by Hugh Fitzgerald
The blockade and the boycott that Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain, and Egypt imposed on Qatar more than three years ago has just been lifted. Analysts are split on what it means, and whether it is to be applauded or deplored, as reported here: “Debate Over Qatar: Is Blockade-Ending Move Positive for Middle East?,” by Jackson Richman, JNS.org, January 8, 2021:
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates ended their three-and-a-half-year blockade against Qatar on Tuesday—a move whose implications appear to have mixed ramifications on issues surrounding the Middle East, according to foreign-policy experts.
Saudi Arabia reopened its airspace, and its land and sea borders, to Qatar. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt lifted the embargo on Qatar, while Qatar agreed to abandon all lawsuits pertaining to the blockade, which the Gulf states enacted over its support for terrorism.
In a statement on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck an optimistic tone, stating that the United States is “encouraged by the breakthrough made with the Al-Ula Declaration today at the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] summit, which marks a positive step toward restoring Gulf and Arab unity.” (Egypt is not a member of the GCC)
“We have long stressed that a truly united Gulf will bring added prosperity through the free flow of goods and services, and more security to its people,” said Pompeo. “We welcome the pledge to restore cooperation in military, economic, health, counter-corruption and cultural initiatives.”
Overall, Middle East and foreign-policy professionals seemed to view the breakthrough, which was brokered by the United States and Kuwait, with skepticism, as more of a negative than a positive.
“I’m skeptical that the end of the Qatar blockade means that Doha will give up on its partnership with the mullahs in Iran or will fundamentally change any of the other malign activities that so upset the Saudis, Emiratis and other Arab countries in the first place,” said Foundation for Defense of Democracies CEO Mark Dubowitz. “If it’s a first step towards aligning their policies more closely with their GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] cousins, that would be reason for optimism. But there has been no fundamental change in their behavior that should make one optimistic.”…
It is hard to figure out whether, and about what, there have been side agreements that Qatar has made in order to obtain a lifting of the blockade and the boycott. Some critics of the “reconciliation” insist that Qatar has not agreed to make any changes in its policies and will continue to maintain its friendly ties with Iran, to the great consternation, especially, of the Saudis and Emiratis, as well as continue its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and the terror organizations Hamas and Hezbollah.
One of the ways that Qatar punches above its weight in regional conflicts is through its ownership of Al Jazeera, a television network that beams throughout the Arab world, as well as in the U.S., the U.K,, and other major markets. The network is not only a “harsh critic of Israel” but also critical of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, while it supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and reports sympathetically on Iran.
We still do not know whether Qatar agreed to any, and if so which, of the 13 demands made by the countries that had boycotted — and in Saudi Arabia’s case, blockaded — Qatar.
Middle East analyst Irina Tsukerman warned of dire consequences from the lifting of the blockade—a move she called “a major mistake.”
“There has been no evidence that Qatar has made any compromises or acquiesced to any of the 13 demands set out in the beginning of the boycott imposed in 2017,” she said.
Thanks to the end of the blockade, said Tsukerman, Qatar will be able to facilitate the Gulf state’s smuggling of weapons and fighters “into East Saudi Arabia, where Iran is actively involved in radicalizing the local Shi’a population and through there to Islamist and terrorist cells all over the country.”
How will Qatar now be able to smuggle weapons and fighters into the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where three million Shi’a live? Ending Saudi Arabia’s physical blockade of Qatar doesn’t mean the Saudis will cease to check every vehicle and person entering the Kingdom from Qatar, as Tsukerman seems to think. And surely the Saudis, who keep a strong military presence in that oil-bearing province, so as to promptly suppress any protests by the restive Shi’as, are no less capable today than they were when the blockade was in force, of monitoring the population and ferreting out Iranian agents.
As for her suggestion that Iranian or Saudi Shi’a will be able to now move out of eastern Saudi Arabia “to Islamist and terrorist cells all over the country,” one is entitled to be skeptical. What is the likelihood that Wahhabi Saudis could ever be allied with the Shi’a, whom they have been taught to regard as not real Muslims but, rather, as Infidels, to be despised as “Rejectors” or “Rafidite dogs”?
Benjamin Weil, director of the Project for Israel’s National Security at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), noted that “there are still some fundamental regional policy differences between the countries, particularly when it comes to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Former US Ambassador to the UAE Barbara Leaf told JNS that the development remains “significant but fragile” as the core issues that divide the UAE and Qatar in particular, but also loom large for Egypt, “have not been resolved.”…
Ambassador Leaf may well be right, but no one outside of the Arab parties knows for certain what issues have been resolved between Qatar and those who have just lifted their boycott. Has Qatar agreed to limit its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, with which Egypt and the UAE are most concerned? Will it, for example, cease to provide the MB’s intellectual leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, with the ability to broadcast his sermons to 60 million Muslims who listen to him worldwide? Will Qatar cease to give members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its Gazan version, Hamas, a refuge, when so many Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Egypt, have designated the Brotherhood “a terrorist organization”?
Certainly the timing of this “reconciliation” with Qatar suggests that the Saudis are hoping to win points with the Biden Administration, which the Saudis know looks with disfavor on Riyadh for its record on human rights, the civilian casualties it has caused in Yemen, and its killing of Jamal Khashoggi. But that would not explain why the other three states — Egypt, the U.A.E., and Bahrain – chose to end their boycott. They must have been persuaded that there would as a result be changes in Qatar’s behavior, a turn away from both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“I doubt we will see a sudden increase in cooperation among the GCC states, which have failed to even make their militaries compatible over the past 40 years, and which have divergent interests and relationships with external powers,” she [Barbara Slavin] said. “However, anything that lessens tension in the region should be welcomed, and let’s hope this leads to more diplomacy and fewer threats and acts of violence.”
National security analyst Anthony Cordesman remarked that the end of the blockade “gives the Arab Gulf states the first real opportunity they have had in years to create an effective regional deterrent to Iran.”
But Cordesman is here assuming that Qatar has committed itself to ending its friendly relationship with Iran, to become instead part of a common “regional deterrent” to Iran. I do not think Cordesman has some special knowledge about what Qatar may have agreed to, knowledge that no other Western analyst appears to possess.
“It potentially revitalizes the Gulf Cooperation Council. It provides the opportunity to deploy integrated air and missile defenses, far more interoperable air forces and unified maritime defenses to deal with Iran’s growing air, missile and naval forces,” he continued. “It allows US and European power projection forces to help create a fully integrated level of deterrence and defense, and means Iraq [sic for “Iran”}cannot pick and choose its targets in ways that exploit the divisions between Arab states.”
“More than that,” said Cordesman, “it not only provides new opportunities to deter a future war with Iran, but to make Iraq, Egypt and Jordan real security partners, and deal with extremist threats as well. It is only a first step towards reaching these goals, but it is a vital one.”
This prediction of a swift integration of the military forces of the GCC nations assumes a great deal. How would this “interoperability” work when there are a wide variety of different weapons from many different suppliers. This will take years to accomplish, as weapons systems obsolesce and are replaced. The six countries of the GCC would have to agree on buying the same tanks, the same airplanes, the same naval vessels, to replace the many different weapons they now possess. How long would that be to attain that desired “interoperability” of weapons and weapons systems, the kind that not even NATO enjoys? A decade? Longer?
While experts acknowledged that although Iran will lose revenue from Qatari overflights, contrary to Cordesman’s take, the end of the blockade doesn’t necessarily make for a united front by the Gulf countries against the threat from Tehran.
“I don’t think it contributes directly to a more unified stance on Iran for the moment,” said Leaf.
Slavin said “as far as Iran is concerned, Qatar will maintain close ties because they share the world’s largest gas field and because Qatar is grateful for Iran’s help during the blockade. Iran will lose revenue from Qatari overflights but may gain another go-between with the Saudis.”…
Qatar does share the world’s largest gas field with Iran, but is that enough to keep it in Teheran’s corner when all of its Arab neighbors are insistent that it end its support of Iran? By distancing itself politically from Iran, Qatar is not necessarily endangering its access to its own share of the natural gas reserves in the field. In fact, by drawing closer to the Arab states that had once boycotted it, Qatar would then have allies that, in any conflict with Iran over that gas field, will now come to its aid. And aside from those in the GCC — wouldn’t other Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq, feel the tug of “Arabness” and be likely to contribute forces to an anti-Iran coalition, especially since they would have the assurance that Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. will pick up the tab for their military involvement?
“Qatar had been giving Iran $100 million annually to use its airspace due to the blockade, according to United Against Nuclear Iran policy director Jason Brodsky.
“Brodsky said that while the end of the blockade “may be a step in the right direction of fostering unity within” the GCC “against “the Iranian threat, this doesn’t necessarily solve the core concerns that the United States, and its allies and partners, have as it relates to Doha’s international posture.”
“For example, he said, “there have been recent allegations of funding originating in Qatar for Hezbollah, not to mention US lawsuits alleging Qatari financing for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Thus, there are still many unresolved issues that will contribute to disunity moving forward.”
But it has again to be said, we don’t know whether Qatar has agreed, or will agree, to ending its support of Hamas and Hezbollah as part of its “reconciliation” with the GCC. If it does do so, this will win it greater support not only among its fellow Arabs in the GCC and Egypt, but also the support that should matter to it above all others – that of the American government. In the constant flux and reflux of Middle Eastern politics, having the American military — that already has a huge presence at the Al-Udeid airbase in Qatar — on your side is the surest way to deter potential aggressors, including Iran.
“At the same time, Qatar, a close ally of Iran and a supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah, two terrorist organizations, will now have easier air, land and sea access,” continued Weil, who added that “Israel benefited from the GCC boycott on Qatar since it created a deeper divide in the Arab League, preventing the countries from collaborating on anti-Israel policies.”
But Israel may have a different view: if this agreement leads to Qatar choosing to return to the Arab fold, and abandoning its quondam friend, Iran, that is very much in Israel’s favor. Iran will then be without an ally in the Gulf, indeed without the support of any Arab state save war-weakened Syria. Israel, on the other hand, is in the midst of developing its suddenly flourishing relations with the U.A.E. and Bahrain, the first two Arab states to normalize ties with the Jewish state. Israel continues to develop ever-closer security ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s “cold peace” appears to be warming up, with El-Sisi publicly praising the Abraham Accords, and inviting Netanyahu to make a state visit to Cairo, which no Israeli Prime Minister has ever done, despite the peace treaty with Egypt that was concluded in 1979.
“At the end of the day, said Tsukerman, “Qatar and Iran will take this step exactly as what it is—a sign of capitulation—and will benefit greatly from it.”
She added that Saudi Arabia “is losing out on leverage, whereas Qatar sees these events as a sign of impunity, and its growing influence in the region and in the West.”
It is amazing that Tsukerman can be so certain that there has been a “capitulation” to Qatar. Neither she, nor anyone else in the Western world, knows what the agreement, or possible secret side agreements, may contain, other than the ending of the boycott, and the lifting of the blockade. Secretary Pompeo has enthusiastically welcomed the agreement. Is it possible he knows a bit more about its ramifications than Irina Tsukerman? She says that Iran, like Qatar, will take this agreement as a sign of “capitulation” – a “victory” for the Islamic Republic. Is this true? The only Arab state, other than Syria, that has been friendly to Iran has now made a deal that brings it closer to being back within the fold of the GCC countries and Egypt, all of which are enemies of Iran. Should Iran be pleased with such an outcome? Shouldn’t it, rather, be worried that it has lost its hold on the one Gulf state it could count on for support?
First published in Jihad Watch.