Gulf diplomatic brouhaha latest step in UAE anti-Qatar campaign

Gulf diplomatic brouhaha latest step in UAE anti-Qatar campaign
Comment: Diplomats in the Gulf have been working for months to undermine Qatar and its independent foreign policy streak, writes Imogen Lambert.
6 min read
05 Jun, 2017
Saudi Arabia and UAE see the US as a malleable ally [AFP]

The news that the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have led a regional campaign to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar follows weeks of media campaigns against the tiny Gulf state.

A series of leaked emails written by the UAE ambassador to Washington have also revealed the extent of the UAE's determination to bring down Qatar with renewed invigoration following Trump's ascension to the US presidency.   

"Qatar has been the target of a systematic incitement campaign that promoted outright lies, which indicates that there was a prior intent to harm the state," a statement from Qatar's foreign ministry said on Monday.

The leaks released from the UAE ambassador, Yousef al-Otaiba, confirm many already known or suspected unsavoury aspects of the Emirates; that the UAE is a close affiliate of Palestinian Security Chief Mohammed Dahlan, who in turn is a favourite of Israel affiliates; and that the UAE - which financed the Tamarod campaign to overthrow Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi - was supportive of the military coup in Egypt.

Yet the emails also offer a potential insight into the GCC spat, confirming UAE exceptionalism in regard to its Gulf neighbours and the region, clearly seeing the Trump administration as an opportunity to further cement the Emirates as the US ally of choice in the region.

Read more: 'No legitimate justification' for cutting diplomatic ties, says Qatar

It also seems to be an opportunity for Abu Dhabi to undermine Qatar, punishing it for backing democratic opposition movements in the Arab Spring in Libya, Syria and Egypt. 

In a leaked agenda for an exchange between the pro-Israel think-tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and "UAE government experts", is a section on Qatar where they wished to discuss "Al Jazeera as an instrument of regional instability and radicalization", and possible ways to "induce and/or coerce better behaviour" from the state. 

This included "political, economic and security sanctions".

A particular point of contention in the emails was regarding the US airbase in Qatar, Al-Udeid, which currently hosts 10,000 US soldiers

The leaks came after Qatar News Agency was hacked last month, publishing bogus news claiming the Qatari emir had made overtures to Iran. There has also been a flurry of Emirati media activity against Qatar, with Al-Khaleej newspaper saying that Iran was pressuring Qatar to leave the Gulf Co-operation Council. A columnist for Al-Royya has advocated Qatar's airspace be shut down. 

A particular point of contention in the emails was regarding the US airbase in Qatar, Al-Udeid, which currently hosts 10,000 US soldiers. 

In one exchange John Hannah, senior councillor for FDD, complains to Otaiba that Qatar was hosting a meeting of Hamas leaders at an Emirati-owned hotel. Otaiba replied that the problem lay with the US military base in Qatar, which they have long been lobbying the US to move. 

"How's this, you move the base then we'll move the hotel :-)" he said.

The airbase was also a main talking point in a FDD-hosted conference "Qatar and its Muslim Brotherhood associates: New US administration tackles new policies." 

The UAE has a long-standing hostility to Qatar, and in 2014 the GCC withdrew its ambassadors

After continuing at some length about Qatar being a source of instability, and financiers of the Muslim Brotherhood - whom he considers "terrorists" - former US Defense Minister Robert Graves said that moving the base would be a "significant process". Yet he said that there were "ways" of signalling that their patience was running low. 

How the recent spat will affect the functioning of the airbase remains to be seen. 

In another comment at the conference that appears to foreshadow US approval of the isolation of Qatar, Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the US was currently working on new legislation that would sanction anyone who funds or works with the Muslim Brotherhood. 

  Read more: Saudi-UAE campaign threatens Muslim nations' relations with Qatar

In response to a question about whether to consider designating Qatar a state-sponsor of terrorism, he said that they were "moving legislation that addresses states that support terrorism in any way".

The leaks also suggest a more ambiguous undermining of Saudi Arabia, who have also cut ties with Qatar, as Obeida encourages positive press of Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salman, reportedly friendly with the Emirati crown prince, Mohamed Bin Zayed.

In one of the emails sent to journalist David Ignatius, who had written a positive op-ed on Bin Salman, he said:

"I think we should all agree these changes in Saudi are much needed…" and he adds, "our job now, is to do everything possible to ensure MBS succeeds," referring to Bin Salman, who described Trump as "a president who will bring the US to the right track".

The emails also hint at the UAE's alleged role in the failed military coup against President Recep Erdogan

Whereas King Salman was initially thought to be cautiously adopting a new position towards Muslim Brotherhood affiliates - Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal visited Saudi Arabia in 2015 shortly after the king came into office - his son was thought to be following the UAE's hostility towards the Arab Spring.

Rather than "induce/coerce" Saudi behaviour, the section on Saudi Arabia in the agenda planned to "discuss UAE/US policies to maximize Saudi stability and success". 

The emails also hint at the UAE's alleged role in the failed military coup against President Recep Erdogan, with Hannah sending Obeida an article claiming the UAE and FDD were both behind the attempt last year in Turkey, who, along with Qatar, has also been broadly supportive of opposition movements across the region.

"Honoured that we're in your company," he wrote. 

Although the counter-revolution in Egypt was ultimately successful, fighting still rages in Libya, with UAE and Egypt-backed strongman, General Khalifa Haftar attacking Derner, Sirte, and the south, in an apparent bid to take the whole country. 

Those opposing him are Islamists backed by Qatar. As the last spat was allegedly about Egypt, this could be an attempt to pressure Qatar into easing off in Libya. 

The UAE has a long-standing hostility to Qatar, and in 2014 the GCC withdrew its ambassadors, reportedly due to Qatar's backing of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. The spat was repaired after Qatar ejected some Muslim Brotherhood leaders from the country, and this recent diplomatic incident may yet prove just as fleeting. 

However, that Qatar's land and sea routes are now being threatened - and evidently the UAE sees a friend in the White House - this may yet draw on for some time.

Imogen Lambert graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and has worked in social and economic rights in Cairo.

Follow her on Twitter: @InnogenLamb

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff