The frequency of the allegations against Qatar by its Gulf allies is suspiciously correlated with Qatar’s rise to prominence in a number of arenas. For a state the size of Connecticut and as young as Marco Rubio, many struggle to accept that Qatar manages to punch above its weight diplomatically and financially. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other hand, have been caught in a vicious downward financial cycle.
Qatar has had a lot of firsts in the Gulf, a region not known for its progressive outlook. As a monarchy itself, Qatar diverged from the GCC foreign policy by embracing democratic change in the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring uprisings. On June 25, 2013, Doha woke up to a new 33-year-old Emir holding the maroon scepter after a peaceful transition of power, a move that is highly unusual for Khaleej standards.
The authority and resilience of the youngest monarch in the region were tested about a year later in an orchestrated attack by media, Saudi Arabia and UAE funded lobbyists with similar claims to the ones resurfacing this week. That was perhaps phase one of what we are witnessing now. In an investigative piece for the Intercept in 2014, Pulitzer Prize winner Glenn Greenwald exposed the media manipulation by the UAE. Four years later and those accusations have intensified, elevated to a whole different level.
One of the key members of Congress that took advantage of the 2014 Gulf diplomatic crisis was Peter Roskam (R-Il), whose top campaign contributor is Exelon, an Illinois based energy company that distributes electricity and natural gas. Exelon has invested in nuclear power plants in Saudi, and is embedded in the Gulf natural gas market. The Gulf rivals found an ally in the face of Peter Roskam, who replicated the allegations in a letter to the State Department in July 2014.
The response of the State Department to Congressman Roskam came later in November that year, containing significant information relevant to the current Gulf crisis. In that letter, Julia Frifield, Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, reassured Roskam that his concerns were taken under serious consideration and provided a series of reassurances. According to Frifield, after discussions with the US, Qatar agreed to assume a mediator role between Hamas and Israel. In the letter, Frifield highlighted the US need to partner with “countries that have leverage over the leaders of Hamas to help put a ceasefire in place. Qatar may be able to play that role as it has done in the past.”
This is an explicit statement on behalf of the State Department regarding the relations of the Qatar government and the leader of Hamas, which now reappears as an argument against Qatar without the proper context. It seems that Qatar’s mediation efforts were misrepresented by the UAE and Saudi, which calls into question their true motives.
President Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh might have helped embolden the Saudis’ aspirations in the region.
The same letter continues by expressing its support to Qatar’s $150 million humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian Authority. The State Department officially stated that in order to “achieve a durable solution to the conflict, the Palestinian Authority must be solvent and its institutions must function properly,” justifying Qatar’s assistance. If the US gave its official approval for both the mediation and the humanitarian assistance, how can that arrangement now be used against Qatar?
The remaining part of the letter details a wide range of counter-terrorism efforts on which Qatar and the US jointly collaborate. A year later, the same tone is replicated in the latest State Department Country Report on Terrorism, which exalts Qatar’s cooperation and effort on issues such border security, illicit financing, and countering violent extremism. After all, Qatar has invested almost $1.4 billion and part of its sovereign land to the largest US airbase in the Middle East, that remains at the epicenter of the coalition against terror. Its continuous contribution and active participation to almost every counter-terrorism initiative at the UN seem to be also neglected, as they do not fit the preferred narrative.
So what caused this new crisis? There seemed to be two events that have been misrepresented to justify the instigation. The first one has to do with a supposed speech of the Qatari Emir during a ceremony at a military Academy in Doha in late May. His alleged remarks praising Israel and Iran became public after a cyber attack by unknown hackers, outraging his fellow Gulf members. The problem is that the Emir never delivered a speech at that event. Qatar insists that the leaks were the product of a fabricated story after the hacking incident.
Qatar’s negotiated release of a Qatari hunting group that was held hostage for 16 months in Iraq was the second development that contributed to the rift, according to the UAE and Saudi. According to the accusations, the over-a-year ordeal was an elaborate plan to justify the financing of certain terror groups under the pretense of ransom. Why would Qatar use a highly publicized kidnap for a transaction that could take place completely out of sight, while also implicating its own royal family? It seems more likely that this tragic personal story was highjacked by those looking to discredit Qatar, rather than what the UAE and Saudi claim.
President Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh might have helped embolden the Saudis’ aspirations in the region. Saudi lobbyists are now tweeting threats to the Qatari Emir about regime change. In the meantime, back home, DC is preoccupied with the aftermath of the Comey hearing, and the historic Gulf rift is quickly sliding into news oblivion. Our short attention span does not favor Qatar, which needs more time to control the damage and prepare for what Riyadh might have in store.