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Power struggle behind Saudi-led Qatar embargo

By Anne-Marie Bissada

Saudi Arabia and its allies have ramped up pressure on Qatar since declaring a diplomatic embargo of the the small Gulf state earlier this month. They say the action is because of Qatar's links to Iran and support for the Muslim Brotherhood group but analysts see it as a power struggle over the future of the region.

On 5 June several countries, notably Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, announced they were cutting ties with  Qatar.

This is the first time such action has been taken since the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was created in 1981.

Each day there are new developments, as the leaders of the pack -- Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt – unveil new measures to block Qatar: stopping its access to their airspace, shutting down its ground border with Saudi and kicking out Qatari nationals.

The two main reasons for the cut in ties were said to be Qatar’s growing relationship with Iran and its harbouring and support of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which has branches across the Middle East.

According to David Hearst, the editor in chief of the Middle East Eye, this is really a play between three regional blocs vying for power. Bloc one is Iran and its state actors of Iraq and Syria and non-state actors of the Shia Muslim Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iraqi Shia militias.

Bloc two is what he calls the old regime, made up of the absolute monarchs and military dictatorships that stand to lose from any government changes resulting from the Arab Spring of 2011. This includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan.

The third bloc is Turkey and Qatar, working in conjunction with the Muslim Brotherhood who momentarily took advantage of the Arab Spring to win support and, in Egypt's case, power.

Why now?

Hearst believes that this attack was premeditated and in fact follows on from unfinished business in 2013 when Egypt's then president Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted and the organisation was banned and driven out of the country.

While it is true that many of those who have fled Egypt since Morsi's overthrow ended up in Qatar for a time, many more ended up in Turkey, according to Eric Trager, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of Arab fall: how the Muslim Brotherhood won and lost Egypt in 891 days. "And, of course, Istanbul is where the Muslim Brothers and their fellow travellers have established roughly five satellite television networks which are very active in promoting the Muslim Brotherhood’s message, really across the region and as well as online.”

Essentially, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt showed other governments what could happen in their countries.

Is fear of Muslim Brothers justified?

“The Muslim Brotherhood poses a significant threat to some of these governments” says Trager. “The MB's entire ideology is about replacing existing governments on the assumption that the empowerment of the MB is the same as the empowerment of Islam itself. The brotherhood equates its organisation and its empowerment with the victory of the religion more broadly.”

There is also some popular mistrust of the organisation, Trager explains. “Many people across the region, seeing as how the 'Arab Spring' turned out, are also wary of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood because they fear chaos more than they fear their current government,” .

The embargo also appears to have been made possible by Riyadh's confidence that it had Washington's backing. The declaration came just after US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May, during which Riyadh was able to secure the partnership of Washington

Hearst also sees the Muslim Brotherhood as being a main impetus for the cutting of ties, especially when the job that was started after Morsi was ousted, was never finished. “They [the states against Qatar] saw Trump as an opportunity to basically finish off the political opposition and the Islamists’ political opposition, which they call terrorists, but is actually political; and to do it now.”

Iran connection

The second reason cited by Saudi Arabia was Qatar’s growing closeness to Iran.

An alleged hack on the Qatari news agency, alleging that Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani had congratulated Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on his election, led to the breaking of ties, the other GCC countries judging that it showed Doha was becoming too close to Tehran.

Qatar claimed the statement was fake news and, anyway, the other GCC countries also have relations with Tehran.

The GCC is not a cohesive bloc, Mahan Abedin, a writer on Iranian affairs points out,  and its internal problems go back to before the present crisis.

Iran, says Abedin, is one of the many problems, but “they have territorial disputes, and in respect to Iran, it's long been divided. Oman, for instance, has very close ties to Iran, much closer than Qatar, because Iran and Oman have very stable and strong relationships stretching to 45 years when the former Shah of Iran intervened in the Dhofar crisis in the mid-1970s.”

Abedin notes that Oman, in fact, has a kind of “silent partnership with Iran”.

Added to the mix is Kuwait, which also has strong ties with Tehran.

But most surprising is the fact that the UAE, despite territorial disputes on three islands in the Persian Gulf, maintains a lot of contact, such as trade, with Iran.

“There are nearly half a million Iranians living in the Emirates,” Abedin says, going on to explain that “there’s only really two countries that Iran is having very a difficult relationship with. One is obviously Saudi the other is Bahrain, for obvious reasons. The rest of them, they're all divided, they all have their own specific issues and policies towards Iran.”

Latest ultimatum

The latest major development in this crisis was on 23 June, when Saudi Arabia and its allies handed over a list of 13 demands that Qatar had to fulfil within 10 days to end the siege.

Needless to say, Doha refused.

Abedin believes the list was really a clear step “towards escalation because these demands which were issued and formalised, they cannot be met. They are asking Qatar to shut down Al-Jazeera, basically they are asking Qatar to shut itself down. It's not really feasible.”

The small emirate has developed an international reputation through its news channel which criticises regional governments and opens a window on these countries to the rest of the world. The only caveat is that Qatar is off-limits for criticism.

However, Trager says that Al-Jazeera is vilified by the others because they believe it promotes the Muslim Brotherhood’s political message, something which inspires fear in these regional states.

Another reason for the insistence on shutting down the international broadcaster is the way it has opened up Qatar to the world. It has shown that Doha can be an innovator in the region, which Abedin says is exactly the problem:

"I think what this is highlighting is how closed-minded they [the Saudis, the Emirates and Egyptians] are. They have no vision for the region apart from shutting down voices, of crushing dissent, they cannot tolerate any new vision apart from their own. And I think this issue really highlights that they want to shut Qatar down mainly because Qatar has a different vision for the region, and they cannot tolerate that.”

Crisis continues

Qatar, one of the richest countries in the world, has been able to cope with the blockades.

But the diplomatic situation is starting to have an effect outside the region.

Ahmed Soliman, a specialist in the Horn of African at Chatham House, highlights one example - the Eritrea–Djibouti border dispute. Since 2010 there has been Qatari mediation of that border, including the presence of peacekeeping troops. That in turn had led to an easing of tensions between the two, as last year when Eritrea released four Djibouti prisoners.

But Djibouti has downgraded relations with Qatar, which has now stopped the mediation and withdrawn its troops.

"I think the reasons for this are in part of Djibouti’s downgrading relations with Qatar and possibly the existence of both Saudi and UAE deployments in Djibouti and in Eritrea at the base of Assab,” , explains Soliman.

As the effects of the embargo start to take hold outside of the region, Qatar has reaffirmed its willingness to find a resolution.

Speaking in Washington DC earlier this week, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani reiterated Doha’s commitment to ending the crisis, adding “we have stated consistently and unequivocally that Qatar is willing to sit down with our neighbours to discuss all issues pertaining to regional security and stability, so long as these demands do not infringe upon our independence and national sovereignty."

Al-Thani also noted that Qatar is willing to negotiate any “legitimate grievances with our neighbors, but we will not compromise our national sovereignty”.

It doesn’t appear the crisis will wind down any time soon.

On 30 June United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the demand for Qatar to shut down Al-Jazeera is an unacceptable attack on the right to freedom of expression and opinion.

Meanwhile, Qatar’s ministry of defense announced the arrival of a new group of Turkish troops at the military base to help raise the country’s defence capabilities and maintain security and stability in the region.