by Hugh Fitzgerald
Just after the signing of the reconciliation agreement by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council was held including – for the first time in three years — representatives of Doha. The Saudi Crown Prince opened the meeting by reminding everyone that Iran was the chief threat to the members of the GCC. There was no objection from Qatar. The report on MBS’s opening remarks at the GCC are here: “Eyeing Gulf Detente, Saudi Arabia Opens Summit With Call to Counter Iran Threat,” Algemeiner, January 5, 2021:
Saudi Arabia‘s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman opened a Gulf Arab summit on Tuesday by taking aim at Iran and lauding a deal towards ending a long-running dispute with Qatar.
Prince Mohammed embraced Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, on the airport tarmac in the historic Saudi city of al-Ula, an important signal of hopes to bury a conflict between major US allies in the Middle East two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
Leaders of the Gulf countries signed a document, although the contents were not immediately released….
Presumably this document, signed by all six GCC members, widened the circle of states agreeing to be “reconciled” with Qatar, after the initial Saudi-Qatar reconciliation agreement, to include the all four of the remaining GCC members — UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait.
“These efforts … led to the al-Ula agreement which will be signed at this blessed summit and which confirms Gulf, Arab and Islamic unity and stability,” Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, said without elaborating on the deal.
He said the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and its “subversive and destructive plans” necessitated “serious action” by the global community.
That last comment by the Saudi Crown Prince was meant to remind not only fellow GCC members, and other Arab states, but above all, the incoming Biden administration, that it should not simply return to the nuclear deal of 2015 , without any changes. The Crown Prince wants the Americans to modify the original agreement, so that it is “lengthened and strengthened” by placing limits on Iran’s ballistic missile program and by obtaining Iran’s commitment to end its regional aggression, through its network of proxies and allies — from Yemen (the Houthis) through Iraq (Kataib Hezbollah) and Syria (the Alawite-led army of Bashar Assad), to Lebanon (Hezbollah) — all enrolled in the effort to help Iran create a “Shi’a crescent” from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.
His father, King Salman, who chaired the last annual gathering, was not seen during the opening session of the summit held in a mirrored building reflecting the desert landscape.
The apparent breakthrough in the Gulf row is the latest in a series of Middle East deals sought by Washington to close ranks against Iran, following agreements between Israel and Arab states. It also suggests Saudi Arabia wants to put the feud with Qatar behind it before Biden takes office.
Knowing that Biden takes a dim view of Saudi Arabia, for its human rights violations at home, its bombing campaigns that have claimed the lives of Yemeni civilians, and its killing of the journalist Jama Khashoggi, the Crown Prince quite sensibly wanted to present Biden with a display of a kinder, gentler Saudi Arabia, as signified by its willingness to lift the blockade on Qatar and welcome Doha back into the GCC fold. He’s calculating that this “reconciliation” may soften Biden’s hostility toward the Kingdom; since it not only deals a blow to Iran by weakening its ties with Qatar, but it also means that there is one less foreign policy problem on the new president’s plate.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Qatar over allegations Doha supports terrorism, a charge it denies.
Qatar’s denial is absurd. First, it has been a financial backer of Hamas in Gaza, and it allows Hamas to operate freely in its own territory, while many other Arab states, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain, all ban Hamas as a “terror group.” Second, Qatar provides support for terrorist groups by defending and promoting them in the many media platforms which Al Jazeera – wholly owned by the Qatari government – possesses. Third, Al Jazeera also defends Iran’s direct support, with weapons and money, for terror groups, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon, and both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
While Riyadh made clear it intended to lift the embargo, the other three states did not immediately comment on the issue. But the US official said “it’s our expectation” they would also join and that Doha will suspend lawsuits related to the boycott….
Now that Qatar has just been welcomed back to a meeting of the GCC, this surely means that its members have signaled their own willingness to follow the Saudi lead, lift their own much less extensive blockades, and reconcile with Qatar.
But with Qatar having reconciled with the GCC, which surely required it to pivot in its policy away from the Islamic Republic, Iran lost its one semi-friend and quasi-ally in the Gulf. Despite the author’s claim that this détente will not have repercussions beyond the Gulf, that seems unlikely. Iran’s isolation will have increased, and opponents of Iran’s ally Hezbollah will be heartened, perhaps sufficiently so as to mount a challenge to the terror group in Lebanon. And any weakening of Hezbollah’s hold on Lebanon or status in the region will improve Israel’s position.
All the states are US allies. Qatar hosts the region’s largest US military base, Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE host US troops.
These countries are American “allies” in the sense that they all permit America to have or share bases in their territory, but there are differences among them. The staunchly pro-American and now pro-Israel Emirates is a much closer American “ally” than Qatar, home to the anti-American, anti-Israel government-financed Al Jazeera network, a financial backer of the terror group Hamas (presumably that will now stop) and a friend indeed, until just the day before yesterday, to America’s mortal enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Qatar says the boycott aims [aimed] to curb its sovereignty.
The boycott of Qatar was an attempt to pressure the Doha government to exercise its sovereign right to choose its friends and enemies in ways its neighbors found less threatening. It’s not a curb on its sovereignty, but an attempt to have it pivot in its foreign policy. When the American government tries to persuade Mexico to bar Central American immigrants from traveling through the country to the U.S., when the U.K. attempts to persuade the French to prevent Muslim migrants from crossing the channel, when Israel tries to persuade the U.S. not to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal without modifications, these attempts to influence another country’s policies are not seen as curbs on its sovereignty, but as attempts to influence policy. It’s what ambassadors, and foreign secretaries, do all the time; Qatar’s complaint that the boycott – that is, the blockade – “curbs its sovereignty” is misplaced.
The other countries had set Doha 13 demands, including closing Al Jazeera TV, shuttering a Turkish base, cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood and downgrading ties with Iran.
I assume it was not just the “other countries” in the GCC– the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait , Oman –but also Saudi Arabia, that presented Qatar collectively with their demands. It’s a good list. Pride of place must be given to “downgrading ties with Iran,” for Iran represents a major threat to the Gulf Sunni states. Its support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen fills the Saudis with dread, and not only because of Houthi attacks on Saudi oil installations. Far worse could be expected should the Houthis prove successful and take over Yemen. Iran would then be able to use Yemen as an enormous base running along Saudi Arabia’s southern border, where It would be a major military threat to the Kingdom. Iran might also attempt to foment, from Yemen – with propaganda, money, and weapons — an insurrection against their Wahhabi masters by the 3 million Shi’a who live in the oil-bearing Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia..
Second on the To-Do List for Qatar should be cutting its longstanding support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Bahrainis, and the Egyptians all regard with dread. Such a decision entails some risk: the MB is deeply entrenched in Qatar, where the its intellectual leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, lives, and from where he broadcasts to 60 million listeners world-wide. So far Qatar, with its waddling Emir, has been spared by the MB. But should Qatar become less friendly, under GCC pressure, to the Brotherhood, surely the MB would in turn become more hostile to the Al-Thani dynasty that rules Qatar. The Qataris may have privately told the GCC that for reasons of self-preservation they will have to disentangle themselves from the Brotherhood very slowly and carefully, and may want to wait until after the death of Yusuf al-Qaradawi – he’s 94 — to make the complete break with the Brotherhood requested by the members of the GCC..
Shuttering a Turkish base should be the easiest of the demands made on Qatar. Turkey and Qatar bonded over their shared support for the Muslim Brotherhood, but if the MB is now going to be viewed steadily less favorably in Doha, its steadfast supporter Turkey might suffer the same fate. The other Arabs have been disturbed by the neo-Ottoman schemes and dreams of President Erdogan, including his presumption that Turkey should be, as by right, the natural leader of the Muslim world, and Turks should command the pan-Islamic army that Erdogan suggested be created to destroy Israel. They harbor historic memories of mistreatment by their Ottoman masters. And it is not only those Ottoman “schemes and dreams” that so alarm them, but the Turkish bases that Erdogan has established in western Libya, in Idlib Province in Syria, in northern Syria, in Somalia (the largest Turkish base outside Turkey), and in Qatar itself.. Qatar should have no trouble shutting down, at the GCC’s request, the Turkish base on its territory; Qatar shares the Al Udeid airbase with the Americans, who can protect the Qataris far better than the Turks, should protection (from whom?) be needed. The Turkish base in Qatar was merely one more example of Erdogan’s building of Turkish outposts throughout the region; it did not answer any felt need from the Qataris themselves.
As for shutting Al Jazeera, that’s a tall order, and probably not the cleverest way to curb that Qatari-owned media network’s malign influence, as a promoter of pro-Iranian and pro-MB views and, at the same time, a spreader of anti-GCC, anti-Israel, and anti-American messages. Al-Jazeera is now well-established, mainly in the Muslim world but also in the U.S. and the U.K. It employs three thousand people. If Al Jazeera were to be shut down, many of those journalists would end up at other Middle Eastern media networks, bringing with them their anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Israeli attitudes, and added to those their new resentment directed at Qatar itself, for shutting down the station. A wiser path would be to keep the station open, perhaps dismissing a few dozen members of the staff who were most extreme in their animosity to the West, America, the GCC, and Israel. This would be a way of semaphoring to the rest of the staff that new targets are being substituted for old, and that it is now open season on Iran for constructing its “Shia crescent” and Turkey for Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman” ambitions, while coverage of the GCC countries, the Abrahamic Accords, Israel, and the U.S. should concomitantly become less hostile. Those staff members who hew most closely to the new line should be promoted.
We’ll eventually find out what, among the demands reportedly made on Qatar by the Saudis, the Emirates, and the rest of the GCC, are being met, or modified, or rejected, by Doha. I can already hear—can’t you? — the foreign policy warriors drumming their messages through the jungles of Foggy Bottom, Whitehall, the Quai d’Orsay, the BBC and NPR, the Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, the GPS with Fareed Zakaria, and the columns of portentous print by those grand panjandrums and pundits of the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof and Tom Friedman, so often wrong, so seldom right, so always self-assured.
As for me, I’m going to stick with what I surmised just above.
First published in Jihad Watch.