Decoding the Qatar ultimatum

D Suba Chandran | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on June 29, 2017

The Saudi Arabia-sponsored charter of demands reflects the monarchy’s paranoia and dubious geopolitical ambitions

The recent demands from Saudi Arabia-led group within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) against Qatar, are not aimed at resolving the current crisis. Though Qatar has already called them not reasonable, how sensible are these 13 demands? What do Saudi Arabia and its coalition want to achieve by presenting an unachievable and humiliating set of demands?

The demands presented by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and UAE can be classified into four categories: anti-Iran, counter-terrorism, curbing independent media, and submission of Qatari sovereignty. While few demands have substance and Doha needs to attend to them, rest are prejudices of Saudi Arabia wrapped under principles.

Against sovereign rights

The two demands that are related to Iran and Turkey are against Qatar’s sovereign rights as an independent State. Saudi Arabia wants Qatar to “curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close its diplomatic missions there”; the language that “only trade and commerce with Iran that complies with US and international sanctions will be permitted” is not only humiliating, but also attempts to bring the US in. Saudi Arabia is manipulating the anti-Iran sentiments of President Trump and is attempting to bring the US into Gulf politics, besides aiming to curb Qatar-Iran bilateral relations.

The demand “to terminate the Turkish military presence currently in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside Qatar” is unreasonable as well. Why would Saudi Arabia want Qatar to end Turkish military presence but not the American? The US has one of the largest military bases in Qatar; if a foreign military presence in the Gulf undermines Saudi Arabia and its anti-Qatar coalition, then it should be across the board.

Reasonable, hypocritical

The second set of demands against Qatar is relatively reasonable, though hypocritical — relating to terrorism. Saudi Arabia expects Qatar to “sever all ties to terrorist organisations, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIL, Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah” and formally declare “those entities as terrorist groups”. It also asks for stopping “all means of funding for individuals, groups or organisations that have been designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, the US and other countries.” The Taliban is missing from the list of Saudi demands, but that’s not surprising.

Qatar’s policy towards the above groups has been criticised. While one could understand the demands against the ISIL and Al Qaeda, it would not be easy to club the Muslim Brotherhood to the same group. Saudi Arabia and its anti-Qatar coalition, especially Egypt, are more worried about the Muslim Brotherhood, for obvious political reasons.

However, before asking Qatar to stop all means of funding groups and individuals, Saudi Arabia should look inwards first. The spread of radical ideologies in South Asia and South-east Asia have their roots in Saudi Arabia. Many even question Saudi Arabia’s role, especially some of its individuals in supporting the Al Qaeda.

Perhaps, Riyadh may have selective amnesia in forgetting the role of Saudi nationals in the 9/11 attack. Many in the US and elsewhere have been critical of Saudi Arabia’s support to radical groups and movements. President Obama understood Saudi Arabia’s actions and inactions towards curbing the spread of radical ideologies outside West Asia. Trump, with his own political jihad against Iran, is only glad to overlook the larger Saudi role on this point.

Media paranoia

The third set of demands is directed against Qatar’s support for independent media in the region. The Saudi coalition wants Qatar to “shut down Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations” and other media groups. In fact, this is one of the primary reasons that has ruptured Doha-Riyadh relations. Qatar’s objective is to make Al Jazeera a voice of West Asia and compete with the BBC and CNN at the global level. In this context, one has to really appreciate the emergence of Al Jazeera as an alternative voice from the region.

The House of Saud and other monarchies in West Asia are extremely scared of an independent media. These are anti-democratic regimes and against any liberal voices. The ruling elite in these countries see independent media as providing a voice to the common men and are mobilising their opinion. They would like to insulate from any second wave of the Arab spring; the current demands against Qatar should be seen as counter-revolution by the ruling elite of West Asia.

The last set of demands impinges directly on Qatar’s sovereignty. It demands that Qatar “align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially and economically.” Worse is the ultimatum asking Qatar to “agree to all the demands within 10 days”. Even worse is the final demand, asking Qatar to “consent to monthly audits for the first year after agreeing to the demands, then once per quarter during the second year”.

No self-respecting country would agree to the above, especially auditing the foreign policy every month. This is nothing but asking Qatar to surrender its sovereignty to Saudi Arabia and be its vassal state. Perhaps, Bahrain and UAE are willing to toe this line. But expecting Qatar to agree to those demands, as Doha has already responded, is unreasonable.

The Saudi endgame

Why would Saudi Arabia make those unreasonable demands? Clearly, they are not aimed at resolving the crisis; rather, they will escalate it further. So, what is the larger endgame for Riyadh?

Saudi Arabia wants to be the GCC hegemon, with other countries tailoring their foreign policy to what Riyadh wants. Qatar wants to pursue its own foreign policy; Riyadh should have been waiting for an opportunity to bring down the former. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his participation in the US-Arab summit would have convinced Riyadh about this.

The second concern is based on fear; not only the House of Saud; the ruling elite in Bahrain, UAE and Egypt is also afraid of independent media for obvious reasons. Al Jazeera and other media organisations that the Saudi Arabia accuses have been critical of many developments within West Asia and are proving to be an alternative voice. The autocratic elite wants to muzzle any opposition within.

Saudi Arabia wants to set the foreign policy priorities of the entire GCC. And also wants to prevent Arab Spring 2.0.

The writer is a professor and dean at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore

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Published on June 29, 2017
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