This quarter witnessed a series of machinations that threatened regional stability and escalated the conflict between Iran and its growing sphere of influence, on the one hand, and the Saudi Arabia-led Sunni axis, on the other. While several Gulf States pursued a boycott against Qatar, other key players included Israel, Internet bots, multi-billiondollar weapons deals and a U.S. presidential Twitter storm that further convoluted the situation. A U.S. pro-Israel organization may also have had a behind-the-scenes hand in instigating the crisis. The resulting polarization marginalized the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, and had wide-ranging effects across the Middle East.
The catalyst came on 5/24 when explosive statements attributed to Qatar’s emir Shaykh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani appeared on Qatari state media that praised Iran, Hamas, and Israel. “Iran represents a regional and Islamic power that cannot be ignored and it is unwise to face [sic] up against it,” al-Thani was quoted as saying; he then allegedly characterized Qatar’s relations with Israel as “good,” described Hamas as the official representative of the Palestinian people, and said Doha had “tensions” with the Trump admin. The comments were unusual for al-Thani, who was under renewed pressure from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to end Qatar’s relationships with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood (see “Saudi Arabia” below).
Qatar officials immediately rejected the news reports, saying they were false and that their news agency and social media sites had been hacked. FBI agents sent to the tiny nation to investigate the source behind the alleged intrusion backed up that claim. They posited Russians were responsible, using methods similar to those they utilized during the U.S. presidential elections in 2016. Additionally, the Washington Post reported the presence of significant number of “bots,” automated social media accounts used to forward a particular agenda, attacking Qatar and its news agencies on Facebook and Twitter (6/7). Bots were used to plant fake news stories during the U.S. presidential election season. However, later U.S. intelligence reports pointed to the UAE as the instigator of the fake news stories, but left open the possibility that it could have contracted out the hacking scheme. The UAE’s amb. to the U.S., Yousef al-Otaiba, called (7/16) the report “false” and reiterated the Saudi-led bloc’s complaints instead: “What is true is Qatar’s behavior. Funding, supporting, and enabling extremists from the Taliban to Hamas and Qaddafi. Inciting violence, encouraging radicalization, and undermining the stability of its neighbors.”
In response to the imbroglio, the UAE blocked several Qatari sites and television channels from broadcasting in its territory. While the Qataris were denying the initial story, the state news agency’s Twitter account posted a new story alleging that Qatari FM Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani had recalled Doha’s ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE. By the time Doha could deny that report, Saudi Arabia had joined (5/25) the UAE in blocking all Qatari media, including Al Jazeera.
To make matters more confusing, at the same time Qatar ordered some mbrs. of Hamas to leave the country according to Al Mayadeen (6/3), a group called GlobalLeaks released a trove of hacked emails from the account of UAE ambassador to the U.S. Yousef al-Otaiba indicating that the well-connected diplomat was working closely with the neoconservative, pro-Israel think tank Freedom for Defense of Democracies, on the issue of Iran. The think tank is funded by Sheldon Adelson, a major supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Intercept, 6/3). Qatar has been Hamas’s chief patron since the group’s former leader Khalid Mishal fled Damascus and the Syrian civil war for Doha in 2011. The Qatari govt. is also a principal supporter of the effort to rebuild Gaza after the Israeli assault in 2014 (see JPS 44 [1, 2]), and this move left the reconstruction plans in limbo. Although a Hamas spokesperson denied the reports on 6/4, other Palestinian sources confirmed (6/5) that a number of Hamas officials had dispersed to various countries, including Lebanon, Malaysia, and Turkey.
Hamas’s predicament was exacerbated on 6/5 when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE severed economic ties with Qatar and withdrew their diplomatic staffs from Doha. They cited the Qatari govt.’s support for militant groups, including Hamas, and its alleged failure to help protect Saudi Arabia from terrorists. Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called (6/5) these moves “unjustified” and said they were “based on claims and allegations that have no basis in fact.”
The conflict heightened long-standing tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and mirrored a similar incident in 2014 when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE recalled their ambassadors from Doha over its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and alleged Qatar was using its state-funded media to interfere in their internal affairs. They ultimately returned their ambassadors 8 mos. later when the Qatari govt. agreed, under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, not to undermine their “interests, security, and stability.” Given the harsh rhetoric surrounding these developments, coupled with the apparent breakdown of the 2014 agreement, observers speculated that this round of conflict would last longer and have more deleterious effects.
As in 2014, the schism prompted other regional powers to choose sides and form alliances. The Maldives, the internationally recognized govt. in Yemen, and the govt. based in e. Libya all severed ties with Doha on 6/5. Jordan threw its lot in with this growing bloc on 6/6, downgrading ties with Doha and closing down Al Jazeera’s office in Amman. A senior Iranian official denounced (6/5) the Saudi strategy, saying “it is not a way to resolve crisis.” The Iranian govt. also started sending shipments of food and other aid to Qatar to alleviate reported shortages.
The U.S response appeared contradictory and confusing, given the U.S. military’s sizable presence in Qatar, where the Al-Udeid air base houses more than 11,000 U.S. and coalition troops (6/16). And just days after Trump accused the country of terrorism, the U.S. sold Qatar F-15 fighter jets worth $12 b. (6/16). “The $12-b. sale will give Qatar a state-of-theart capability and increase security cooperation and interoperability between the U.S. and Qatar,” the Pentagon indicated in its statement. A few weeks earlier, during Trump’s visit to the Middle East, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia had finalized a $110 b. weapons deal. A White House spokesperson insisted (6/6) that the admin. was communicating with all parties in an effort to “resolve issues and restore cooperation,” but Trump openly sided with the Saudis, tweeting (6/6) that his recent trip to Saudi Arabia was “already paying off.” He toed the Saudi line throughout the conflict, accusing (6/9) Qatar of funding terrorism “at a very high level” and condemning Qatar’s “extremist ideology.” Meanwhile, other U.S. officials tacked closer to the Qatari position. Secy. of State Tillerson said (6/9) that the Saudiled boycott was “hindering U.S. military actions in the region and the campaign against [the Islamic State (ISIS)].”
Soon after announcing the boycott, the Saudi-led bloc presented its terms for a resolution. “We want to see Qatar implement the promises it made a few years back with regard to its support of extremist groups, its hostile media, and interference in affairs of other countries,” Saudi FM Adel al-Jubeir said (6/6), referencing the 2014 conflict. Qatar, for its part, started working with Kuwait, which had stepped in to mediate a resolution. “We believe such differences between sister countries must be resolved through dialogue,” FM Al-Thani said (6/6).
Throughout the crisis, Hamas kept a low profile while also scrambling to maintain a modicum of regional support. On 6/7, the group issued a statement expressing “deep regret and disapproval” regarding al-Jubeir’s demand that Qatar end its patronage of Hamas as a precondition for any resolution. Then, on 6/10, senior Hamas official Musa Abu Marzuq pledged that Hamas would not intervene in other Arab states’ affairs“regardless of pressures or events.” The group also announced (6/10) that its new head Ismail Haniyeh would soon lead a delegation to Iran. Although the trip was not explicitly linked to the boycott crisis, closer ties with Iran were considered as possibly helping replace any lost support from Qatar. At least 1 Qatari official said (7/11) that Doha had no intention of ending its support for reconstruction projects in Gaza, and the Qataris signed (7/11) a new agreement to fund the construction of 8 new residential buildings in the strip.
After 2 weeks of mediation, Kuwaiti diplomats conveyed (6/22) to their Qatari interlocutors a list of 13 demands and a 7/3 deadline to respond. The Saudi-led bloc demanded that Qatar: shut down the Al Jazeera media network and other Qatari-funded news outlets; downgrade ties with Iran; expel mbrs. of the IRGC in Qatar and cut off military ties with Iran; sever ties with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and all other so-called extremist groups; and align with the Saudi-led bloc in accordance with the 2014 agreement. Qatar rejected the demands on 6/24, and a spokesperson responded, “This list of demands confirms what Qatar has said from the beginning—the illegal blockade has nothing to do with combating terrorism, it is about limiting Qatar’s sovereignty, and outsourcing our foreign policy.” After the Saudi-led bloc extended their deadline to 7/5, the Qataris again rejected the demands. The Egyptian, Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini FMs then met (7/5) in Cairo to formulate a new position. They agreed that the boycott would remain, but dropped the 13 demands, instead calling on Qatar to adhere to 6 broad principles, including a commitment to combat terrorism and to end all provocative and inciting acts. Qatar rejected those, too.
With no end in sight, the crisis between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc continued through the end of the quarter, despite ongoing mediation efforts. Tillerson visited Doha on 7/11 for talks, and signed an agreement to strengthen Qatar’s counterterrorism efforts.
As this conflictual regional dynamic played out, Israel exploited the situation by showing solidarity with the Saudi-led bloc. Various Israeli officials welcomed (6/5) the boycott of Qatar, and DM Lieberman said (6/5) that it presented new regional opportunities for Israel. Israeli leaders also have said that siding with the UAE is its best shot at minimizing Iran’s influence in the area (6/3). The Times reported (6/17) that Israel and Saudi Arabia had begun negotiating the establishment of economic ties, citing unnamed Arab and U.S. sources. Such a rapprochement would mark a significant step toward formalizing the two countries’ de facto alliance against Iran; however, sources close to the Saudi royal family said (6/17) that the report stemmed from wishful thinking within the Trump admin.
Also of note: PM Netanyahu met (6/12) with mbrs. of Israel’s press office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Shin Bet to discuss the possibility of revoking Al Jazeera’s license to operate in Israel. Nothing came of that conversation until the following mo., when Netanyahu posted (7/26) on Facebook that he had “several times appealed to law enforcement agencies demanding” the closure of the network’s Jerusalem bureau on the grounds that it “continues to incite violence.” He also pledged, “If this does not happen due to legal interpretation, I will work to enact the required legislation to expel Al Jazeera from Israel.” At the close of the quarter, Israel’s Communications Minister Ayoob Kara announced (8/6) plans to revoke the credentials of every Al Jazeera journalist working in Israel, pointing out that he had already asked cable and satellite networks to block the network’s transmission.