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Quick Thoughts / What is Happening between Qatar and the GCC?

Quick Thoughts
What is Happening between Qatar and the GCC?
{{langos=='en'?('09/06/2017' | todate):('09/06/2017' | artodate)}} - Issue 4.2
Hosted by Bassam Haddad

Abdullah Al-Arian discusses the roots of the confrontation between Qatar and several GCC states, and identifies some of the differences in their posture toward some of the various issues in the Arab region.


Abdullah Al-Arian
Abdullah Al-Arian

Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown University 

Abdullah Al-Arian is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He is the author of Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat's Egypt (Oxford, 2014). During the fall of 2014, when this interview was conducted, he served as a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is co-editor of Jadaliyya's Critical Currents in Islam page.

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Program Transcript

Transcribed into English by Michael Haddad

Bassam Haddad (BH):  Hi Abdullah, Keefak? 

Abdullah Al-Arian (AA): Hey, I’m good B, how’s it going? 

BH: Good good, look I know I’m cold calling you bes, can you, can you chat for a few minutes for Status? For our “Quick Thoughts” segment? I know it is probably late, we can do this tomorrow if you can’t chat.

AA: No that’s fine, but do you mind giving me a minute?

BH: Ok should I call you in a bit? 

AA: Yeah just give me like two minutes. 

BH: Ok habibi. Ok, excellent, I’ll call you, bye.

AA: Alright, thanks.

[Intro music]


BH:  Hi Abdullah.

AA: Hey. 

BH: Keefak? Are you ready?

AA: Yeah let’s do it. 

BH: Ok, so, just to cut to the chase, what the hell is going on in your neck of the woods? You are in Doha now right?

AA: I am. Yeah.

BH: Can you speak freely? Or semi-freely?

AA: I can speak totally freely. 

BH: Excellent. Tayib. What the hell is going on?

AA: Well, we woke up here on Monday morning --

BH: (Can you hear me, can you hear me)

AA: Yeah I can hear you, can you hear me?

BH: Ok, go ahead.

AA: Yeah, so on Monday we woke up this week to news that Qatar had been essentially cut off from the rest of its GCC neighbors. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates basically decided to withdraw their ambassadors and completely cut off ties. They were joined, of course, by Bahrain and Egypt. Later in the day we heard that the Maldives had joined in the fight along with a number of other kinds of small countries which, over the next few days had, decided to join in this isolation of Qatar. You know, the idea was that this was a very aggressive attempt to try to shift Qatar’s policy on a number of, you know, important regional issues, basically trying to alter Qatar’s foreign policy. There was some talk that it could even be an attempt for regime change in Qatar on the basis of, you know, big disagreements with the leadership here. Since then, we’ve heard, at least locally, that the Qatari government has no intentions to alter its foreign policy. It is not going to respond favorably to any of these sort of aggressive moves on the part of its neighbors.

BH:  Wow, ok well. Tayib. Without getting into – I mean I guess we can get into some detail — so if somebody is watching this, somebody who is not necessarily reading all the news about Qatar, Saudi Arabia, they don’t get the impression that this is actually what is happening right now and the severity of it is actually possible. Despite the skirmishes, despite the, you know, disagreements on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood vis-a-vis or versus Sisi and so on. Or the question of Syria there seems to be some sort of overlap on the question of -- you know-- the idea that “revolution” is actually something that should stay far away -- which is something we saw unfold in Bahrain in terms of neighboring states’ viewpoints on what happened in the Bahraini uprising and how it was squashed and so on. So how do we explain to a person who is mildly watching the news and looking in what’s happening – how do we explain to them the severity of this and how did it actually happen?

AAYeah, I mean I think it’s a really important question, because I think on the surface, when one examines the GCC countries, you definitely see a certain degree of uniformity. On, again on the surface, in terms they all come from similar historical background. They’re similar in types of government, similar in terms of their socio-economic place and their place in the region. There are a lot of things that would not, to the naked eye at least, seem very different. And even in terms of their regional policies. One could look at a lot of things in terms of their relationship with the United States both historically and even recently. And so there is not much reason to assume that there would be this level, this severity of conflict, especially even on the conflict with Iran for instance and then of course all of those issues that you mentioned with Syria, with Yemen, with Bahrain, that Qatar has more or less been in the same camp with the other regional powers led by Saudi. And so why is there a conflict? And why is it this severe? I think it is because of the other issues. The ones perhaps we don’t examine as closely or we don’t talk about as much. I think there are historical roots here. The first real major major break, I think -- in addition to the historical rivalry between the Al-Thani family and of course the Saudis who’ve always sort of taken it upon themselves to act as the kind of hegemon in the Gulf region -- going back to the foundations of the GCC into the nineteen eighties and nineties, you see the Saudis believed simply that they were entrusted with determining the fate of the collective foreign policy of these countries. And it was only in the mid nineteen nineties that, under the father of the current Emir, that Qatar decided to go rouge, so to speak, that it wanted to start charting out for itself a completely independent path, to the extent that it could, still within the kind of constraints that we all know exist. And it attempted to do that. I think that one of the first steps of that was the founding and the launching of Al-Jazeera as the first real attempt at something approaching an independent international news network. Again, within the kind of constraints that it had, it still attempted to cover things in a way that was really unprecedented in the Arab world. Giving a voice to a lot of previously suppressed movements and intellectual trends and even, you could say, ordinary people. And this was, in a way, to try to challenge the dominant narrative that had been established by official state news outlets. And then beyond that, of course, we see them taking on a cozier relationship with a number of those opposition movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, its offshoots, but even kind of secular leftist, intellectuals, thinkers. One, of course, thinks of Azmi Bishara whose name has come up a lot in recent days and the number of foundational institutions that he’s built here. And to a large extent Qatar, I think, survived on the basis of kind of rebranding and becoming more known as an international and regional player. I think the move of the US base after 9/11 from Saudi Arabia to Qatar was seen as a way to —the second half of that equation is to also out-Saudi the Saudi’s so to speak; In which the Qatari regime wanted as well to maintain those kinds of relationships with the US and some of its allies. We know that there were also efforts at normalization. The Israelis opened a trade office at one point here in Qatar.  So there was certainly an attempt to kind of also maintain that same kind of posture and do it perhaps even more explicitly than the Saudis have done. We know of course that the Iraq war was launched from the military base here. And so in many ways it was an attempt to kind of play to a number of sides. You’ve also seen them replace Saudi in a lot of ways as a regional  arbiter of conflict, you can walk into the Sheraton hotel here you know back in the early and mid 2000’s and you’d see the Lebanese factions, you’d see the Sudanese factions, you’d see the Palestinian factions and they are all sort of hanging out in the lobby and being hosted and entertained by the Qatari government in order to kind of resolve their issues. At one point the Taliban even with the blessing of the US base just down the road had their own office here as well as a means of try to kind of negotiate some sort of a settlement for the situation in Afghanistan. So we know that that Qatar has tried to branch out and sort of go out on a limb away from the kind of hegemonic Saudi official policy and that policy has sort of come back to haunt them over the last five years or so. 

BH:  Wow. Ok well thank you for the clarification. I’m kind of smiling because I am getting a lot more than I thought you’d be ready to provide at a late hour like this, but can I, can I, push further? 

AASure, yeah.

BH:  This is again for Status/ Al-wadah, with us is Professor Abdullah Arian. Arian or Al-Arian? 


BH: I real should really know more because a friend of ours who is Yemini keeps yelling at me for saying Arian, its Al-Arian or Al-Ariani. Tayib. Abdullah can you tell us a little bit about, you know, in quick mode, how does Qatar’s posture towards some of the issues in the region differ from other GCC member countries? This is something that, again, a lot of people would be wondering about in more specific terms. 

AAYeah, I think that’s a good question. I mean, on the surface, it definitely seems like there’s a lot more uniformity in policies and on things like we said earlier like on Syria or on Yemen or Iran, but I think even within those there’s still a degree of competition, right? So someone could point to the competition in terms of the patronage of the various you know rebel groups within Syria and them try to kind of play the Saudis and Qataris off one another. There was a lot of reporting that was being done on that in 2014, 2015. I think some of that has been toned down more recently, but there was certainly, at the height of the conflict in Syria, there was a lot more competition, even though they were all technically on the same side in opposing the Syrian regime, but each one was of course was jockeying for greater influence in the supposed you know post-Assad settlement and I think that that in many ways mirrors things we have already seen sort of in Yemen and in Libya, specifically both places that are suffering from civil conflict in which post Qaddafi, Libya, had basically turned into a place where Gulf money, weapons and influence was being peddled by the different regimes despite the fact that they were all technically on the same side at one point and being huge supporters and cheerleaders for the NATO intervention in Libya and so at this point I think that that’s, you know, in many ways responsible for on the one hand you see the Saudi and Emirati push for Haftar the sort of military strong man to kind of impose yet another kind of military dictatorship in Libya. When you turn to other issues I think you see a far greater divide, in particular I’m thinking of Egypt. I mean Egypt was supported by Qatar during the height of its uprising in its attempt to transition to something like a democracy. Of course, that never truly materialized. It was a process that was dominated in a large part by the Muslim Brotherhood. I think the Qataris on the one hand because they’d maintained a relationship previously with the leading opposition movement and they saw them as the best organized force that could potentially reap huge gains from the electoral -- you know, their kind of transition to something like an electoral democracy that they put all of their backing behind it and at the same time I think it was quite clear, very early on, that the Saudi/ Emirati bloc and soon to be joined of course by Israel and its own sort of lobbying apparatus, wanted to completely undermine the Egyptian uprising and in many ways was plotting a counter-revolution from the very early days of that transition, was already kind of putting its resources very strongly behind Ahmad Shafiq at one point. When that didn’t work out, eventually from within the ranks of the military, within certain disaffected voices, within even the revolutionary movement itself as we saw I think with all the revelations with Tamarod and the kind of foreign sponsorship that it had received. The coup and the counter-revolution was very, very, heavily subsidized by this kind of Saudi/ Emirati bloc and in many ways I think you see that Qatar was kind of on the losing end of that and in 2014, so a year after Sisi had basically come to power and attempted to consolidate his authority in Egypt, you saw a major confrontation that’s very similar to this one. I mean the current confrontation has kind of escalated far more quickly than the one in 2014. We can talk about the reasons why that is, but I think during that time one of the main pet peeves was the fact that the Qataris were allowing for a live feed from Al-Jazeera – *Static*                                                

BH:  Abdullah your voice cut off for a second, please repeat if you don’t mind. Sorry about that.

AAOk, sure, yeah I was just saying that in the aftermath of the rise of the Sisi regime and his attempt over that first year to consolidate his control, of course he was getting tens of billions of dollars in aid and support from both the Saudis and Emiratis, that one of the pet peeves that a thorn in the side of that effort to consolidate was Al-Jazeera pumping out 24/7, you know, non-stop anti-coup coverage on it’s Al-Jazeera – Mubasher Misr -- live feed. And that was the kind of leading demand in 2014 from the Saudis and Emiratis to basically shut down that network which Qatar is eventually obliged and did. They also expelled a number of EgyptianMuslim Brotherhood leaders who were residing in Doha at the time and so we see that at least on that issue there was clearly severe disagreement and it’s continued in a way because those same guests that used to appear on Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr simply migrated and now appear somewhat regularly on Al-Jazeera’s regular Arabic channel. So a lot of those changes were seen as being largely cosmetic. And then I think that on the issue of Palestine it’s really important to know the difference, that there has been tremendous evidence, at least that we have seen, that the Saudi/ Emirati bloc is very aggressively attempting to normalize its relationship with Israel. It has worked in very close concert with the most right wing and hawkish wings of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington and many of their think tanks. All of that has been exposed over the past year or so and I think that in that the anti-Qatar campaign in Washington is largely a coordination of the efforts of all three of those lobbies in large part because Qatar is also seen as taking a different line on the Palestinian issue that: yes, they tried to mediate between the elements of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas but obviously Hamas’s political bureau has been hosted here for some time. A lot of the Gaza reconstruction efforts were paid for by the Qatari government as well as Qatari private citizens. So there is a sense that Qatar has sympathized and has sort of given weight to Hamas’ position in this kind of back and forth attempt to form some kind of a Palestinian unity government. And I think that perhaps there is a sense that there is a window in the next few years through which Israel could kind of consolidate some of its gains in the West Bank and even normalize sort of without consequence be able to normalize with some Arab states, and I think that Qatar is seen as a major obstacle to that.

BH:  Thank you Abdullah. This is actually more, I mean a lot more than I thought this would be as a quick thought segment- it’s not actually so quick but it’s great to hear from you. I have a couple of quick questions. Can I ask you? I’m pushing the envelope here because this is turning out to be a really insightful conversation. Is that OK?

AASure, I’m already up, so let’s do it.

BH: We’ll increase the payment from zero to three times zero. Tayyib. How do you explain, if you want to look at the timing of the escalation and what are some of the implications of what is going on now in brief form as well for the regional conflicts at hand? I mean, are we to see some serious changes anywhere given that this is happening at any particular moment?

AAAre we back? can you hear me? I don’t know what happened and I’ll reserve all conspiracies. 

BH:  Abdullah? 

AAYeah, can you hear me?

BH:  Yeah, I don’t know what happened either.

AA:  Yeah, I said I’ll reserve all conspiracy theories but I have no idea what happened. 

BH: Did somebody knock on your door? 

AA: No, I was just about to talk about how Trump is responsible for this, but I was prevented. 

BH: And I fakaret the Syrian Mukhabarat. Ok this is interesting. So I was saying, I don’t know if you heard my question about the timing of the -- how do you explain the timing?

AA: Yeah, I mean I hink in terms of the timing, it seems to be very much related to, not just Trump’s election -- I think is kind of giving a green light to a lot of different actors in the region to either escalate or take advantage of the domestic disarray that the US political system, and perhaps just the unpredictability of this president, to be able to settle their scores, to be able to pursue more adventurous, reckless policies, that would not have been possible. I mean, again, going back to 2014 a similar confrontation happened, but it happened in a far more restrained way. I mean not to completely heap praise on the Obama administration which of course we know was not necessarily this stabilizing force in the region, to put it mildly, but I think at least in this internal regional conflict it was certainly not interested in seeing a destructive confrontation between GCC allies that it relies on to be on the same page on many of the issues that we already discussed. So essentially what we had, especially following the Riyadh summit, I mean this escalation happened probably within hours of Trump leaving Riyadh and touching the glowing orb and giving its magical powers perhaps to some of the leaders who were then going to embark on this really adventurous policy by confronting their ally. So I think we see an attempt to try and tighten the stranglehold on Qatar’s foreign policy. To end the idea that there can be any hub for oppositional politics. Again, regardless of what we may think or say about Qatar’s posture generally or maybe what it’s motivations have been or whatever kind of criticisms one could have of its policies towards some places and not others during the course of the Arab uprisings, but at the very least I think you know having been here for some time and sort of watched people come and go, that it sort of has positioned itself in some ways as one of the last places where people could sort of continue to have the same kinds of conversations that they were having in 2011 and 2012 in places where that’s no longer possible to say the least, whether it’s because of a resurgent authoritarianism or because of the kind of horrific destructive civil wars we’ve seen. And I think this is really an attempt to kind of put an end to that once and for all. This is why the chief demands really are about closing down Al-Jazeera. It’s about expelling intellectuals, scholars, shutting down their institutions, and so this is in many ways I think one of the possible implications of course is that Qatar would cease to be that kind of place, but so far the response has been “No, we’re not going to yield to this or to capitulate on some of these kind of big demands.” So yeah, I think that, it remains to be seen what kind of role some of the other regionals players will have, whether it’s Turkey committing troops to come to Qatar as a sort of deterrent to any kind of potential use of military force or invasion. Whether it’s the United States perhaps hoping to extract some of its own concessions and at the same time you know exercise control over the situation because of its own specific interests. One of the completely outrageous things one hears is that at the time that Trump was tweeting in support of the Saudi/ Emirati escalation and sort of pointing the finger at Qatar, that he was completely unaware apparently that the US has a military base here and that he was informed after the fact, and so you know I think MSNBC reported this yesterday so there is also clearly an attempt to take advantage of the kind of just rampant ignorance that’s taking place at the highest levels of the US government and its just complete incompetence in terms of knowing how to deal with a regional crisis.

BH: Wow, ok, well is there -- you know I have so much to say, but this is, I really hope we get a chance to sit together. I understand you might be coming to Washington soon and I will definitely try to get you into the studio and speak more at length, but before I let you go can you just say something about this proximity that now actually seems even more interesting, but this proximity between Qatar and Israel historically and what should people make of it? It’s something that existed even when Qatar was very supportive of Hezbollah in Syria in 2006 when Israel invaded Lebanon.  

AA: Well, I think the political scientists would refer to this as hedging. That you are just attempting to play multiple sides so that you don’t end up the complete loser. I think in Qatar’s situation, it’s a little bit more than that. It is a sort of way to insulate yourself against far greater hostility and criticism when you do support the things that you claim are actually the issues that are near and dear to you.  Again, that could be a much more generous reading perhaps, but I think that this is the way they balance their attempts to essentially “go rouge” so to speak, in their support for different movements around the region that are obviously unpopular that are obviously on the list of terrorist organizations, that are, even within the Arab world, are seen with a sort of anathema to the regional agenda and the hegemony of the sort of Saudi, Emirati, Egyptian view of the region or vision for the region. So I think that in many ways some of those contacts, some of those normalization measures were really part of that. I’ve been having this kind of discussion with people who basically saying “look, they’re all essentially in the same boat,” but I think there is a distinction to be made between that kind of normalization and then the stuff that we’ve been reading about more recently that’s far more high level in terms of intelligence sharing, in terms of joint lobbying efforts. Those are the kinds things that I don’t think we have seen with Qatar.

BH: You mean the ones with Saudi Arabia?

AA: Yes. The way that, for instance, the UAE and Saudi governments have conducted. I don’t think we’ve seen that level of deep coordination on intelligence issues, on technology purchases, large-scale technology purchases, that kind of thing. And of course the kind of very closely coordinated lobbying efforts that we have seen in Washington. So in that sense I think there should be a slightly different reading of that. While, at the same time still worthy of criticism, and certainly something that should be called and always taken into account when considering its policies that a lot of these tend to be far more realist policies than perhaps we give credit to. As opposed to simply someone who is following an idealized principled position, I don’t think we know any states that do that.

BH: I think we’ll need to leave it at that. And your suspicion that what you said in relation to Qatar being a potentially a generous interpretation is what we are going to accept considering where you are speaking from. So I am very happy that I was able to catch you and infinitely grateful for staying up until – I don’t know what time it is –  probably like 3:00 in Doha. Thank you, Abdullah. Thank you very much for joining us at Status/Al-Wadah and for giving us your time.

AA: Happy to do it.

BH: And we will be in touch

AA: Sure. Sound good. 

BH: Salam habibi, salam

AA: Yallah, bye.



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