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QATAR, PUNCHING BEYOND ITS WEIGHT

by Lt Gen Ike Singha

At the  end of the maiden visit of President Trump to the Middle East the regional balance of power has been disturbed. Trump has clearly taken sides and while Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been declared as the good guys, Iran and its allies have been blamed for all the ills in the region.

On the heels of the presidential visit, a total of nine nations lead by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE have severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed economic sanctions and blockade upon it stating that Qatar has been supporting terrorism and assisting groups like Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and Al Qaeda. Kuwait and Behrain are the only two counties in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) who still have diplomatic relations with Qatar and Kuwait has offered to mediate coaxing Qatar to show restraint.

Traditionally, Egypt,  Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran are the four pillars of Muslim world in the Middle East. Egypt is the cultural leader with a rich past heritage but has weakend recently due to the Arab Spring. It is a well known fact that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been supporting Sunni opposition groups in Syria.  Iran has been supporting proxy war against Israel through Hizbullah in Lebanon using Shia areas of Southern Iraq and the Allawi government of Syria as conduits since 1982.

Saudi Arabia has been home to the Wahabi movement and has supported and exported Al Qaida cadres since the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has also been leading a coalition bombing in Yemen wherein Iran is supporting the Shia led Houthi group. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran compete in the region to enhance their areas of influence as leaders of Sunni and Shia communities respectively.

Qatar is a small Sunni state with land accessibility only from the bigger Sunni neighbour, Saudi Arabia. With a population of 2.2 million, it has one of the highest per capita income of $ 71,481/- in the world.  Since its independence from the British in 1971, it has been ruled by the Thani Dynasty whose third ruler Emir Tamin Bin Hamid Al Thani took over in 2013. It has the Shia majority state of Iran across the gulf with which it has enjoyed good economic relations and both have been supporting Hamas in the Gaza Strip. With its peculiar geopolitical location Qatar was ideally located to be a neutral state like Switzerland but had dreams of playing a bigger role in the region.

At the beginning of the Arab Spring, Qatar and Turkey got an opportunity to play a larger role in Middle East. Qatar who was already supporting Hamas, started supporting Sunni opposition groups in Syria along with Saudi Arabia. When Morsi took office in Egypt after Mubarak was deposed, Qatar supported Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi whereas Saudi Arabia opposed them for fear of a backlash in their own country.

This created a rift between Saudi Arabia and its small neighbour Qatar who had started playing a role much larger than its size. While Saudi Arabia was supporting moderate groups and off and on the Al Qaida offshoot Al Nusra, Qatar supported the more radical groups of Muslim Brotherhood, Al Nusra and ISIS. While both Saudi Arabia and Qatar wanted the Allawi ( a sect of Shia) Assad government  to be defeated, their modus operandi in supporting armed opposition groups were different.

The Qataris have been accused of running with the hare and hunting withe the hounds. Whereas it provides sanctuary to all types of terrorist groups within its territory and supports them in Syria, Libya and Gaza ; Qatar is part of the coalition bombing led by US in Syria and Iraq as also with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. However, the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting Yemen’s Houthi rebels also expelled Qatar from its alliance, alleging support of “al Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS) as well as dealing with the rebel militias,” according to Saudi’s state media agency. The US has the biggest air base in the region with 11,000 troops and over 100 aircrafts at Al Udeid air base that Qataris constructed at the cost of over a billion US dollars.

As the head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Syria and Israel at Golan Heights, there were numerous occasions when our peacekeepers were taken as prisoners by armed opposition groups on Syrian side. Therefore, in the diplomatic community the best of my friends were the Ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. I had to go to a third country to meet them in Jordan or Lebanon as they did not have presence in Syria and Israel. Since they exercised adequate leverage over the armed opposition groups, we were able to get all 180 prisoners released without any loss to life. Qatar visibly had greater influence on the opposition groups than Saudis.

The Gulf countries  have generally been  immune from the Arab Spring rising by wooing their population and nipping the unrests in the bud by giving doles in terms of non refundable loans and some other populous economic measures. Ever since its inception in 1981, the six countries Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has never been so much politically  divided as of now with three members ; Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE severing diplomatic relations with a fourth member Qatar. The future of GCC as an entity is in doldrums.

India and Qatar have traditionally enjoyed  friendly relations and five MoUs were signed during the visit by present Emir to India in 2015. PM Modi visited the kingdom in June 2016. The previous Emir, the father of present ruler, made diplomatic visits to India in 1999, 2005 and 2012. Qatar has invested US $ 5 billion in India’s energy sector. A deep- sea gas pipeline from Qatar to India through Oman has been proposed. Qatar imports cereals, machinery and electronic equipment from India amounting to 1.2 billion. 720,000 Indian expatriates work and reside in Qatar and their safety and security is a cause of concern for India.

The ongoing economic blockade is hurting Qatar although they had accumulated enough stocks for an emergency. Qatar depends on imports for all food stuffs. Iran is flying essential food items to Doha and also sending them by sea in a bid to minimise effects of the blockade. Hectic diplomatic parleys are in progress to solve the jam log with the Turkish foreign minister visiting Qatar and Qatari foreign minister planning a visit to US.

However, the blockade cannot continue indefinitely as it will also adversely affect trade between all GCC countries. Sooner than later,  Qatar is expected to blinl in the standoff and agree to stop assisting terrorist groups and giving them refuge. Whether Qatar will totally stop or scale down its activities only time will tell but its activities are likely to stay under a scanner until ISIS and other radical groups who are already on the run are defeated in Syria and Iraq.

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