Heads of state at a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in December 2016 (via Instagram user albidaa_photo)

GCC Raises the Stakes in Qatar

06/06/2017 . By Ola Salem

Qataris woke up on Monday to news of an unprecedented political rift and border and travel isolation imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Maldives, and a Libyan faction. Saudi Arabia took the lead in the tough measures against Qatar for their alleged support of terrorist organizations, with other countries following suit soon after. Qatar’s ambassadors in the seven countries were given 48 hours to pack up and leave as an immediate severance of diplomatic ties was ordered. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the U.A.E. told their citizens to leave Qatar within 14 days while Qatari nationals in Saudi Arabia were given the same deadline to go home.

Conversations with Doha residents on Monday revealed many were in a state of panic and feared the worst was yet to come, despite messages from the government to remain calm. Even though this is not the first time that Qatar has been caught up in a political row with its Gulf neighbors, it is the first at such a scale and with the involvement of this many countries. Some in Doha even wondered whether the escalation could lead to a war-like environment as seaports and airspace were closed off. By nightfall, food aisles in supermarkets across Doha had been wiped clean as residents worried about decreased imports. Questions remained as to what could cause such measures to be taken in Ramadan and among “brothers.”

For years Qatar has been in conflict with Gulf nations over their support for Islamists in the region. Following the ousting of Muhammad Morsi, the president of Egypt who was supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, in July 2013, members of the international Islamist organization looked to Qatar for shelter and even for attempts to return to power. Qatar provided Egyptian Brothers and Islamists from other countries a safe haven, and media outlets linked to the Muslim Brotherhood were reportedly established with Qatar’s money. Al Jazeera, which is funded by the Qatari royal family, is widely seen as being supportive of the Brotherhood and other Islamists.

Disputes over Egypt after the coup brought Gulf tensions to a boil. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia seemingly remained silent protesters until February 2014, when Youssef al-Qaradawi pilloried  the U.A.E. during a sermon in Doha broadcast on television channel Qatar TV. A month later, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain withdrew their envoys from Qatar in protest of Doha’s interference in their internal affairs.

Although the move was also drastic at the time, only diplomatic ties were cut—nothing compared to the scale of what we have seen this week. After some protest, Qatar started to work on patching relations with the rest of the Gulf. In a private meeting, Qatar asked seven Muslim Brotherhood leaders to leave the country in silence. A source revealed to me that the expelled Muslim Brotherhood figures were Mahmoud Hussein and Amr Darrag, both academics; Hamza Zoba, a physician; Sheikh Essam Talima and Gamal Abdel Sadar, both al-Azhar scholars; Wagdi Ghonim, a prominent Egyptian preacher; and Ashraf Badr al-Deen, an economist. Within eight months, Gulf relations were back on track, at least publicly.

The current crisis is an extension of the disagreements in 2014, but demands related to Egypt are less relevant to the latest escalation. Egypt joined forces with the Gulf countries to add pressure against Qatar, even though Cairo still believes that Doha supports media outlets dedicated to undermining the Egyptian government and finances the Muslim Brotherhood. The crisis today seems to have been triggered by a recent Qatari move. Analysts speculate Saudi Arabia felt emboldened by United States President Donald Trump’s address in the kingdom last month to pressure Qatar to abide by its 2014 agreement. But the only indication of a recent disagreement is the accusation by Saudi Arabia that Qatar was supporting the Houthis in Yemen over the past few months. What is clear is that Saudi Arabia wants Qatar’s foreign policy to align more closely with Saudi Arabia’s regional priorities, publicly and behind closed doors.

According to a statement released by Saudi Arabia on their official state news agency, Qatar’s support for the Houthis continued “even after the announcement of the Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen.” Qatari troops have since been pulled out of the coalition. The statement goes on to accuse Qatar of “adopt[ing] various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region,” including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda. Officials also accused Qatar and its media channels of “promoting the ideology and plans of these groups.”

Qatar will now have to work much harder to regain its neighbors’ trust. Measures similar to those taken in 2014 will not be enough to end tensions. This time Qatar will not be given the luxury of waving a select number of Islamists friendly good-byes while continuing to support them through other channels.

Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati political analyst, said Gulf states found themselves compelled to take action now. “Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama had enough with Qatar,” he said. “They gave Qatar all the benefit of the doubt, but consistently Qatar did not answer their calls. They just continued paying no attention to whatever was needed to be done. I think the three capitals just ran out of patience.”

For three angry Gulf states, the Muslim Brotherhood’s domestic meddling began more than three decades ago when its members and sympathizers left Egypt and moved to the Gulf to play a role in their new institutions. By the time countries realized, Dr. Ebtisam al-Ketbi, political scientist and chairwoman of the Emirates Policy Centre, said it was too late.

For the U.A.E., the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood began shortly after when authorities took various measures to push out members and sympathizers from the education and justice ministries, which they once dominated. According to Dr. Abdulrahim al-Shahin, a former member of the UAE parliament, the ministers of justice and education in the U.A.E. in the 1980s were both members of the Brotherhood and imposed their ideology on society.

In 2013, a few months before Morsi’s ouster (which was supported by the Emirates), the U.A.E. became more forceful in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood at home and in the region. For example, 94 Emiratis were tried in a landmark sedition case; they reportedly belonged to al-Islah, a group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The case was heard by the highest court in the country and could only be attended by Emiratis.

“I think what is needed from Qatar is nothing short of a 180 degree change in their past 15 years of policy,” Dr. Abdulla said. “If the [Qatari emir] is not capable of delivering then maybe someone else needs to take over.”

Although the fate of the GCC remains uncertain, it is neither in Qatar’s interest nor the rest of the region for the crisis to prolong. There have been no signs of backing down from either sides of the pond as pressures reach new levels with citizens of all countries feeling the fumes. Whether Qatar likes it or not, they will have to choose a side at the end of all this, either that of their neighbors, or that of the Islamists.