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Qatar imbroglio: Princes are playing with fire

Amroune Bachir Kommentarbild App
Bachir Amroune
June 6, 2017

Qatar stands isolated under accusations of sponsoring terrorism. But this diplomatic crisis is actually about young princes' unbridled quest for power - with the help of Donald Trump, says DW's Bachir Amroune.

Katar Doha im Nebel
The clouds over Doha now harbor a shadow of suspicionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Y. Valat

It did not take long for the US president to react. Just hours after announcements of the diplomatic and geographic isolation of the tiny emirate of Qatar, Donald Trump pledged that his White House would seek to help de-escalate the situation in the Persian Gulf. If needed, he said, he would dispatch a high representative to the region to mediate.

But Trump is not what one could consider an honest broker in this instance. And it is no coincidence that this saber rattling has begun just days after his historic visit to Riyadh. During that visit, he declared the Wahhabi monarchy in Saudi Arabia to be the leader of the Arab and Islamic worlds, and the USA's deputy in the region. Their declared enemy: Riyadh's archenemy Iran and a number of unnamed state sponsors of terrorism. The Saudis spent $100 billion (89 billion euros) for the honor, signing a weapons deal with the USA that will consume most of Saudi Arabia's financial reserves.  

Qatar has now become the first state to be on the receiving end of this new power. The tiny emirate has been trying to establish itself as an independent player in the region and the wider world ever since Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa seized power from his father in a bloodless coup in 1995. With sheer endless gas reserves in one hand and the pan-Arab news outlet Al Jazeera in the other, Qatar became a diplomatic heavyweight. It made the most of that new role by attacking the rulers of other Arab states during the Arab Spring. With that, Qatar's popularity rose quickly among those critical of various Middle Eastern governments. But it was also a thorn in the side of its big brother Saudi Arabia from the start. Detractors claim that it was Saudi pressure that forced Emir Hamad to abdicate in 2013, to make way for his 30-year-old son Tamim.

The godfather of all counterrevolutionary forces

Amroune Bachir Kommentarbild App
DW's Bachir Amroune

Yet, Tamim annoyed his neighbors as well, even after Al Jazeera stopped running reports critical of Saudi Arabia's domestic and foreign policy in 2014. But Riyadh was still unable to openly attack Qatar, that changed when the billion dollar arms deal with Trump was signed. The true architect of the new power dynamic in the Gulf is 56-year-old Muhammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Relatively young among Gulf monarchies, the young crown prince of Abu Dhabi is the godfather of all counterrevolutionary forces in Arab Spring countries. Whether Tunisia, Libya or Egypt: the old guard can count on Muhammad bin Zayed's support. Hence, his interests are diametrically opposed to those of Qatar, who supports the Muslim Brotherhood.

Abu Dhabi's crown prince has excellent relations with US President Donald Trump. And Muhammed bin Zayed has used them to aid an ambitious ally in the region: Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman Al Saud. He wants to become Riyadh's viceroy as soon as possible so that he can eventually become his father's successor. The Qatar crisis is indeed closely linked to internal power struggles within the Saudi royal family.

Qatar citizens storm supermarkets

To be sure, Qatar is no choir boy. The emirate continues to support a number of extremist groups in conflicts throughout the region: such as the former Al-Nusra Front, which was an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Syria. And the emirate is not exactly famous for its democratic values: parliamentary elections were last held in Qatar in 1970 and political parties are prohibited. Not to mention its tenuous relationship with protecting human rights – especially as regards the disgraceful conditions found at FIFA World Cup building sites in preparation for the 2020 edition of the soccer tournament.

Uncompromising and violent

Nevertheless, it is utterly grotesque that Saudi Arabia should now be accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism. For the last 60 years, Saudi Arabia has been the world's biggest exporter of extremist ideology and has helped destabilize many regions around the globe, reaching as far as the Caucasus, the Balkans and Western Europe. Whether Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Islamist groups in Syria, Iraq and in the Algerian civil war, or simply extremist mosques: Riyadh's petrodollars have fueled the dissemination of the Saudi doctrine of Wahhabism – a strain of Islam that is intolerant of those who think differently and is not afraid to use extreme violence should it feel the need to do so. The so-called Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which was passed by the US Congress to enable terror victims to sue state sponsors of terrorism, was based in large part on Saudi Arabia's role in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

Until now, the presence of the US Air Force at Al Udeid Air Base just west of Doha has been Qatar's life insurance policy. The Trump administration has said that it has no plans to relocate the base, which is home to some 10,000 US servicemen and women. But such promises do not carry much weight with someone like President Trump in the Oval Office.

Another problem could well be copycat reactions from other Western countries now keen to square old accounts with Qatar. One such utterance just came from Reinhard Grindel, the president of the German Football Association (DFB), who said that he is no longer opposed to a boycott of the Qatar World Cup; and that he hopes such tournaments will not be staged in countries that actively sponsor terrorism in the future. But the accusations of terror sponsorship are just a pretext for the current saber rattling towards Doha. The Saudis are ultimately interested in outright subjugation. Sadly, an Arab world in which every voice that opposes Saudi Arabia is crushed, is also one that will continue to sink ever deeper into misery.

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