Analysis |

Qatar Crisis: Trump and Netanyahu Are Deluding Themselves Over Sunni Coalition

A vicious attack on Qatar from other Arab countries for something its emir never even said shows how fragile the so-called Sunni Muslim alliance is

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, left, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber al-Sabah, Saudi King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi during a military exercise in Saudi Arabia, March 10, 2016.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, left, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber al-Sabah, Saudi King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Saudi Arabia, 2016.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was met in Kuwait on Wednesday by a new Twitter hashtag telling the “traitor of the Gulf” he was not welcome. The “traitor” tag is not particularly new amid the range of condemnations, insults and scorn hurled at the ruler of the tiny country by other Arab states.

“Qatar is dividing the Arab ranks and has turned to the enemies of the [Arab] people,” Saudi newspaper Okaz wrote after Saudi Arabia and Egypt both shuttered a number of Qatari websites, including Al Jazeera’s. (The TV network is based in Doha and partly funded by the Al Thani ruling family.)

In Egypt, Ayman Salameh, an expert in international law, proposed that the Egyptian government prepare evidence against Qatar for supporting terrorism and present its case to the U.S. government or the International Criminal Court.

And a number of media outlets in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates widely quoted U.S. reports saying Qatar was suspected of financing terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaida, Ahrar al-Sham in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other extremist Islamic groups such as Ansar al-Sharia in Libya.

This is not the first time Qatar has become the target of such venomous attacks from the Arab media.

Two years ago, Qatar’s relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, other Gulf states and Egypt reached an unprecedented low when the Saudi, Bahraini and UAE ambassadors were recalled from Doha – chiefly because of Qatar’s continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its ties with Iran.

The boycott of Qatar lasted for eight months, until the ambassadors returned after Qatar promised “to toe the Arab line.”

What inflamed the Arab media – only a short while after the summit meeting between the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and U.S. President Donald Trump in Riyadh last month – were statements attributed to Sheikh Tamim, who allegedly said: “There is no wisdom in harboring hostility toward Iran.” He was also quoted condemning the inclusion of Hezbollah and Hamas in the list of terrorist organizations, claiming they were resistance and not terrorist groups.

Qatar denied the emir had made the statements, saying “someone” had hacked his official Twitter account and made the statements in his name. The Gulf states and Egypt rejected the Qatari denial, mainly because Qatar’s positions on Iran were nothing new.

The paradox is that while Qatar hosts the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East, it is also an ally of Iran, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood (which is defined in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt as a terrorist organization), and funds extremist Syrian militias, including those affiliated with Al-Qaida.

The Arab settling of scores with Qatar does not end there. For decades, the regime-controlled Al Jazeera has served as a tool to attack other Arab countries and leverage Qatar’s influence on Arab public opinion. The network’s unreserved support for the Muslim Brotherhood led to a long feud with Egypt; a television series about relations between the founder of the Jordanian monarchy and the Zionist movement infuriated Jordan; and the exposure of corruption in Saudi Arabia rocked the House of Saud. Last week, a Saudi newspaper, Al Jazirah, published an article stating: “Confusion is shrouding the small country that grew up and became a television station.”

Qatar, which has bought influence with the large sums it has contributed and invested in Arab countries and around the world, was unimpressed. Traditionally, Qatar’s foreign policy has seen it put the emirate’s eggs in many baskets.

For example, even when it has supported extremist Islamic groups, Qatar has had official relations with Israel. And while it has cooperated with Turkey in the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad, hosted conferences of the Syrian opposition and funded anti-Assad militias, at the same time, Qatar has offered its services as a mediator between the rebel militias and the Syrian regime. It is a member of the Sunni Muslim coalition that King Salman of Saudi Arabia established 18 months ago, which was intended to confront Iranian influence – at the same time Qatar and Iran have joint ownership and management of the world’s largest natural gas field (in the Persian Gulf), and even have joint agreements for military cooperation.

U.S. office space – the final frontier

In addition, Qatar has a two-sided relationship with the United States. Last year, it announced its intention to invest some $10 billion in U.S. infrastructure projects; the trade between the two countries is worth some $5 billion a year; and the Qatari sovereign wealth fund – which has over $335 billion in holdings – is the fourth-largest global investor in office space in the United States, mostly in New York and Los Angeles.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in April that relations between Qatar and the United States were good, adding, “Relationships get better or weaker, and I’m committed to making it better from our side.” Mattis’ statements did not go down well in either Saudi Arabia and Egypt – which, incidentally, have their own tensions.

As in the previous crisis in 2014, this time, too, Kuwait was enlisted to help with mediation and reconciliation efforts between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As a first step, Kuwait invited Sheikh Tamim for a royal visit. It is expected its reconciliation efforts will succeed this time, too, mainly because Saudi Arabia – which is making great efforts to stop the Sunni coalition from falling apart at the seams – cannot allow a split between the Gulf states.

But even after it is resolved, the present crisis highlights the enormous difficulty in building an Arab coalition that is based on a religious common denominator – Sunni Muslim, against what is known as the “Shi’ite axis.”

In Trump’s America – as in Israel, which has an anti-Iran obsession – it is easy to divide the Middle East into Sunnis and Shi’ites, and to adopt the Sunnis as allies and push the Shi’ites into the enemy corner. But this simplistic view forgets about such organizations as Al-Qaida, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood – all of which are extremist Sunni groups.

The Americans also seem to have erased from their memories the Iraqi chapter in which a Shi’ite government cooperated with the U.S. Army in the war against Sunni Saddam Hussein, and then later against Al-Qaida in Iraq. This sweeping generalization sees the Shi’ites as a single group that links the Alawites in Syria, Houthis in Yemen and Iranian Shi’ites together, despite the religious and ideological differences between them.

The flaw in such a perspective that sees the Shi’ites as a single, anti-Western bloc is the same fault that sees the Sunnis as a tightly-knit group with an anti-Shi’ite common denominator – one that is willing to sacrifice lives on behalf of a U.S. or Saudi policy that strives to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Qatar may be the most prominent example of how a Sunni Arab state can maintain strong relations with the two “religious axes” at the same time without losing its relationship with the United States. The fabric of Qatar’s ties shows that national and economic interests are more important than a shared religious foundation – more so than the shared religious component between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which has created tensions between the two countries, despite the fact both are acting to block the growing Iranian influence.

Another example is Sunni Pakistan, which may have attended the summit of Muslim nations whose leaders met with Trump in Riyadh, but then quickly dispatched its defense minister to Tehran, to allay Iranian fears of Pakistan possibly joining the Sunni coalition. Pakistan’s economy depends to a great extent on Saudi Arabia, where millions of Pakistani citizens work. But the security of Pakistan’s southwestern border is no less important, and that is why it has made sure to maintain good relations with Iran.

Trump and/or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who have been dreaming of a pro-Western Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia against Iran and Islamic terrorism, have let themselves off the hook way too easily. They may even be deluding themselves by avoiding a discussion of the internal Arab relationships that could easily tear apart any such coalition.

Such a Sunni coalition would find it difficult to meet its goals – not only because of disputes between the various Arab states or because some of them already cooperate with Iran, but mainly for a lack of trust in U.S. policy and its president.

It seems for now that Arab nations, more than they want to imprison Iran within its own borders, are making great efforts to steer Trump in their direction and prevent him from turning, without prior warning, toward Iran. The trauma former President Barack Obama left in Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, will be hard to heal when there’s a U.S. president who tweets a new surprise every morning.

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