Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, met secretly in Kuwait last month with foreign ministers from five neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. According to two people with direct knowledge of this meeting, the five foreign ministers had a simple message for the emir: Cut it out -- we know what you’re doing.
Qatar is a tiny country -- a mole on the back of Saudi Arabia -- yet one that makes its presence felt in disproportionate and often destructive ways. It hosts the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command, but also provides material support to the Muslim Brotherhood, to Hamas (the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood), and to radical Sunni outfits in Syria, among others. After the new emir took over the management of Qatar last June from his father (Qatar, like other Gulf states, is a privately held family business), there was some hope that he would cease Qatar’s meddling in the region’s various wars and insurrections and focus on such domestic concerns as his family’s pharaonic building campaign in advance of the 2022 World Cup. (I describe this construction campaign as pharaonic not because it is resulting in grand and beautiful buildings but because so many oppressed foreign workers are dying in the course of building those buildings.)
After a few encouraging signals, the Qataris have returned to form, and even expanded their portfolio of meddling in regional uprisings, providing support to Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The support for the Houthis was too much for Saudi Arabia, which engineered the ultimatum delivered last month.
The reaction of the emir was predictable: He denied everything, according to my sources. Qatar is not supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, not supporting the al-Qaeda-influenced Nusra Front in Syria and not supporting the Houthis. The foreign ministers provided the emir with direct evidence, but the denials continued until the meeting broke up.
After this meeting, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the U.A.E. all recalled their ambassadors from Qatar, commencing a new stage in this Gulf cold war. Qatar has shown no sign that it is willing to stop its support for radical groups; no sign that it will stop using its television network, Al Jazeera, to cause problems for its neighbors (while scrupulously avoiding criticizing Qatar itself, of course); and no sign that it will prevent the region’s most important Sunni cleric, the radical and radically dyspeptic Yusuf al-Qaradawi, from using Qatar as a base to foment outrage on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere.
Qatar has achieved something remarkable, in my book, at least: It has made me relatively sympathetic to the Saudi regime. (Please, if you don’t mind, focus on that “relatively.”) The Saudis, for their many, many faults (ranging from their abhorrence of democracy to their abhorrence of women), have in place a foreign policy that is far more mature than that of Qatar.
The fight between Qatar and Saudi Arabia (and its allies) is in many ways a proxy battle over the future of Egypt. Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. see the vanquishing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the re-emergence of Egypt as the linchpin in the moderate Sunni alliance battling Iran, as existentially important. This has led them to support the various excesses of the military junta currently ruling Egypt, including the cruel jailing of Al Jazeera journalists. But it also leads them to call out Qatar for its obvious hypocrisies and double-standards, such as providing Qaradawi, who is an extremist’s extremist, with a megaphone for his views. (Qaradawi represents a breathtaking example of Qatar’s hypocrisy: The same country that hosts U.S. Central Command also hosts an Islamist cleric who called for the killing of American soldiers in Iraq.)
Qatar is very rich, but its money has not helped it integrate into the international order in a clever or foresighted way. Unlike the U.A.E., the Gulf country that is the most open culturally and economically, and the one with the most straightforward and constructive politics, Qatar believes that it can play all sides of any conflict and stonewall when it’s found out. The message of the meeting in Kuwait is that Qatar's neighbors are no longer going to play by the rules it tried to establish. The Saudis, and their friends, have decided that the stakes are too high: A resurgent Iran; a U.S. ally that is slowly withdrawing from the Middle East; and a chance to put away for good an organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, that threatens their existence, have conspired to make life just a bit more difficult for the new emir than it was for his father.
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