Khashoggi’s Killing Could Ease Saudi-Qatar Breach

(Bloomberg) -- When four Arab states led by Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties and transportation links with Qatar in June 2017, there were expectations that the rulers would resolve the spat quietly among themselves, as they did a similar dispute three years earlier. Instead, Saudi Arabia issued tough demands, Qatar -- a Turkish ally -- refused to kowtow to its powerful Arab neighbor, and the breach hardened. Now, in the first sign of a possible thaw, the heir to the Saudi throne softened his language in a surprisingly complimentary remark, suggesting the kingdom is eager to regain international goodwill after acknowledging that Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in its Istanbul consulate.

1. How does Khashoggi’s killing relate to Qatar’s isolation?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who effectively runs the country on behalf of his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, has been blamed for both. Rejecting a Saudi claim that Khashoggi was killed accidentally after a brawl, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government has “strong indications” the writer was the victim of a premeditated murder. A top Erdogan aide accused Prince Mohammed of having “blood on his hands.” Critics of the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar, including Khashoggi, have said it backfired. Qatar’s perceived chumminess with Iran helped prompt the severing of ties, but the rupture only drove Qatar into a closer relationship with Saudi Arabia’s main rival for regional dominance.

2. What’s the sign of a Saudi thaw with Qatar?

Prince Mohammed used a surprising shift of tone when discussing Qatar at an investment summit in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Oct. 24. “Even Qatar, despite our differences with them, has a very strong economy,” he said at the conference, shortly after speaking by phone with Turkey’s Erdogan. Just a few months earlier, Saudi Arabia was pressing ahead with plans to dig a canal along its border with Qatar and turn the country from a peninsula into an island. Outrage in the U.S., Europe and Turkey over Khashoggi’s murder on Oct. 2 has led to greater scrutiny of Prince Mohammed’s actions, from punishing Saudi activists to escalating the war in Yemen and imposing the embargo on Qatar.

3. What prompted the rift?

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 when hackers published a story on Qatar’s news agency quoting Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani as criticizing mounting anti-Iran sentiment after a trip to the region by U.S. President Donald 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.

4. 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.

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

The Saudi-led group accused 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.

6. 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 2017 report on international terrorism, despite government controls, “terrorist financiers within the country are still able to exploit Qatar’s informal financial system.” The U.S. report uses similar 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.

7. 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 against Israeli occupation, 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.

8. What have the Saudis demanded?

Saudi Arabia and its allies initially produced a list of 13 requirements including shutting down Qatar’s state-backed global TV station Al Jazeera, cutting back diplomatic ties with Iran, severing relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and removing a base Turkey established in Qatar in 2014. Subsequently, the group recast its list as six “principles,” including that Qatar must suspend “all acts of provocation” and refrain from “interfering in the internal affairs of states.” Saudi Arabia has also promoted somewhat obscure Qatari royals as possible alternatives to the emir, efforts that haven’t gained traction in Qatar.

9. How has Qatar weathered the boycott?

Qatar is one of the world’s wealthiest nations, on the basis of per capita income, and its economy has proven resilient. Because the country has open shipping corridors, sales of its copious supplies of gas and oil have continued uninterrupted. Saudi Arabia shocked Qatar by closing its only land border, halting shipments of food. But the smaller country quickly opened alternative trade routes and found substitute suppliers, notably Turkey, Iran and India. Denied overflight rights for Qatar Airways by the Saudi-led group, it negotiated them with Iran. Turkey has sent additional troops and conducted joint exercises with Qatar. The sheikhdom remains on good terms with the U.S., which bases 10,000 troops and a regional air operations center there.