Few people believe there is much good sense or exigency driving the current Qatar crisis. The fashionable understanding is that the four Gulf states acted rashly in pursuit of an unnecessary “quick win” and now find themselves in an awkward situation they can’t easily extricate themselves from. I am not sure that I buy it.
There is certainly some awkwardness about the Quartet’s claim that it was to advance counter-terrorism that they cut diplomatic ties with their neighbour and ally. Combatting terrorist financing is a necessary and urgent initiative – but it is a fight that each of the GCC members are involved in. While undoubtedly true that Qatar has permitted a domestic environment that makes it too easy for terrorists to reside, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt also have their demons. And they know we know it.
The fundamental strategic mistake has been their decision not to frame sanctions in the context of perfectly legitimate arguments that Qatar could be a direct threat to the survival of prosperous, internationally engaged, and stable governments.
Why don’t they just come out and say what they think? That the purpose of this embargo is their national survival. They sincerely believe that Qatar’s policy for the best part of the last decade, and arguably further back, has been to facilitate the financing of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, ride the wave of political Islam, and emerge as kingmakers when incumbent governments topple. Qatar was almost successful in Egypt, they say, but persists despite resoundingly failing everywhere else.
Last month, tapes were released that appeared to show the former Emir of Qatar discussing with Gaddafi how the House of Saud would be the next to go after Saddam Hussein, and that it was their hope the Kingdom wouldn’t last more than 10-15 years. The UAE is furious because it believes Doha has been drawing the attention of Houthi rebels in Yemen to the position of their troops, leading to a number of Emirati casualties. I wonder how the British Government would have reacted if it had discovered the French were providing financial and intelligence support to the IRA.
The Americans seem more aware of this problem. Members of the US intelligence community are convinced that Qatari State officials had pre-briefed a notorious terrorist before he could be intercepted; last week more CIA agents emerged from the shadows to express their frustration that the 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mysteriously disappeared from his Doha residence hours after US intelligence officers told the Qatari intelligence forces they were about to arrest him.
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To the Quartet, Doha’s strategy is simple: instability abroad, control at home. They argue that it has always believed that the region is set for a correction, during which the dynastic monarchies would be overthrown by Islamic populists looking to implement a radical interpretation of Sharia Law. The thinking was, and is, that it has the wealth and limited population to counter such insurgency at home, but could subsequently make alliances that would position it very favourably with emergent regimes in more expansive societies.
It is now clear that Qatar backed the wrong horse. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are, despite their flaws, the countries with the most modern and diverse economies in the Middle East. The reforms spearheaded by Mohammed bin Salman are slowly turning the Gulf’s biggest economy into an optimistic and dynamic powerhouse. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen young people from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in London, glad to be away from the summer heat, but beaming with pride about the prospects for their countries. Over in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, there is much less to smile about. Qatar needs to learn this very serious lesson.
Geoff Hoon was Defence Secretary between 1999 and 2005