Washington is concerned dispute is entrenching divisions and may force Qatar into a closer relationship with Iran
Gulf states expect Donald Trump to intervene to try to end the bitter feud between Qatar and four other Middle East states that has destabilised the region.
The US is concerned that the four month-long dispute involving its chief allies in the region is entrenching divisions and may end up forcing Qatar – home to the US’s primary Middle East military base – into a closer relationship with Iran.
Washington is expected to give the regional mediator, Kuwait’s Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, another chance to try to persuade the warring parties to meet at a long-scheduled Gulf Cooperation Council summit in December, but it may intervene soon afterwards.
“We will not and cannot dictate the terms of any resolution, but we are happy to be available in any way that the parties would like,” the US assistant secretary of state Tim Lenderking said this month.
He said the rhetoric surrounding the dispute, including “personal and often humiliating attacks”, made a verbal ceasefire a precondition of any talks. “At the moment there is an erosion of trust between the Gulf leaders,” he said.
Hacked emails, secret tapes, “fake news” and conspiracy theories have proliferated as the once secretive monarchies hurl abuse at one another across social media.
Apparent efforts by the quartet – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – to foment internal strife in Qatar or even a coup against the Harrow- and Sandhurst-educated emir, Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, have backfired.
The blockade has instead resulted in a rallying to the flag by the country’s 250,000 Qataris and its many other residents. Many of Doha’s buildings, cars, airport signs, mobile phone covers and even Qatari Twitter handles are festooned with the same drawing of the emir, nicknamed “Tamim the Glorious”.
In universities, students report an upsurge of patriotic feeling. Alanood al-Jalahma, a 21-year-old medical student, said the dispute had led to a growing interest in politics on university campuses. “People are speaking up and saying this could be done better. Change is happening,” she said.
But Jalahma said it was also leading towards a long-term rupture in the Gulf. “People are so scared that if I send a note of congratulations on social media to a friend in Bahrain, they will not reply.”
The crisis erupted on 5 June when the quartet imposed a diplomatic and physical blockade of Qatar. They demanded the country end its alleged support for terrorism, cut its links with Shia Iran and end its subversion of their regimes. They claimed Doha had harboured key figures from Hamas, the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood, and financed dissident clerics in Saudi Arabia.
In an interview with the Guardian, the chair of Qatar’s national counter-terrorism committee, Abdulaziz al-Ansari, went on the offensive over claims that his country had been soft on UN-designated terrorists, the wedge issue with which the quartet has sought to sway US public opinion.
“We wake up every day with a new made-up list of alleged terrorists that the blockading countries say we are harbouring and that must throw into jail, but there is an international system for dealing with such cases,” he said.
He pointed to a new bilateral memorandum of understanding that his government had signed with the US. “The memorandum creates an agreement with the US and a model that other countries in the region could replicate. The whole world has to collaborate in the exchange of information because delay can cause disaster. We have energised all of Qatar’s relevant government agencies and to put them to work under one umbrella.”
Ansari insisted travel bans and asset freezes had been imposed on all those designated as terrorists by the UN in Qatar. A domestic list of designated terrorists has been established, and three men previously discharged for lack of corroborative evidence are again facing prosecution. The threshold for prosecution has been lowered. In addition, it is expected that a small number of US Treasury officials will be permitted to work inside Qatar’s government.
Meanwhile, Qatari officials claim outside financing may no longer be central to much of the terrorism that afflicts Europe. “Most of the terrorists in Europe have records as criminals, drugs addicts, problems at school. They are recruited by Daesh off the internet,” he said.
The director of Qatar’s government communication office claimed Saudis were jeopardising regional security by refusing to conduct joint military exercises with the US if Qatar was involved. Sheikh Saif al-Thani said: “The US would never have established such an important military base in Qatar if it thought the country was a nest bed for terrorism.”
Many western diplomats argue that the ostensible reasons for the dispute do not add up, and that what lies at its root is a regional competition between Qatar and the UAE and, increasingly, Saudi. Tensions have grown in the wake of the Arab spring in 2011 and the two sides support different factions in Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt.
Some say the dispute is primarily ideological and that Qatar has always backed the Islamist side with guns and money. Others say it is more personal, and predominantly the product of a 20-year grudge held by the father of Qatar’s current emir over the way other Gulf states failed to support him when he deposed his own father in 1995.
They suggest the emir’s father remains the power behind the throne, still using the vast income from liquid gas production, the outsize reach of al-Jazeera and the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood to challenge Saudi hegemony.
One of the quartet’s leading ambassadors claims their actions in the dispute have succeeded in throwing a revealing spotlight on Qatar’s foreign policy, forcing the tight group around the emir to be much more cautious than it was at the height of the Arab spring.
He claims Qatar’s interference in Libya, Syria and Gaza has been reduced, creating space for the alternative anti-Islamist foreign policy of the UAE and Saudi to start to bear fruit. It is no coincidence, he claims, that in Libya, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, backed by the UAE and Egypt, is in the ascendancy, or that Fatah and Hamas are merging – something the UAE foreign ministry helped engineer.
Qatar, for its part, protests its innocence, saying it is content to expel Taliban representatives if the US so wishes.
A Qatari official said: “The new emir, on succeeding his father in 2013, himself promised to reduce the focus on foreign policy in favour of domestic reform, including education. That has happened.”
The collapse of the Arab spring, once seen as an existential threat to autocratic regimes, has left Qatar with fewer openings. But the danger is that in a region where no monarchy will want to be seen as the loser, and where personal relations are deteriorating, Iran could yet be the beneficiary. Qatar, unlike Saudi, did not praise Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal.
Either way, the US state department’s Lenderking said: “This dispute does not get any better with the passage of time.”