Behind the new Gulf crisis is same old order

The Gulf States and Israel benefit tremendously from the authoritarian order that has kept the region underdeveloped and unfree for decades.

Qatari and American officials. Image via US Department of State Flickr.

Out of nowhere, it seems that a simmering rift between Qatar and the other Gulf States has boiled over into a full crisis. Earlier this month, that rift turned to open conflict for the first time since 2014, as “Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates as well as Egypt and a number of other Arab nations cut ties with Qatar.”

According to Al Jazeera, Saudi Arabia is using its considerable economic clout to pull African countries into the dispute with “huge offers of aid and loans.” Senegal, Chad, Mauritania, Eritrea, and Niger have recalled their ambassadors to Qatar.

Somali President Mohammed Abdullah Farmajo, reportedly turned down an $80 million offer from the Saudis to join the diplomatic effort to isolate Qatar. The Saudis also “threatened to withdraw financial aid” to the embattled state.

Djibouti has joined the Saudi campaign as well, downgrading its diplomatic relations with Qatar, which has withdrawn its troops from an international peacekeeping mission on the Djibouti-Eritrea border in response.

Relations between Qatar and the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries soured during the early years of the Arab Spring, before the toppling of the first democratically elected President of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi. During this period, the Qatari government was at the apex of its regional power. The previous Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, had developed a successful strategy for achieving outsized influence for the tiny, gas-rich state, which eschewed the positions of its neighbors to play the mediator for regionally divisive entities, from Iran and Hamas to Israel and the Taliban.

Alongside these diplomatic efforts, the Emir fostered Qatar’s soft power, through the once-mighty Al Jazeera satellite news network, which grew to be the bane of regional autocrats and colonizers. When the region caught fire in 2011, Al Jazeera’s coverage helped bring the revolutions to TV screens across the world. Though embattled despots always claimed that Al Jazeera was simply an instrument of Qatari foreign policy, this was not the case in those days. A more recent shakeup at AJ has many suspecting that the network is under closer supervision of the Emir.

Qatar backed Islamists that came to power in during the Arab Spring, particularly Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, looking to take advantage of the historical events to increase its regional influence. This led to a simmering unease with the other Gulf States, who benefited from the pre-Arab Spring order and backed the old regimes, with the exception of Syria.

Ostensibly, this diplomatic crisis started when a Qatari news outlet was hacked to circulate incendiary statements falsely attributed to Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who vehemently denied them. Despite the denial, state-owned media agencies in the other Gulf States continued to circulate the statements, leading many to believe that the hacks were part of a premeditated media campaign to justify a diplomatic and economic assault on Qatar.

The list of demands that the Saudis put forward last week amount to a complete overhaul to Qatari foreign policy and strategy, and range from sweeping and vague – severing ties to “terrorist organizations” and ending “interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs” – to very specific – shutting down Al Jazeera and terminating Turkey’s military presence on the peninsula. Qatar was given just 10 days to comply.

The timing of this escalation may seem odd, as Qatar has largely retreated from its more muscular regional policies following the Egyptian coup in 2013. Since then, a poisonous discourse has developed around the Arab Spring, perpetuated by reactionary forces – the UAE and KSA chief among them. These forces oppose any efforts to change the regional order, from which they benefit tremendously, at the expense of the mass of people. The KSA and UAE, like their right-wing allies in the West, maintain that the only way to keep religious extremism and terrorism at bay in the region is through authoritarianism and repression. They seek to portray the events in the wake of the Arab Spring as the investible result of any political opening in the region, any challenge to the stability they impose.

Qatar, which went against the grain and supported the opening, albeit opportunistically and for its own geopolitical gain, has been wrapped into that discourse. The same claims that are animating a full assault on the state were the ones that justified the 2014 diplomatic closures, and the same ones used by opponents of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya. These opponents seek to portray the revolutions as foreign plots against their governments, whether Qatari, American, or Israeli.

President Trump’s tweets may indicate that he green lit the assault on Qatar, and signal his willingness to let the Saudis have their way in the region. As is typical with the Trump administration however, the president’s statements and Tweets seem to be disconnected from the State Department’s position.

It is telling that the accusations against Qatar that have been made by Saudi media outlets are similar to those being made by neoconservatives and the Israeli right; they oppose Qatar’s hosting of Hamas and other groups expelled by regional powers, its more open policy toward Iran, and its role in supporting the Arab Spring uprisings.

Qatar’s regional policy is undoubtedly as grounded in realpolitik as those of its adversaries in the region. It is after all, a small, authoritarian monarchy, not a revolutionary state. The actual goals that animate Qatari policy do not negate the fact that this latest crisis reveals the absurd hypocrisy of the other Gulf States, which couch their positions in the region in the language of “moderation,” whilst partnering with right-wing racists in Israel and the United States, reinforcing the latters’ most detestable beliefs about Muslims and Arabs in order to build support for an anti-Iranian project.

A recent leak of email correspondence between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, and influential right-wing players in Washington, including a neoconservative think-tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which takes up positions similar to the Israeli right, demonstrates most irrefutably that the Gulf States, Israel and the Trump administration are ultimately united in their opposition to any challenges to the Middle Eastern political order. This, despite evidence that this order is built upon repression and plunder, benefits US oligarchs, oil titans, weapons contractors and backward autocrats at great expense to the mass of people.

Writing to former Bush Administration officials Stephen Hadley and Joshua Bolten just after Morsi was toppled in Egypt, Al-Otaiba argues that the “Arab Spring has increased extremism at expense of moderation and tolerance,” and that “countries like Jordan and UAE are the ‘last men standing’ in the moderate camp. The arab spring [sic] has increased extremism at the expense of moderation and tolerance.”  He goes on to suggest that the US should “empower and protect those forces who preach moderation and tolerance, values that are common with those of the US.” Al-Otaiba argues that the US would be “abandoning the moderates” if it did not support the positions of the UAE and KSA in the region.

The language of “moderation” is similarly used by Zionists, neocons, and the Gulf States to extol the virtue of whichever geriatric despot they currently favor. It serves as a thin veneer of principle to justify support for despotism and theft. Moderation means nothing but favorable geopolitical alignment. The group of countries Al-Otaiba is referring to include the Gulf States, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Jordan.

A brief skimming of Human Rights Watch (HRW) country reports for these states reveals the true “values” that bind Al-Otaiba’s moderate camp. According to HRW, Jordanian law “criminalizes free speech,” the regime detains journalists and activists under the auspices of wide ranging counter-terrorism laws. It maintains a personal status code that is discriminatory against women, no to mention its unequal treatment of the kingdom’s nearly two million Palestinian residents.

Human Rights Watch reports that the UAE has a long history of banning human rights activists, jailing dissidents, “draconian” counterterrorism laws, legalised discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender. It has just declared that “showing sympathy for Qatar on social media” is a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The KSA, meanwhile, is one of the most oppressive states on earth.

The Al-Otaiba leaks have also laid bare the extent to which the Gulf States are aligned with Israel in their attempts to crush the last vestiges of the Arab Spring and wage war on Iran. Although this unofficial alliance is far from a secret, the leaks reveal an interesting level of cooperation between the UAE and a neoconservative think tank, the FDD, which lobbies US officials to take on the policy preferences that align with the Israeli right.

The FDD claims to believe “that no one should be denied basic human rights including freedom of religion, speech and assembly; that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or national origin; that free and democratic nations have a right to defend themselves and an obligation to defend one another; and that terrorism – unlawful and premeditated violence against civilians to instill fear and coerce governments or societies – is always wrong and should never be condoned.”

I wonder if those ideals pertain to Palestinians. What about the Emiratis Al-Otaiba represents?

Benjamin Netanyahu takes a similar approach in his rhetoric, emphasizing the tacit alliance between Israel and the Gulf States in his efforts to market Israel’s belligerence as anything other than what it actually is. “Major Arab countries are changing their view of Israel … they don’t see Israel anymore as their enemy, but they see Israel as their ally, especially in the battle against militant Islam” he told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in February.

Of course, the Gulf States are not waging diplomatic and economic warfare on Qatar to combat extremism at all, they themselves are absolute monarchies claiming to rule through divine right, and using religious justifications to impose a draconian authoritarianism and stomp out challenges to their rule. They have worked diligently to turn the mass uprising of 2011 into a sectarian debacle because, above all, the Gulf States and Israel benefit tremendously from the authoritarian order that has kept the region underdeveloped and unfree for decades.

The latest crisis is surely nothing more than a defense of that order.

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