Qatar Playing With Fire Says US Defense Expert

Qatar seems to be living in a cloud cuckoo land where harbouring and funding terrorists and their outfits is considered a noble cause and being tight with the powers which have been inimical to Doha’s Arab friends is looked upon as a badge of honour. The facts on the ground speak otherwise.

For example a former US defense official and now a senior adviser at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies Dov Zakheim has been quoted by Al Arabiya English TV channel as calling for Doha to modify its foreign policy, stop its support of terrorism and “make financing terror inside the country and outside a criminal offence if it wants to actively seek an end to its diplomatic crisis with its neighbours.”

The crisis relates to four leading countries of the Arab world – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates – cutting economic and diplomatic ties with Qatar in June last year. Also barring it from their air space for backing and financing high-profile terror and extremist groups across the region from Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Taliban and the fringe elements aligned to them, cosying up to Iran which has strained relations with most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries for a range of misdemeanours and outrageous activities, and using Al Jazeera TV as a foul-mouthed mouthpiece against GCC members of which Qatar itself is a part.

Zakheim also expressed US concern about Qatar’s relationship with “Islamist groups such as Hamas, especially given the current tensions with Israel over the Gaza border.” He said it was not only Qatar’s support for Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood group that worried US politicians but more specifically of supporting and talking to militia groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon that “want to change the face of the region to a radical one. In many ways, I think Qataris are playing with fire because if they think that they can support these types of groups I think they’re making a huge mistake. They would go down in flames just like everybody else in the region.”

Looking at the Qatari stance and pronouncements in recent months it is unlikely though that it will take advice and mend its ways. Indeed the Qatari malaise goes much deeper than what Zakheim makes out. The entire boycott episode boils down to Qatari jealousy and frustration.

Jealousy that despite having higher per capita income than any another GCC state its political clout is very low whereas it believes it deserves to be in a position to direct and drive regional policies. Frustration that it lost the territorial claim on Bahrain’s Hawar islands in the International Court of Justice in The Hague nearly two decades ago [thanks to all its documents having been declared forged].

The offshoot of the latter setback was that it moved closer to Iran and with its help began to devise ways to bring about a regime change in Bahrain in which exercise the Iran-backed elements in Bahrain and the former Qatari prime minister were tacitly involved. And this bonhomie extended so far that Qatari army personnel who were part of the three-nation army to counter the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen were actually acting as intelligence gatherers for Tehran!

Qatar remains flush with funds though they are depleting at a somewhat abnormal pace thanks to the Quartet’s boycott but it remains upbeat and every now and then even chooses to needle its neighbours by violating their air space. Not realising it has everything in common with the GCC states and little in common with the Iranians, its bosom pal of the moment, and stands to gain little and lose a lot by letting the current impasse persist.

Brij Sharma is an Indian journalist and editor based in Bahrain. Brij tells us the interesting stories we don’t usually hear from the middle east country.