The simpler question to answer is the “Why Now?”
The rift between Qatar on the one hand and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and their supporters on the other has been brewing for quite some time and has simply reached its climax. The incessant war of words over the past years had certainly given indications that the situation was potentially explosive.
The answer to the first question of Why Qatar and why so much resentment against it is the fact that in the view of the Emiratis and the Saudis, Qatar’s chosen path and its free-willed attitude was never welcomed and has reached intolerable levels.
But what is it that is so intolerable that makes a people bound by Geography, creed, language, history and even fate turn on each other in such a dramatic and vicious and wholly destructive manner?!
Some of it is simply personal and some has more sinister basis.
Let’s start with the personal. The economic rise of Qatar in less than two decades to levels that took the UAE more than half a century ticked some people in the UAE. Specifically, the ruler of Dubai has invested his entire life in placing it as the leader of progress and symbol of success in the Middle East and the world at large.
That supposed undisputable leadership was mainly manifested by Dubai’s skyline, huge carrier, resorts, man-made islands, sporting, educational and health facilities, malls and mega festivals. Qatar has matched almost all of them in a far shorter period.
That might seem too simplistic but UAE Sheikhs and Princes value and aspire to be the shining stars of the region and have been investing in it for a long time. In essence, outdoing others, especially their fellow GCC brothers, is an end in itself and is not taken lightly. That is on individual as well as national levels. Qatar has been and is in effect spoiling the party.
What Qatar leadership was declaring to the UAE (specifically Dubai) in deeds is that if you have skyscrapers we too can, if you own a big airline we will have an even bigger one, if you buy top football clubs we will do the same and if you make noises in other ways we will use a megaphone. In other words, Qatar was saying that there is another kid on the block that is quite capable of taking you on.
And it is Dubai that was the most frustrated by Qatar’s huge and quick strides.
To add insult to the ego injury was Qatar winning the rights to host an event far grander and more noisy than perhaps all the Dubai festivals combined; The World Cup. Pride damage to UAE young leadership lay in being outshined and outdone. And Qatar achieving it in a far shorter period was never going to go down well. All this culminated into rivalry in the global social, economic and political arena where Qatar was outpacing its rivals in a far deeper sense.
If the matter is between the Qataris and the Emiratis, why are the Saudis at the center of it? The Saudis too have a king and princes who hate being outdone. However, the Saudis would not have taken the matter to such an extent based merely on that as they have Yemen and an opportunistic Iran to worry about. For the Saudis, apart from being led or misled by the UAE into it, there are other deeper and more important factors. Image was not the only thing poking at Qatar’s silent foes.
It is Qatar’s rise as a political power and essentially challenging the supposed political giants of the Arab world; Egypt and the Kingdom that led to the resentment which were then translated into sanctions.
When Qatar discovered that they had huge reserves of natural resources, its young leadership had far bigger ambitions than the skyscrapers and developing the country. They wanted to lead the Arab and the Muslim world. The city-state nation had an ingenious long term plan and roadmap to make Doha the de facto capital of the Arab and Muslim worlds. That ambition took very long for the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to detect. When they finally did figure it out, they lashed out in anger.
The launching of Al-Jazeera Arabic in 1996 was the building block of where Qatar was headed.
Through Al-Jazeera, Qatar was tapping into the frustration of the Arab world caused by the lack of an avenue to vent its countless frustrations. Al-Jazeera was a rare door for free self expression as most of the media in Arabia was government controlled. Al-Jazeera started asking and answering questions of the masses for the masses. In asking and answering lingering questions, Qatar was bound to collide with GCC leadership which was secretive by nature. Hash-Hash was no longer.
In order to truly have meaningful control and influence what Qatar needed was religious authority as well and that was brilliantly achieved by having under its wings highly regarded scholars like Qaradhawi who had weekly influential shows on Al-Jazeera. And by supporting other Muslim causes such as resistance movements like Hamas and the Brotherhood, Doha was gradually being perceived as the protector of Arabs and Muslims.
Through the likes of Al-Arabiya and Sky Arabic, there was an attempt to challenge Al-Jazeera but looking at the situations and the changes that Al-Jazeera had already propagated, that was too little too late. Al-Jazeera had become the trusted eye and ears of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
By heavily investing in major EU capitals like Paris and London and New York in the US, Qatar was also planting the seed of admiration and appreciation far from home. London taxes painting hundreds of its taxes with the Qatari flag to support Qatar now is not an impulsive or sudden occurrence. It has deep roots. While others were buying big football teams for ego pleasure, Qatar was perhaps, among other things, endearing herself to even football fans far from home.
And seeing Turkey jump into the defense of Qatar and swiftly sending troops in a direct and blunt challenge to Saudi Arabia and Egypt given the risks it entails is very telling about the fruits of a deliberate long term strategy that Doha adopted.
Trump’s backing off of supporting the Saudis in the current crisis is not a sudden change in heart either. The Qataris are too important for the United States as well as Trump was evidently advised to play it safe and take a more balanced approach in the struggle.
Qatar has managed to irreversibly tie herself to strong and mighty nations. It has crucially managed to win the hearts and minds of Arabs, Muslims and others. Perhaps Qatar had learned from the British Empire which partly managed to rule the world through the BBC and bonding with mighty nations. Al-Jazeera is Qatar’s version of the BBC.
When Qatar managed to help get the Brotherhood to power albeit somewhat opportunistically following the Arab spring that is when Saudi Arabia and the UAE realized the true and far-reaching ambitions of Qatar. They retaliated by supporting a brutal military regime led by Al-Sisi. That however, failed to slow Qatar down and just made the Saudis and Emiratis more hated by aligning themselves with a brutal killer.
Qatar on the other hand had by this time projected herself as the true protector of the weak, especially among Arabs. The following are more examples of actions that endeared Qatar to the Arab and the Muslim world.
In 2003, as the U.N. debated regarding the invasion of Iraq, among the Arabs, the most vocal anti-invasion Arab nation was Qatar. I believe this is the juncture where the city-state started its regional and eventual global political prominence that has led to the present struggle.
Qatar was essentially telling the powerhouses of the Arab world that we will now take lead where you have failed and without your permission. But at this point the likes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia must have believed that it was a flare up that was bound to die out. And God were they wrong!!
Then came the Israel war against Gaza in 2006 and then 2008-9 during which time Qatar went head on against Israel by openly supporting Hamas during the brutal bombardment. After each of the wars and the bloodshed, Qatar spent billions of dollars in rebuilding of Gaza and supporting the Palestinians in other ways with zero conditions attached. In deeds, Qatar was now becoming the voice of the Arab world population who has long sought genuine leadership in standing up to Israel.
The idea that Qatar supports terrorism falls by its own weight. Qatar sponsorship of ISIS in any way is absurd as Qatar is hated by the Islamic State and a likely target in case the group achieves its goals.
As far as Hamas is concerned, Qatar doesn’t even attempt to hide its support and as any sane Arab or Muslim or any justice-loving person would tell you, Hamas is not a terrorist group. In fact, Qatar support for Hamas just makes it more beloved to Arabs and Muslims.
The worry that Saudi Arabia and the UAE demonstrate in relation to the Brotherhood is as ridiculous as worrying about a snowstorm in Mecca. It has no serious foothold in the GCC and not likely to; that is just the way the GCC population is. The Brotherhood simply can’t operate within the GCC and UAE and Saudi leadership know that all too well. What they fear is Qatar total leadership of Arabs.
The one thing that is a true danger to the Saudsi, UAE and Egyptian leadership is the Al-Jazeera Network. Even though I am no big fan of the network, there I can understand the true damage that Al-Jazeera has done and continues to do to those Governments.
Al-Jazeera is the most dangerous Network to Arab leadership not because it promotes or supports terrorism. It is dangerous because it is the most critical network to most Arab regimes than any other network including CNN, FOX, the BBC and even Jewish media. The difference between Al-Jazeera and other networks is that when it targets someone it does so in great details and relentlessly. Therein lays the danger. Arab leaders are a secretive group of people.
The one remaining good news in this whole saga is that Oman does exist and insists on its impartiality. If it was not for Oman’s stance, this situation would have quickly escalated in breaking the GCC into two sides. Had Oman taken sides, the block would have been in true danger of disintegration as there are some outside forces which prefer a broken GCC. With the Sultanate in the Middle and Kuwait somewhat balanced, this episode is likely to pass albeit with serious wounds. But wounds can heal in time thanks to the homogeneity of the Gulf people.
Qatar is not the only nation with ambitions. Saudi Arabia managed to snatch two islands from Egypt and the UAE is the de facto ruler of Socotra Island in Yemen. Political and territorial ambitions aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that Arabs appear to be willing to achieve it by stepping on each other and that is simply madness.
Growing up is needed quickly and is needed after the crisis has passed. Rather than hating where Qatar is and where it is going both politically and economically, GCC members ought to embrace and encourage it and adopt some of its endeavors. How much harm can be done to a neighbor by having millions of people flock into Qatar for the World Cup or by ending up having a truly unified Arab world no matter who leads It.?