KARACHI: The Saudi-Qatari spat is getting uglier by the day; one stark manifestation of this emerged last week when, in a joint statement released by Saudi Arabia and its allies Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain, the countries announced they were placing 59 individuals and 12 organisations linked to Qatar on a “terror list”.
Anyone aware of the nature of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) politics will vouch for the fact that this move is unprecedented in the over three-decade-old history of the six-nation bloc of Gulf monarchies. While behind-the-scenes sniping and leg-pulling are nothing new, such harsh measures targeted at one of their own reflects major tension between the Arab potentates of the Gulf. The battle lines within the GCC have been drawn: Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and Bahrain, are intent on isolating Qatar, while Kuwait and Oman, the other members of the GCC, watch uneasily from the margins.
Two major factors need to be considered when reflecting upon the Qatar ‘terror list’. Firstly, instead of containing hard-core militants and their backers, the list clubs together a motley crew of Qatari and Qatar-based businessmen, government officials, members of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family, as well as exiled Egyptian cleric Yusuf Al Qaradawi, considered to be the spiritual mentor of the Muslim Brotherhood.
While Muslim Brotherhood is a conservative religious political force, it is difficult to understand why it has been grouped with violent militant outfits
Among those mentioned are Abdulaziz al-Attiyah, who served as head of the Qatar Billiards and Snooker Federation and a member of the Qatar Olympic Committee; Abd al-Rahman Bin Umayr al-Nuaimi who formerly headed the Qatar Football Association and Abdullah Bin Khalid Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family and a former minister of interior and endowments.
There have been extensive details published in Gulf media regarding the alleged support for terrorism of the individuals named on the ‘terror list’. For example, some individuals are said to have been sanctioned by the US and UN for aiding terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Some of these alleged listings occurred as far back as in 2008; so why have all the details suddenly been released in 2017 with much fanfare? In fact many of the names are taken from US and UN lists of sanctioned individuals from many years ago, showing links to Al Qaeda and its franchise in Syria, with very little mention of IS.
Also, the Saudis and Emiratis have clumped the Islamist political movement Muslim Brotherhood together with terrorist outfits such as Al Qaeda and the militant Islamic State group. This is a strange classification as while the Brotherhood is a conservative religious political force, it is difficult to understand why it has been grouped with violent militant outfits. The Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi won what is considered modern Egypt’s only credible presidential election in 2012; Al Qaeda and IS, on the other hand, seek to uproot all vestiges of democracy. Perhaps what troubles the Gulf potentates the most is that the Brotherhood and its inspired groups couch their democracy in Islamic terms, which poses a direct threat to the monarchs’ legitimacy.
Also, while Yusuf Al Qaradawi is in many respects a conservative cleric, accusing him of terrorism is a bit far-fetched, especially when even more hard-line Salafi clerics sit in the Saudi court.
The second factor that must be considered is that the Saudis, and to a lesser extent the UAE, have been accused by many of committing the same ‘sins’ Riyadh and Abu Dhabi accuse Doha of indulging in.
For example when it comes to the Syrian conflict, Saudi Arabia has supported forces that can be described as anything but moderate. It has been widely reported that thousands of Saudi men have left the kingdom to fight for IS. And while the Saudis may be clamping down on extremists within their borders, the type of characters they are supporting in Syria raise many questions.
For example, consider this leaked email from John Podesta, one of Hillary Clinton’s leading aides: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
Or what about this statement attributed to former US vice-president Joe Biden, who blamed the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs of sending “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad … The people who were being supplied were Al Nusra, and Al Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world. …”
Clearly, the Gulf Arabs — the Saudis, Emiratis and Qataris etc — have a complicated relationship with Salafi militancy. While their governments may not directly be involved, Gulf states may well have looked the other way as private funds made it to the coffers of extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. So Riyadh accusing Doha of supporting terrorism, or vice versa, is akin to the pot calling the kettle black.
The fact is that using the brush of terrorism to tar political opponents is a dangerous tactic. These well-oiled propaganda campaigns take the attention away from what should be the real goal of all regional states: joining forces to neutralise IS and other extremists in the region. The quicker the Gulf Arabs realise this, the better.