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Why Qatar, and Why Now?

Last week’s dramatic coordinated move by four Arab states—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt—to sever diplomatic ties and close all air, land, and sea borders with the oil-rich Arab Gulf state of Qatar appears, on the surface, to be an overreaction by arrogant powers determined to squash the independent policies of a small nation trying to carve out a sensible middle path in a highly polarized region. This view, in fact, cannot be farther from the truth.

This crisis goes far beyond Qatar’s irritating flirtation with Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is not about regional hegemons trampling over a helpless neighboring state. Qatar’s small size betrays the outsized role it has been playing in international affairs, using its immense financial resources to interfere in the domestic politics of neighboring states and to fund both Sunni and Shia extremists in a dangerous quest to further its influence.

A clear example of such odious behavior bled out into the public domain in 2011. In a development that read more like a novel than news, hard evidence emerged that Qatar had been plotting to overthrow the government of its larger neighbor Saudi Arabia and break that kingdom apart. 

Recordings seized by Libyan rebels from the intelligence coffers of the deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and subsequently released on YouTube, exposed the former emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa, and his prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim (HBJ), discussing with Gaddafi, in considerable detail, a plan to try to undermine and ultimately depose the Saudi royal family.

The intent of these actions, as described in the tape, was to secure independence for the Hejaz (the kingdom’s western region) as well as its oil-rich Eastern Province, leaving the Saudis with a rump state in the Najd (central Saudi Arabia). “We are the most troublesome country for Saudi Arabia,” the Qatari emir remarked to Gaddafi. “And I promise you that Al Saud will not survive more than twelve years.”

The sheer recklessness of such a move, a gross violation of state sovereignty that would have yielded immense global geopolitical repercussions, not least of all on Qatar itself, beggars belief and comprehension.

At the time of this revelation, Saudi rulers, exercising herculean restraint, chose not to publicly acknowledge these recordings. No official mention was made of their existence, although they spread like wildfire on social media. Instead, Riyadh accepted a private Qatari apology and a promise to modify its behavior. This was followed by the Qatari emir’s 2013 abdication in favor of his son, a step intended to move past this unfortunate incident with the understanding that the young new emir would completely abandon the politics of subversion pursued by his father.

Unfortunately, that hope turned out to be a mirage. After a short honeymoon, the new Qatar began to look very much like the old Qatar, with the former emir continuing to exercise power behind the scenes. Qatar continued to take advantage of the turmoil brought about by the 2011 Arab uprisings and kept funding the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Libya, al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremists in Syria, and dissidents in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

In exasperation, Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in 2014. Once again, Qatar pledged to amend its behavior, and after some months, Saudi Arabia and the UAE restored diplomatic relations. 

Today Qatar is back to its familiar pattern of destabilizing behavior. In April, and in full view of the court of world opinion, Iraqi authorities confiscated $500 million in cash Doha had flown into Baghdad to disburse to both Sunni and Shia militias. The $500 million was intended as part of an unprecedented one-billion-dollar payment that the Financial Times reported was a “ransom” for the release of kidnapped royal family members in Iraq.

Note that this was a billion-dollar ransom paid to groups classified by virtually everybody except Qatar (and in the case of the Shia militias, Iran) as terrorists. The scale of such a reckless attempt to buy “influence” by massively funding the terrorists the whole world is fighting again defies comprehension.

These two particular incidents have leaked into the public domain; however, intelligence agencies have a long list of equally injudicious actions Qatar has taken over the course of the past two decades.

During his recent visit to Riyadh, President Donald Trump insisted that US allies support a vigorous effort to end the dual threats of jihadi terror and Iranian expansionism. This provided Saudi Arabia and its allies with a window of opportunity to act decisively with Qatar.

That this crisis is taking place in full view of the world is undeniably embarrassing for all involved, but it is a crisis that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain did everything in their power to prevent. They have long hoped that quiet diplomacy would allow for a just resolution, but Qatar just would not have it. Hopefully the use of more severe measures will finally convince the rulers of Doha to stop acting in destructive ways. Failure to do so, is no longer a cost-free proposition.  

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