SOURCE: THE NATIONAL
Tomorrow marks one year since Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar, which has yet to concede to the demands and principles set by the quartet in order to re-establish diplomatic relations.
The four Arab countries severed relations with Doha over what they say is its support of terrorist organisations. They also cite Qatar’s close links to Iran, which has been accused of interfering in Arab countries’ affairs and being behind terrorist plots, as one of the reasons for cutting ties. Doha restored full diplomatic relations with Tehran amid the crisis.
One major factor between Qatar and its neighbours has been the former’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed as a terrorist group by the boycotting countries.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt insist that Qatar must limit diplomatic ties with Iran and sever relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups they identify as terrorists, including Lebanon’s Tehran-backed Hezbollah.
Their demands include shutting down state-owned Al Jazeera news channel and other media outlets that have in the past offered a platform for extremists, including Al Qaeda officials. Another demand is that Doha expel Turkish troops stationed in the country and pay for reparations for damage inflicted by its policies.
Over the past few years, each of the four Arab countries has had its own grievances with Qatar.
One of Saudi Arabia’s biggest concerns is Qatar’s growing relationship with Iran, which Saudi believes has been interfering in the affairs of other countries and backing extremist groups in those states, including in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
The Tehran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have repeatedly threatened Saudi Arabia with ballistic missiles that the United States and United Nations experts say are of Iranian origin.
Al Jazeera is also a point of contention between the two countries.
In 2002, the Saudi government pulled its ambassador from Qatar after the news channel ran interviews that were critical of the kingdom’s ruling family.
In 2011, Riyadh and Doha backed opposing sides during the Arab uprisings, entrenching themselves in affiliations that remain until today. By supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Doha was stoking the possibility of a coup in neighbouring countries, while Yousef Al Qaradawi, the leader of the organisation, remained based in Qatar. Saudi Arabia on the other hand has remained a staunch supporter of Egyptian strongman leader Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.
Relations were restored between the countries in November 2014, in what is known as the Riyadh Agreement. The accord, which was signed by the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, committed the countries to non-interference in the internal affairs of others. It was the last chance the quartet gave to Doha before cutting relations and isolating it in the boycott last year.
For the UAE, Al Jazeera has posed a real issue, as it repeatedly criticised Abu Dhabi and allowed extremists to speak on air. The UAE also says that Doha’s support for extremists is unacceptable and a threat to regional security.
In 2013, Qatar allowed the Taliban to open an office in the capital with no preconditions. The UAE was prepared to host a Taliban office but withdrew the offer when the group refused to denounce Al Qaeda and give up violence.
UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba said that offer was made by the US as it looked for a way to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban to end the conflict in Afghanistan. After the Taliban refused to denounce Al Qaeda, the UAE withdrew its offer – after which time Qatar stepped in.
“True to form, Qatar imposed no restrictions, and the Taliban eagerly set up shop in Doha,” said Mr Al Otaiba, describing the Qatari government as “the region’s most active financing, ideological and media hub for extremists.”
Bahrain has accused Qatar of helping instigate anti-government protests in 2011.
Bahrain’s state television reported in August 2017 that Doha backed the protests that started in February and were suppressed in March by the security forces. Saudi troops and Emirati police were called in to help provide security.
The protests were led by the kingdom’s Shiite population, which had been encouraged to protest by the Iranian government.
Qatar’s former prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem, in 2011 had contacted Ali Salman – then head of Bahrain’s largest opposition group, Al Wefaq – and asked him to urge protesters to flood the streets and ramp up pressure on the state, said the report.
In the calls, Sheikh Hamad and Salman had agreed to “work together to escalate unrest so as to harm the interests of the nation and undermine its stability, which are tantamount to the crime of communicating with a foreign state with the intention of harming national interests.”
Bahrain also has a history of territorial disputes over Gulf islands and reefs with Qatar.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry has said that the Qatar crisis can only be resolved if Doha adheres to the quartet’s demands, which include curtailing its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The government has led a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood since former president and brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi was ousted by the military in 2013 following mass protests. Morsi is now serving jail time for various offences during his time in office.
President Al Sisi, who was sworn in on Saturday for a second four-year term, has said that his country refuses to let anyone interfere in its affairs and would stand strong against policies that support terrorism.