Qatar puts on a united front

03 February 2015

As 2015 gets under way, Doha is looking to put behind it the public fallout with its GCC neighbours, but its position on Libya and Egypt remains contentious

In terms of GCC relations, 2014 was a fraught year for Qatar. In March, in an unprecedented move, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in protest to its ongoing close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the following months, speculation was rife that there would be a further escalation in the crisis and there were even reports that Saudi Arabia had threatened to blockade Qatar “by land and sea” unless it cut its ties with the organisation. By the final quarter of the year, however, the GCC nations had managed to patch up their differences.

Key fact

In September 2014, Qatar expelled some senior Muslim Brotherhood figures

Source: MEED

In September, Qatar expelled some senior Brotherhood figures, many of whom found new homes in Turkey and the UK. Soon afterwards, in November, the GCC announced that a deal had been signed to reinstate the ambassadors, who returned to their posts in Qatar over the following weeks.

Regional unity

The reinstatement of the ambassadors and the willingness of Qatar to make concessions augur well for regional unity in 2015, although the ideological differences at the root of the disagreements remain.

Qatar has learned that its own stability is tied to the future stability of the region as a whole

Christian Koch, Gulf Research Centre

“Not all the issues behind the spat have been resolved, but it seems like enough has been done to ensure cooperation over the short term, at least,” says Christian Koch, director of international studies at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre.

“There is an understanding that the future stability and security of Qatar is tied to the rest of the GCC states, and, therefore, a recognition that one needs to resolve differences and work together to tackle the challenges the region faces as a whole. The GCC appears to be on a trajectory of increased unity and stability.”

Qatar’s re-engagement

Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser to Risk Insurance Management in Dubai, agrees that the public disputes seen in 2014 are unlikely to reappear in 2015.

“The re-engagement of Qatar with the rest of the GCC has been motivated by the twin threats of the rise of Islamic State [in Iraq and Syria] and the increasing influence of Iran in the region – and it appears to be set to continue,” he says.

Although analysts expect the new period of better relations to last for some time, some warn that issues elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region could put a strain on Qatar’s dealings with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Egypt and Libya, two countries destabilised by the 2011 Arab Uprisings, are likely to pose the most problems.

Imprisoned journalists

Cairo’s continued detention of journalists employed by the state-controlled Qatari news network Al-Jazeera is one of several sore points that could obstruct closer cooperation between Doha and its GCC peers this year.

Although Australian-born Peter Greste was released at the start of this month after 400 days in prison, his colleagues Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy remain in jail. The three were detained in Egypt in December 2013, and were found guilty of spreading false news and supporting the Brotherhood.

“By detaining the journalists, the Al-Sisi government is antagonising both Qatar and the West,” says Koch. Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has received significant support from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, including direct transfers of funds and shipments of petroleum products, since he toppled Qatar-backed former President Mohamed Mursi in a coup on 3 July 2013.

Clear signal

Speaking in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, Al-Sisi said he was looking to end the reporters’ detention, telling media he was “very keen on sorting this out”.

“If Al-Sisi follows through on the release of the three journalists, it would be a clear signal that both sides are committed to putting the issues of the past behind them and moving forward,” says Koch.

Libya conflict

The ongoing conflict in Libya is another area that is likely to test the GCC’s newfound unity. Since 2011, Qatar has had close ties to both political and military figures in the North African country that have Islamist leanings and links to the Brotherhood.

These include the powerful February 17 Martyrs Brigade, a large militia based in Libya’s east, which received training and weaponry from Doha during the country’s revolution. The brigade is now allied with the Islamist militia coalition Libya Dawn and has been fighting against forces loyal to the democratically elected government, which is backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and headed by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani.

Since the 2011 revolution, there have been complaints from groups in Libya that Qatar has continued to help fuel militant activity in the country. In September last year, Al-Thani accused Doha of flying weaponry into Tripoli to help sustain the Libya Dawn military campaign.

Taking action

In the statement released by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain after the removal of the ambassadors in March, the three countries said they were taking action due to Qatar’s failure to comply with a joint security agreement that was signed in Riyadh in November 2013.

The Riyadh agreement called for all GCC member states to “abide by the principles that there should be no direct or indirect meddling in regional affairs, or backing of any party that threatens regional security and stability, whether they are organisations or individuals, and whether that meddling was through direct security operations or through attempts for political influence”.

Despite the Riyadh agreement and the 2014 political spat, the expectation is that Islamist groups linked to the Brotherhood will still receive Qatari backing, although the support will not be as public as it has been in the past.

“Arguments about Qatar’s ongoing support for the Brotherhood and support for militant Islamist groups, such as Libya Dawn, may carry on behind the scenes, but the kind of disruption seen over 2014 is unlikely,” says Karasik.

Relationship setback

The full details of the Riyadh agreement have not been published, but it is likely Qatar has agreed a timetable with the other GCC states, setting out targets that must be met by a certain date, according to David Roberts, a lecturer on Gulf relations at King’s College London in the UK.

“It is possible that Qatar will, for some reason or another, not meet some of the objectives it has agreed with the other GCC nations,” says Roberts. “This would be a setback to GCC relations.”

Beyond the GCC, Doha’s political relations with the US and Europe have also come under increased pressure, partly due to scrutiny connected to the 2022 Fifa football World Cup, for which Qatar won hosting rights in December 2010.

Corruption allegations

Allegations of corruption first surfaced that year, and gained renewed momentum when the UK’s Sunday Times newspaper published bribery allegations based on an analysis of thousands of emails, accounts and confidential documents in June 2014.

Qatar was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing following an investigation, although the report said there were “certain indications of potentially problematic conduct of specific individuals”. The UK itself also came under fire for its actions.

But the corruption claims brought unwanted attention to Doha’s dealings with Islamist militants and shone a spotlight on labour conditions in the country, in the process harming relations with important allies.

Labour mistreatment

In December, the UK’s Guardian newspaper published figures showing that Nepalese migrant workers died at a rate of one every two days in Qatar in 2014. It estimated a total of 4,000 workers would die due to inadequate safety standards before the World Cup is held.

The desire for global influence is still there. What has changed is how [Doha] intends to achieve its aims

Christian Koch, Gulf Research Centre

Abdullah bin Haman al-Attiyah, president of Qatar’s Administrative Control & Transparency, responded to the criticism saying the reports were “a dirty game” to discredit the country.

The comments prompted criticism from human rights organisations, which cited them as evidence the Qatari government was not taking the issue of labour mistreatment seriously.

“These aren’t just newspaper headlines,” says Koch. “Repeated attacks on Qatar’s human rights record and its history of funding Islamist groups can’t fail to increase pressure on politicians in the US and the UK, impacting on political relationships between the two countries.”

In October 2014, after a flurry of negative stories about the Gulf country in the UK press, British Prime Minister David Cameron pushed Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to take action on the issues of working conditions for migrants and terror funding, meeting with the Qatari leader in London.

“Qatar’s leadership wanted the positives, but they didn’t plan for the extra scrutiny that was generated by the World Cup,” says Roberts. “There was no understanding about how bad things could look. It’s been a steep learning curve.”

Future policy

The recent bold moves made by Doha to expand its regional and global influence and profile have had unexpected negative consequences for the country, and this is likely to influence future policy.

Negative fallout from its bid to host the 2022 World Cup and its support for the Brotherhood is likely to make Qatar more wary of initiatives that put the country at odds with allies.

“The desire for global influence is still there,” says Koch. “What has changed is how the country intends to achieve its aims.”

After the problems Qatar has had due to its close association with the Brotherhood, it is likely to try to present a more impartial image, emphasising its role as a nation that mediates disputes and is capable of talking to a wide range of entities and ideological groups.

“Qatar has learned that its own stability is tied to the future stability of the region as a whole,” says Koch. “Over 2015, the government is likely to continue working closely with the other GCC member states, while keeping an eye on issues where it thinks it can play a prominent global role.”

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