Riyadh's viewpoint on the Qatar issue

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June 5th was a watershed day in the history of the Arab Gulf nations. On this day, regional giants Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and neighboring Bahrain, finally decided to call Qatar’s bluff for its support of terror financing and disrupting regional security by aligning with Iran. Egypt, a country where many claim to have suffered badly as a result of Qatari intervention in recent years, joined the triumvirate to make it a very formidable Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ).

Nearly 40 days on, the picture has become pretty clear. Although this crisis apparently started as a reaction to some blatant and challenging comments attributed to Qatari’s Sheikh Tamim on the official Qatar News Agency (QNA), which Doha claimed immediately was the work of hackers, quickly turned to a coordinated effort by the ATQ to force Doha to abide to the agreements reached in Riyadh during US President Donald Trump’s visit. The agreement aims to clamp down on the sources and funding of terror, and to rein in the forces of darkness unleashed by Iran.

The problem with the QNA story, though denied by Doha and confirmed to be the work of hackers by investigators hired to look into the matter, was the perception that those apparently fake statements matched its real-life, although undeclared, position on Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and Hamas. Everything that was said or alluded to in the report turned out to be in line with the dominant thinking in Doha. 

What didn’t help people believe Doha when it said the story was a hack, was the fact that Qatar has become infamous for doublespeak to the extent that its neighbors have become doubtful of any announcement it makes, and will only believe Qatar when the country takes action on the ground. 

For example, in 2013 and 2014, after a similar but less intense diplomatic stand-off, Doha signed two agreements with its Gulf neighbors to stop meddling in their internal affairs and to clamp down on terror groups, yet Doha didn’t deliver. This was proven in the recent CNN leaked documents, which showed that Qatar acknowledged and agreed to end its bad behavior during that stand-off and accepted the terms reached in what became known as the Riyadh Accord and the follow-up meeting, only to resort back to its policies thereafter.

As a result, neighboring countries continued to get more frustrated with what can only be described as Qatar's twisted foreign policy, which nobody seems to understand. For example, Doha provides millions of dollars to Hamas, despite it being considered a terrorist organization by several countries including the US, Israel, Canada and Egypt.

However, this is not the only strange thing about Qatar’s policy. Supporting Hamas directly undermines Fatah, the moderate Palestinian faction. The irony here is that Qatar was the first Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country to welcome Israeli officials and allow a representative office to open there, which was similarly odd from Tel Aviv given that Hamas continues to fire missiles into civilian areas of Israel.

Doha was also close to the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, but was the first to turn against him and join the military coalition which ended not only his rule, but his life. It is also sad, but true, that officials in Doha have long discussed and plotted to create turmoil in neighboring Saudi Arabia, a fellow GCC country.

Some of these plots are Qatar’s documented interference in the internal affairs of its neighbors and its support of terror. For example, there are the audio leaks of former Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani talking to Qaddafi and revealing his plans to bring down the ruling family in Saudi Arabia. Of course, not many believe these accusations, but the reality is they are all documented facts, not mere allegations.

Starving the beast 

However, the recent stand-off with the ATQ is mostly because Qatar has been historically a funder of terror at a very highlevel, as President Trump described it. He also said that following the Riyadh Arab-Islamic-American meeting allowing wealthy countries to fund terror is no longer tolerated and that the “beast must be stopped”.

Again, these are not mere allegations. According to UN and US lists  the country is hosting and financing terrorists, some of which are Qatari nationals. The Country Report on Terrorism released by the US State Department states: “Entities and individuals within Qatar continue to serve as a source of financial support for terrorist and violent extremist groups, particularly regional Al-Qaeda affiliates such as the Nusra Front”. Similar to Iran, Qatar’s relationships with proxies and designated terrorist groups have been multidimensional.

Yet, this should not be news to the international community. Doha has  long been criticized for its relationships with terrorist groups. For example, the US Congress has long been  aware that “Qatar-based charities were helping move and launder money linked to Al-Qaeda, providing employment and documentation for key figures in the operation”. The Daily Telegraph wrote: “It must be made clear to Qatar that all violent extremists are enemies and the funding of them by sympathizers must be stopped.”

A review of nearly 50 US Treasury Department-designated senior Al-Qaeda financial facilitators revealed damning connections between the Tehran-based Al-Qaeda network and Qatar-linked terror operatives.

At the centre of the Qatar-Al-Qaeda-Iran trifecta is Qatari national Salim Khalifa Al-Kuwari. He was designated by the US as a senior Al-Qaeda facilitator and financier who to this day lives and operates in Doha. Al-Kuwari, according to US intelligence, has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial support to the Al-Qaeda cell in Iran headed by Muhsin Al-Fadhli.

Al-Kuwari also reportedly facilitated travel for extremist recruits on behalf of senior Al-Qaeda facilitators based in Iran, and was a central link for Al-Qaeda leaders based in Tehran to funnel money, messages and fighters from South Asia into the Middle East.

Another crucial Qatari financier of Al-Qaeda’s terror activities is Khalifa Muhammad Turki Al-Subaiy, who also operates in Doha and was a major source of funding to a senior lieutenant to Al-Fadhli.

Al-Subaiy provided millions of dollars for nearly a decade to Al-Qaeda’s Khorasan group in Syria, which was established by Al-Fadhli while he was in Iran, according to Western intelligence sources and US Treasury Department designations. Doha actively lobbied Lebanon to release of one Al-Subaiy’s key moneymen, Abdul Aziz bin Khalifa Al-Attiyah, after he was briefly detained in Lebanon in 2012.

Then you have Tariq Al-Harzi, a senior Daesh facilitator who for years was singlehandedly responsible  for recruiting and moving European fighters. According to the US Treasury Department, in 2013 he arranged for Daesh to receive approximately $2 million from a Qatar-based financial facilitator. Al-Harzi reportedly played an important role in fundraising efforts in Qatar, and Doha did nothing to curb these activities.

One of the Khorasan group’s most notorious leaders is Mohammed Shawqi Al-Islambouli, a long-time Al-Qaeda operative and brother of the terrorist who assassinated former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Al-Islambouli was based for a time in Tehran, and is very close to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, according to reports.

Doha has hosted Al-Islambouli on numerous occasions for officially sanctioned events. He took to social media recently to praise Qatar, begging the question: why did one of Al-Qaeda’s most senior operators and a long-time Tehran resident feel obliged to come to Doha defense?

The issue with Al Jazeera 

One of the mistakes in drafting the demands of the ATQ was that it failed to make a distinction between Al Jazeera English (AJE) and Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA). Another was calling for an outright closure of the channel, when curbing its fetish for terror content would have been enough. AJA broadcasts terror content (such as Osama bin Laden’s exclusive statements calling for jihad against what he described as the western crusaders).

AJE, which is a reasonable channel that many people worldwide watch and enjoy, has nothing to do in terms of content, editorial direction or media ethics with its older sister AJA. I have argued before that the latter can and should, at the very least, be described as a scar on the face of Middle Eastern journalism. There is such a difference between the two channels that the longstanding joke in the Middle East when someone asks to put on Al Jazeera is: “Which one, the beauty or the beast?”

Furthermore, the ATQ should have carefully articulated that the grievance with AJA is not that it criticizes neighboring countries, but that it has long served as a platform for hate-preachers and terrorists. This is in no way a made-up accusation, nor is it only a Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini or Egyptian one.

Let us not forget that we are talking about the same TV channel which was once dubbed a “terror network” by the administration of former US President George W. Bush, and was criticized extensively, including in 2001 by the New York Times, for turning bin Laden into “a star”.

The end game? 

After the Riyadh Summit, it became clear that all efforts must be made to choke off terrorism. Saudi Arabia is very concerned about this, and cannot afford — when the likes of Al-Qaeda and Daesh have started targeting Mecca and Medina (the two holiest sites in Islam) — to have one of its own neighbors financing the very terror that is striking at the heart of the Kingdom, and around the world.

Was the boycott harsh? Maybe… however, what was the alternative? The military option is obviously off the table and the number of times Doha has agreed to change its behavior in writing, only to then fail to deliver, doesn’t give it a reliable track record. Many countries around the world are now trying to mediate and help. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his German and French counterparts have tried their hand in solving the issue.

However, there is only one person who the ATQ will accept as a chief mediator and that is the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah, who since the beginning of the crisis has been trying relentlessly to find a solution. The Emir has a long history in diplomacy and has a genuine interest in not seeing the GCC collapse. Furthermore, he was instrumental in reaching the agreement which ended the 2013/2014 diplomatic stand-off.

This means that Sheikh Sabah is very aware of the violations of Qatar and the grievances of the ATQ countries, as such he is deemed an acceptable and fair party. The Qataris see him as an unbiased and neutral mediator and given his proximity to all parties, will probably accept him as well. As such, the international community can help in two ways: firstly, by supporting the Kuwaiti initiative and secondly, by putting pressure on Doha to deliver - even without signing an agreement with its neighbors.

There is no reason why Doha needs to keep hosting wanted terrorists on US and UN lists, and contrary to its claims, handing them over doesn’t undermine its sovereignty but solidifies its position as a member of the international community which abides to international laws.