually led to that boycott.
Among the statements attributed to Emir Tamim, his expressions of support for Sunni and Shi’a terror and extremist groups, including the Moslem Brotherhood, and unequivocal statement that “Qatar does not interfere in the affairs of any country” are the most relevant. Likewise, the first agreement requires Qatar to prohibit any activity that harms the security or interferes in the internal affairs of any other regional country, immediately end all financial and political support for any opposition party or “deviant” group (e.g. terrorist organization), including the Moslem
Brotherhood, cease providing media platforms of any type for opposition figures, terrorist organizations, and individuals associated with terrorist organizations, and terminate support for any party in Yemen that threatens the security of a GCC member. The second agreement reaffirms the first and adds an addendum which commits Qatar to end support for any armed group in Syria that threatens the security of the GCC (i.e. Hezbollah, al-Qaeda affiliates). The third agreement commits Doha to support the stability and security of Egypt by ending media incitement, specifically from Al-Jazeera and its affiliate, Egypt Direct.
These agreements also lay out, in detail, the precise steps Qatar, and every other signatory, is required to fulfill. They provide timetables for implementation, procedures for follow-up, and mechanisms for compliance (including regular meetings to benchmark progress toward clearly-defined objectives). Finally, the second agreement explicitly states that “In the event of (Qatar’s) non-compliance with these mechanisms (for implementation), the remaining states of the Gulf Cooperation Council may take appropriate measures to safeguard their security and stability.”
In summary, by signing these agreements the Emir acknowledged wrongdoing, pledged to enact policy changes in the exact areas mentioned in the “falsified” statements, committed to strict procedures for evaluating his country’s compliance, and agreed to allow his neighbors to “take appropriate measures to safeguard their security and stability” should Qatar fail to comply. If the allegations against Qatar were false, would the Emir have agreed to sign three separate binding agreements with timetables, benchmarks, and open-ended penalties for non-compliance away from the public eye (in keeping with the GCC tradition of quiet diplomacy)?
Myth #3: The demands imposed on Qatar are designed to strip the tiny emirate of its sovereignty. This is substantiated by the quartet’s insistence on closing Al-Jazeera.
On July 5 Qatar’s Foreign Minister told an audience gathered at The Royal Institute for International Affairs that the quartet are “demanding that (Qatar) must surrender (its) sovereignty as the price of ending the siege,” adding that had the Kingdom, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt “actually been interested in resolving the issues they would have done so in a regional forum.” The Foreign Minister’s comments are indicative of another narrative adopted by Doha and its supporters which rests on two interrelated assertions: (1) The “siege” is about depriving Qatar of its sovereignty, not changing its policies; (2) The proof of this assertion is that if the quartet’s grievances were legitimate, they would have presented Qatar with a list of specific policies to implement and then worked together to address them, rather than impose an embargo.
As should be apparent by now, the second assertion is completely and utterly false; on at least three separate occasions between 2013 and 2014 GCC countries agreed upon specific policy changes with Doha within a closed regional forum of the exact type that the Qatari Foreign Minister requested two weeks ago.
But what of the first assertion? Can a compelling case be made that the embargo is designed to deprive Qatar of its sovereignty? The quartet’s insistence that Qatar muzzle or even close Al-Jazeera is the most frequently cited example in support of the sovereignty narrative. As Al-Jazeera is an independent media organization operating on Qatari soil, for an external actor to
insist on its shuttering or that the Qatari state exercise control over its content is tantamount to denying both the satellite channel’s independence and Doha’s sovereignty over its territory.
However, this narrative cannot be sustained; in the third secret agreement, signed November 16, 2014, the Emir formally pledged his country “to halt all media activities directed against the Arab Republic of Egypt in all media, directly or indirectly, including abuses broadcast by the Al-Jazeera channel and (Al-Jazeera-owned) Egypt Direct.” And on December 22 of that same year, Doha partially fulfilled this pledge by permanently shuttering Al-Jazeera-owned Egypt Direct (while continuing to allow opposition figures to attack Cairo on Al-Jazeera).
In other words, two-and-a-half years prior to the embargo Qatar agreed to halt Al-Jazeera and its Egyptian affiliate’s attacks against another sovereign state. If Al-Jazeera is independent, as Doha claims, how could the Qatar government make such a pledge? More importantly, how could it then go ahead and shutter Al-Jazeera’s Egyptian affiliate? By signing the third agreement and closing Egypt Direct, the Emir acknowledged, in writing and in deed, that the Qatari government maintains complete control over Al-Jazeera’s content and operations and that the satellite provider is, in fact, a government arm rather than an independent media outlet. Furthermore, the third agreement is proof positive that Doha has previously bargained away its “independent” satellite station. With this precedent already in place, it is difficult to maintain that negotiations over the future status of Al-Jazeera constitute a violation of sovereignty rather than a legitimate move to blunt a destructive soft-power instrument of the Qatari state.
Myth #4: Qatar’s support for terrorism and extremism has been purposefully overstated in order to win US support for the embargo.
A fourth narrative posits that the quartet is not only downplaying Doha’s efforts to combat terrorism and extremism but purposefully exaggerating the tiny emirate’s role, and that of its citizens, in supporting terrorist and extremist groups. However, even if one ignores all of the clauses and commitments in the three agreements addressing Qatar’s support for both Sunni and Shia’a extremist and terrorist groups, its record on this issue is difficult to defend; Doha’s history on combatting terror financing illustrates this point.
In 2014, then-Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen contrasted Saudi Arabia’s “great progress in stamping out al-Qa’ida funding sources within its borders” with Qatar where “Private fundraising networks…increasingly rely upon social media to solicit donations for terrorists and to communicate with both donors and recipient radicals on the battlefield. The method has become so lucrative, and Qatar has become such a permissive terrorist financing environment, that several major Qatar-based fundraisers act as local representatives for larger terrorist fundraising networks,” he said.
In 2016, then-Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Daniel L. Glaser singled out Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their achievements in combatting terror financing. While he did state that “all Gulf countries have now passed counter-terrorism laws that criminalize terrorist financing and have enhanced financial controls across the charitable sector to ensure that funds intended for humanitarian objectives do not benefit terrorist activity,” he never mentioned Qatar by name nor did he specify any policies enacted by Doha that successfully addressed this issue.
Fast-forward to the current standoff and it is clear that little has changed. Just a few days after the imposition of the June 5th embargo, Doha paid former US Attorney General John Ashcroft’s law firm $2.5 million to help the emirate comply with both US Treasury and international counter-terrorism financing and money-laundering regulations. On July 11th, this was followed by Secretary of State Tillerson and Qatar’s Foreign Minister signing a memorandum of understanding to combat terror financing. Upon the signing of this MOU, Secretary Tillerson stated that the new agreement “lays out a series of steps the two countries will take over the coming months and years to interrupt and disable terror financing flows and intensify counterterrorism activities globally. The agreement includes milestones to ensure both countries are accountable to their commitments.”
This section, and Tillerson’s comments in particular, is instructive; it does not rely on the text of regional agreements but on the word of US officials. And yet, in reviewing these sworn testimonies, recorded statements, and publicly-filed claims, Qatar’s trajectory remains the same as it was under the three agreements: four years of non-compliance with international accords, the perpetuation of destructive policies that jeopardize the security of all, and interminable negotiations with identical starting and end points. This is Doha’s legacy.
No country is perfect. Commentators can argue, quite correctly, that all four members of the quartet, to say nothing of the United States, maintain problematic policies that have a deleterious impact on their own people and on other states. What distinguishes Qatar from these five nations is Doha’s elevating the politics of subversion to become the focal point of its foreign policy.
Conspiring with enemies to depose its allies? In recordings seized by Libyan rebels in 2011 the former emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad, related to the now-deposed Libyan President, Moammar Gaddafi, his plan for overthrowing the Saudi monarchy and dividing the Kingdom into three separate states. Using media to subvert allied governments? In a series of undated recordings, a Special Advisor to the Qatar Emir disclosed to a leading Bahraini dissident (whose citizenship was revoked in 2015) Doha’s plan to use Al-Jazeera to generate opposition to the Saudi-Emirati force brought in to protect the Al-Khalifa monarchy in 2011 (despite Qatar’s publicly-declared support for the deployment of this same force). Providing support to terror and extremist groups? Earlier in 2017 it was reported that Doha attempted to pay as much as $1 billion to both a (Sunni) Al-Qaeda affiliate and (Shia’a) Iranian-backed militias in order to ransom members of the Al-Thani Royal Family from Iraq.
There are strong indications that this last act was, in fact, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and led to the embargo. Recent US media reports citing unnamed American intelligence sources have disputed the ransom story. However, in a June 11th press conference broadcast live on state TV, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, hardly a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, stated that, in April, the Iraq government seized “hundreds of millions of dollars” from a private Qatari jet. According to Abadi, these funds were intended for unnamed parties as part of a deal, that had not been sanctioned by the Iraq government, to free 26 Qatari hostages, including members of the Al-Thani Royal Family.
To this charge sheet we must now add Qatar’s repeated disavowal of its regional and international commitments. And when the politics of subversion are combined with the politics of deceit we have the makings of a serious problem that must be decisively addressed.