Why the Breach Between Saudis, Qataris Goes On and On: QuickTake

(Bloomberg) -- When four Arab states led by Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties and transportation links with Qatar last June, there were widespread expectations that the rift would be quickly resolved, as had been the case with a similar dispute three years earlier. Instead, Qatar’s leaders have dug in, choosing isolation rather than kowtowing to the Saudis. Mediation efforts led by Kuwait have failed. When he was the U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson tried to defuse tensions, but he was ousted March 13 by President Donald Trump.

1. What’s the rift about?

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt complain about Qatar’s friendliness with Iran and accuse it of supporting terrorism, a charge the emirate denies. The crisis was sparked last year when hackers published a story on Qatar’s news agency quoting Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, as criticizing mounting anti-Iran sentiment after a trip to the region by Trump. Qatari officials quickly deleted the comments, called the FBI to help investigate the hack, and appealed for calm as Saudi and U.A.E. newspapers, clerics and celebrities accused Qatar of trying to undermine efforts to isolate Iran.

2. So was it all a misunderstanding?

No. The conflict had been brewing for years. With its oil riches and custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has long seen itself as the natural leader of the Persian Gulf region, if not the entire Middle East. Its strongest competitor is Iran, with whom it has a testy relationship. In addition to being rivals for regional power, the two are on opposite sides of the Sunni-Shiite split within Islam. Since Qatar began to grow wealthy from natural gas exports two decades ago, it has asserted its independence from the Saudis and sought cordial ties with Iran, with whom it shares a gigantic offshore gas field.

3. What’s terrorism got to do with it?

The Saudi-led group accuses Qatar of supporting al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that several Gulf states have banned and designated as a terrorist group. The bloc also said Qatar provides funding for Iran-backed Shiite militias.

4. Does Qatar support al-Qaeda and Islamic State?

Some Qataris have provided support to al-Qaeda and its spinoffs, U.S. officials say. According to the State Department’s 2015 report on international terrorism, “entities and individuals within Qatar continue to serve as a source of financial support” for terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaeda affiliates such as the Nusra Front, which is fighting in Syria against the Iran-backed Assad regime. The U.S. report uses almost precisely the same language in its section on Saudi Arabia. The report details efforts by both the Qatari and Saudi governments to counter terrorism financing. It offers greater praise of the Saudi efforts, calling them “serious and effective.” Most U.S.- and United Nations-designated terrorist financiers believed to be living in Qatar have already been prosecuted, and Qatar has also taken additional measures to stem terrorist financing that won the praise of the Trump administration.

5. Is the Muslim Brotherhood charge true?

Qatar’s government denies it supports the Muslim Brotherhood, or any political party, but rather says it helps governments and people who may at times be governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Egypt from 2012 to 2013. While the Brotherhood renounced violence decades ago, some of its offshoots haven’t. One of them, the Palestinian group Hamas, continues to advocate armed struggle, though it has distanced itself from the larger movement. Qatar’s accusers consider the Brotherhood to be a terrorist movement. Egyptian leader Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi banned the organization there and has overseen a crackdown on its members and supporters after overthrowing an elected president from the group in 2013. Qatar has hosted prominent Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi since he fled Egypt in 1961, offering him a popular talk show on the state-backed Al Jazeera TV channel.

6. What happened in 2014?

In a quieter conflict, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar to protest what they said was its support of Muslim Brotherhood groups in the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2010 and eventually deposed three Arab rulers. A month after the rupture, Qatar made a series of secret agreements with the three countries. The accords, published by CNN in July, bar support for several groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

7. What’s different this time?

A few things. In the Saudis’ view, Qatar reneged on the last accord, which may be making them less flexible on the terms of reconciliation this time. The Saudis are now in effect led by a 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has thrown overboard the kingdom’s traditionally hesitant approach to foreign policy. Trump initially sided against the Qataris in the dispute and is generally friendlier to the Saudis than his predecessor, Barack Obama. The Qataris, meanwhile, have reason to think they are the ones that have U.S. backing. Other American officials have called for an end to the measures against Qatar, which hosts the U.S. air operations center for the region and 10,000 U.S. troops. Also, since the last crisis, Qatar has developed closer ties with Turkey, which accelerated pre-existing plans to deploy some troops to Qatar.

8. What does the Saudi bloc want?

Saudi Arabia and its allies produced a list of 13 requirements including shutting the Al Jazeera network, cutting back diplomatic ties with Iran, severing relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and ending Turkey’s military presence in Qatar. The kingdom has also promoted somewhat obscure Qatari royals as possible alternatives to the emir, efforts which haven’t gained traction in Qatar.

9. How did Qatar respond? 

Publicly, Qatari officials rejected the list, saying that complying with its requirements would be tantamount to forgoing sovereignty. Officials embarked on a diplomatic campaign, hiring consultants to lobby their case in the U.S. and Europe. Qatari media organizations, uncharacteristically, started criticizing Saudi Arabia. Qatar also made an effort to shore up friendships abroad by making purchases of U.S. and British military jets, Italian helicopters and French naval ships and planes.

10. How long can Qatar survive?

Officials like to say "forever" and they may be correct. Qatar is one of the world’s wealthiest nations, on the basis of per capita income. It has open shipping and air corridors, so it can still sell gas and oil, and its people can still get fresh fruit and Bentleys. The country was shocked after Saudi Arabia closed its only land border, where much of its food was imported. But new trade routes were quickly opened. Speculation against its currency has subsided, with rates reverting to the peg, and the stock market recovered after being down around 26 percent in 2017. The International Monetary Fund said in a March 5 report that the direct impact of the embargo is "fading" and that banks have "adjusted" to the withdrawal of deposits. Barring escalation from the Saudi bloc, the fund expects the economy to expand. Economists polled by Bloomberg also said the economy has absorbed the shock and growth will pick up in 2018.

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