Amid Gulf Spat, Will Terror-funding Qatar Have to ‘Choose a Side’ in Saudi-Iranian Rivalry?
JNS.org – While the spat between Qatar and other Arab states may end up benefiting the US and Israel, experts say that Qatar finds itself at a crossroads in its relationships with the region’s leading Sunni and Shia powers.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Arab countries have cut diplomatic relations with Qatar, citing the Gulf state’s terror ties, and its cooperation with Iran. The Saudis are leading the charge, calling on Qatar to end support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to reports, prominent Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri and other terrorists from the Gaza-ruling Palestinian group have reportedly been expelled from Doha. Khaled Mashaal, Hamas’ ex-political leader, once formerly lived in Qatar.
According to a report in the Financial Times, one of the main triggers of the Gulf spat was Qatar’s alleged payment of $1 billion to Iran and affiliated jihadists for the release of members of the Qatari royal family who were kidnapped in Iraq. Unnamed officials told the newspaper that the hostage deal, carried out in April, led to the release of 26 Qatari royals and about 50 fighters captured by jihadists in Syria.
“Around $700 million was paid both to Iranian figures and the regional Shi’a militias they support, according to regional government officials,” the report stated. “They added that $200 million to $300 million went to Islamist groups in Syria, most of that to Tahrir al-Sham, a group with links to al-Qaeda.”
Brandon Friedman, a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told JNS.org that the current Gulf spat appears to center on Iran and the reported hostage deal; a previous Gulf crisis in 2014 was ignited by Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The earlier spat came in the aftermath of current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s overthrowing of President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader.
Friedman, an expert on Arab-Iranian relations, said that Qatar often uses payments to Iran and Islamist groups “to insulate itself from them, and to accumulate political capital.”
“In the case of Iran, Qatar’s largest offshore gas field adjoins Iran’s offshore gas field. Therefore, Qatar has a reasonably legitimate security interest in avoiding an adversarial relationship with Iran,” said Friedman, noting that Qatar “has tried to be all things to all sides.”
But according to Friedman, Qatar is discovering the pitfalls of its approach.
“It seems as if they are being forced to choose a side in the Saudi-Iran rivalry, and it isn’t an easy choice for a small, vulnerable state like Qatar,” said Friedman.
Eran Segal, a researcher at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, told JNS.org that it seems the Saudis are motivated to curb Qatar’s independent foreign policy.
“Qatar cannot afford cutting relations with Iran,” said Segal, mainly due to the North Field, a natural gas field that Qatar shares with Iran. At the same time, Qatar “cannot withstand a long feud with the three Gulf states encircling the country,” he said, referring to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE.
President Donald Trump affirmed the Arab states’ response to Qatar’s support for terrorism, when he tweeted on June 6 that, “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding.”
Segal sees the US as the key player in the unfolding Gulf drama, noting that more than 11,000 American soldiers are stationed at Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base.
“Will Saudi pressure on the Americans create space for further escalation against Qatar, or will the Trump administration try to de-escalate?” he asked.
Should Qatar’s critics look in the mirror?
Another source of Western concern about Qatar is Al Jazeera, the Doha-based satellite TV station, which is popular in the Arab world and has been accused of anti-israel and anti-Western incitement. Doha’s ambassador to the US, Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani, claimed in an interview on Al Jazeera last week that Qatar’s cooperation with Hamas “is an engagement in the context of the peace process.”
Yet Saudi Arabia and other “moderate” Arab states calling out Qatar’s terror funding have radical tendencies of their own. According to the emails of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released by WikiLeaks, Saudi Arabia and Qatar provide “clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL (Islamic State) and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” Meanwhile, in the latest antisemitic broadcast on Arab television, a video posted by the Midde East Media Research Institute on Thursday showed a Jordanian TV host denying the Holocaust.