Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Qatar Is out in the Cold: A Realignment in the Middle East

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Qatar Is out in the Cold: A Realignment in the Middle East

Article excerpt

It was 50 years ago this week--the June 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours, that is. Among the proximate causes of this conflict, which has in many ways defined the subsequent history of the Middle East, was the expulsion by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of UN observers from the Sinai and the closing of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.

On 5 June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt announced they were cutting diplomatic relations with the small Gulf state of Qatar; closing their land, air and sea borders, giving Qatari nationals within their borders two weeks to leave and, in the case of the first four countries, instructing their nationals to leave Qatar.

Yemen, the Maldives and the Tobruk government in Libya have subsequently joined in. In addition, 200 members of the Al ash-Sheikh, the Saudi descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, after whom Wahhabism is named, recently accused Qatar, which claims to be orthodoxly Salafi, of not following his true teachings.

Qatar is not an enemy entity as Israel was for the Arabs in 1967. It was a founder member of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) in 1981 and has sought in the past 20 years to establish a position as a mediator in intra-Arab and intra-Islamic disputes. In per capita terms--dependent on energy prices--it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

For those of us who have watched the region for decades, this crisis did not come out of nowhere. Qatar's relations with its neighbours in an increasingly polarised region have been uneasy for a long time. In 1971 the plan was that both Qatar and Bahrain would join the neighbouring sheikhdoms to the south-east in a federation of the lower Gulf. Each decided they would be better off as small but independent entities. Qatar grew rich but stayed sleepy until 1995, when the father of the current ruler deposed his own father, who was out of the country at the time, in a bloodless coup, to the dismay of Saudi Arabia.

That was the beginning of a period of rapid physical and political development in Doha, with Sheikh Hamad using his massive revenues to turn a place that had remained much as it had been in the 1950s into a packed metropolis of towers, gleaming glass, grandiose offices and hotels, reclaimed land and modern museums. He decided that Qatar should make its mark internationally, not necessarily in alignment with the GCC. Qatar mediated between Hamas and Fatah, between various factions of the Afghan Taliban, over Yemen and with Iran. It reportedly financed ransoms for hostages held by any number of violent Islamist groups.

The Saudis believed that Qatar was somehow involved in a half-baked plot by Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi to assassinate then Crown Prince Abdullah in 2003. The Bahrainis and the Saudis believed--and still do--that Qatar has sought to manipulate the tribal loyalties of some of their nationals. The UAE was outraged by public attacks on the legitimacy of its rulers carried by Al Jazeera and other Qatari-funded news outlets. When the revolution in Libya kicked off in February 2011, Qatar was one of the very first states to establish a presence on the ground and gave support to elements of the opposition. It did the same in Syria. …

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