Jutting into the Persian Gulf like lower Michigan minus its thumb, the statelet of Qatar has long been a problem—one that has now brought the region to the brink of a potentially catastrophic conflict.
Seen for decades as a more liberal extension of the arch-conservative Saudi Kingdom, since the mid-1990s Qatar has striven to maintain that façade, even as it aided and funded the global jihad, both directly indirectly, and grew dangerously close with an ever-more strident and aggressive Iran. As the tensions built, erupted, subsided and built again during this time, it finally took a US administration willing to back up and rally the countries that Qatar’s actions have threatened—primarily the very states that have moved against it now—to bring matters to a head.
The result has been a lengthening physical and diplomatic embargo on Qatar that could lead to war, or perhaps impede the war to kill the Islamic State (IS). In either case it would leave a lasting rift among four of the six states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and lands far beyond them.
Begun by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain, later joined by Chad, Libya, the Maldives, Niger and Yemen, this was a crisis, sadly, whose time had come.
“Fake News” vs. Real Ransom
While much has been made of the reaction to a May 23 report by Qatar’s state news agency (improbably) praising both Iran and Israel and predicting a short term in office for Trump, it does not appear to have been the real trigger for the incident. Qatar claims it was hacked, dismissing the disputed posting as “fake news.” CNN reported on June 7 that US intelligence believes it was the work of unnamed Russians, though the FBI is now on the case.
Worse, the deal was evidently done behind the back of the Baghdad government led by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi—who is trying to rein in the brutal Shi’ite militias while fighting ISIS. Al-Abadi announced in April that Iraq had confiscated “millions of dollars” in suitcases from Qatari planes on its territory, says the FT.Yet the real kicker was clearly the $1 billion Qatar paid in April to free a group of 26 of its nationals kidnapped by the Iran-linked Shi’ite militia Kita’eb Hizbollah while hunting in Iraq in December 2015. Freed in the same deal were 50 Islamists seized by other jihadis in Syria, as reported in The Financial Timeson June 5—thus both “Iranian security officials” and an al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliate, al-Nusra Front, apparently received the cash.
Meanwhile, Iyad Allawi, Iraq’s secular Shi’ite vice president, quoted by Reuters at a Cairo news conference June 19, accused Qatar of seeking to divide Iraq “into a Sunni region in exchange for a Shi’ite region.”
“It is time we spoke honestly and made things clear (to the Qataris) so that we can reach some results,” Allawi insisted. “After that confrontation, comes reconciliation,” he stated–without saying how.
The Root of the Trouble
Qatar has not always behaved this way. I served as Head of the Academic Section under the Cultural Attaché of the State of Qatar, part of the Qatari embassy in the US, from 1986-90, advising students on university scholarship from Doha in North America. The Qataris with whom I worked and met at the time were generally conservative, but kind-hearted, forward-looking and not fanatical—hence it is hard indeed to personally advocate action against their country.
The trouble began with the overthrow of the old emir, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, by his son, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in 1995. Sheikh Hamad pushed for a more modern, constitutional, somewhat more egalitarian government at home (primarily for its roughly 300,000 citizens, rather than its 2,000,000-plus, often virtually enslaved foreign workers)—while apostasy from Islam, adultery and homosexuality remain capital crimes.
He also allowed the creation of Al Jazeera television, hailed by many as a voice of open democracy—though its Arabic arm has mainly carried a mixture of Islamist and other anti-Western propaganda with agitation against other Arab regimes (along with often vociferous debate programs), and has had ties to AQ behind the scenes. (The network’s more secular-left leaning English-language service has won many fans in the West, who do not grasp or would even rationalize the radicalism of the Arabic version seen in the Middle East.)
Stunningly, Al Jazeera’s former bureau chief in Cairo, Canadian-Egyptian citizen Mohamed Fahmy, jailed for 438 days in Egypt for allegedly colluding with efforts by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) to overthrow Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in 2014, has recently filed a lawsuit in British Columbia against his former employers. Eli Lake of Bloomberg News wrote on June 23 that Fahmy accuses Al Jazeera of deliberately serving the MB and of being “a mouthpiece for Qatari intelligence” and “a voice for terrorists,” something he says he learned from Islamists in Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison, who told him how they had cooperated closely with the network.
Under Hamad and his son, Sheikh Tamim, who took over in 2013, Qatar has gone far beyond media agitation on behalf of the terrorists. Under them, Qatar began funding, or in some cases permitting others to fund, groups like the MB—the ideological parent of all the Islamist groups operating today.
Also those very offshoots themselves, including Salafi jihadis, Hamas (which it has endorsed as a “legitimate resistance organization,” according to Al Jazeera on June 10) and the Taliban–to whom it has offered refuge, or funnelled ransom–as well.