Last Friday, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt provided Qatar with a list of 13 harsh demands that Qatar must meet within 10 days in order to have sanctions lifted, some of which include shutting down the Al Jazeera network, severing all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, reducing ties to Iran, and providing information on terrorist and opposition groups that Qatar has funded. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Gary Grappo, former U.S. Ambassador to Oman, to discuss the list of demands, Qatar’s potential response, and how the crisis could be resolved.
The Cipher Brief: Are these demands, which seem almost impossible to meet, aimed at embarrassing the Qatari leadership? What is the idea behind these specific demands?
Gary Grappo: As the demands are currently written, it is highly unlikely that Qatar would be able to accept them. They impose some pretty severe requirements on the Qatari government, including the actual admission of certain things that it would be very reluctant to admit publicly, even if it might be willing to discuss these issues privately. One issue that sticks out in particular is the demand for Qatar to sever ties to all terrorist, sectarian, and ideological warriors. Qatar is not going to openly admit to its support for them. Nevertheless, it might be willing to discuss what assistance it provides to certain groups.
But shutting down Al Jazeera, stopping all funding that it provides to some of these organizations, scaling down its diplomatic ties to Iran – which is a very clear imposition on the county’s sovereignty – these are all issues I would think Qatar would have to reject and find difficult to even discuss. However, the broader issues might be open to some constructive discussion if they decide to take a more moderate, diplomatic approach.
There is a certain sense of vindictiveness to this, almost as though these are conditions imposed by victors over the vanquished in an actual war. Moreover, there is a certain element of embarrassment for the Qatari government, which based on my experience, runs contrary to Arab culture in the sense that most Arabs are very well aware of the need to save face. Getting Qatar to accept demands like this would be a real public as well as international humiliation.
TCB: How have these events affected Qatar’s role in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)? They are technically still part of the organization, but has their membership been impacted by these circumstances?
Grappo: That’s an excellent question because it almost implies that if Qatar cannot accept these demands, then it will have to leave, if not be expelled from the GCC. If one of the aims of these countries is to have relations between Iran and Qatar become more distant, then the weakening of the GCC or the departure of Qatar is playing right into Iran’s hands.
This is a real existential question for the GCC since these countries are basically insisting that Qatar bend to their will. That’s going much further than the GCC has ever gone before and raises a real question about the future integrity of the GCC.
TCB: Could recent events and Qatar’s isolation ultimately draw Qatar closer to Iran? What would be the ramifications of that reality?
Grappo: That would certainly be what the Iranians would like to see, but Qatar would be well-advised to be very cautious about that during this uncertain period of heightened tensions. I think they need to downplay their Iran ties for now and not make any overt overtures to the Iranians. The last thing the Qataris want is to have the Iranians making statements – and they already have as a matter of fact – in support of Qatar. The wisest thing is to stay out of this for the time being and then for Qatar to take the high road in terms of diplomacy, which could include seeking discussions and negotiations either face-to-face or through an intermediary. They should be able to hold face-to face meetings perhaps with others involved, especially the United States, the EU, or other countries that have a very strong interest in seeing this crisis ameliorated. There is that potential, but Qatar would be wise not to pursue an Iran course for the time being.
I also come back to the more likely eventuality if this can’t be resolved, and that is a further weakening of the GCC through either Qatar’s departure or reduced participation.
TCB: What is the significance of asking Qatar to shut down its Al Jazeera network?
Grappo: What is interesting about Al Jazeera – of course it’s always been a thorn in the side of a number of Arab countries, most especially Saudi Arabia – is that the Al Jazeera theme plays out in almost every one of these demands. Al Jazeera has typically taken a very sympathetic view with respect to Qatar’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s ties to Iran, Hamas, and so forth. It also has served as a platform for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is also extremely problematic for countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Al Jazeera hosts a program with Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is a Muslim firebrand and the nominal spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is based in Doha, speaks openly and frequently, and his speeches are pretty venomous in terms of calling for the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq, speaking in favor of domestic violence against women, promoting violence against gays, and of course, the predicable very harsh criticisms of Israel and Jews in general.
These kinds of things have always irritated a number of countries, most especially the U.S., but also Saudi Arabia and Egypt. That’s why Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which right now has a strong campaign to effectively smother if not eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, are taking a very strong position here.
But again, these are very onerous demands. In its response, Qatar is going to have to take into consideration what it has been doing in a number of these areas and be responsive to the concerns that not only the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain have, but also concerns that the U.S. will have about Qatar’s support for Hamas, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and some of these other groups that are mentioned, not necessarily forcing them to admit, but to take action to curtail some of the support they have provided in the past, especially when it comes to safe havens in Doha and financial support.
TCB: Historically, what has been Qatar’s connection to the Muslim Brotherhood? What are the incentives for Qatar to continue financing the organization?
Grappo: Qatar, some time ago, decided it was going to carve out a unique space for itself when it came to foreign policy in the Middle East. It took a much harsher and controversial approach to doing so than did say Oman, another GCC member, by reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood, to the Taliban, to Hezbollah, an also to Iran, which is the leading state sponsor of terrorism. This was to give Qatar some space in which to maneuver and play a role, not only in the politics of the region but even globally. When you take a look at Qatar, it’s a very tiny country with a native population that probably doesn’t number over 300,000.
But it has ended up playing this outsized role in foreign policy. Al Jazeera has been a very critical element and tool in advancing that unique role, which is one of straddling the fence by on the one hand, hosting a significant American air base, and on the other hand by fostering relations with organizations whom we consider to be terrorists such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
But by having those kinds of relationships, Qatar can play somewhat of a mediating role. It gives it some prominence and some heft in the international arena, which a country of this size would be very unlikely to have.
And of course Qatar has the financial wherewithal to do that. It’s one of the wealthiest countries on the planet with its gas revenues. So, it can do a lot of this. It’s taken a very sympathetic view towards Hamas and Hezbollah in providing significant amounts of financial support as well as moral and political support by hosting offices in Doha and by giving their officials platforms from which to speak freely and openly.
In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Qatar provided huge amounts of support – we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars – during the Muslim Brotherhood period in Egypt when former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi was president. It would have been unlikely for him to have survived as long as he did without that financial support.
This all gives the Qatari government a unique role in foreign policy. But one does have to ask, where has this led? In the case of Qatar, it’s kind of led to a dead end. It may be time for Qatar to reevaluate this policy without necessarily kowtowing to these demands, but reevaluating where it stands.
The U.S. would hesitate at most of these demands, but we would sympathize in getting Qatar to pull back from its support for any of the designated terrorist organizations, whether it’s ISIS, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Hamas. The U.S. could play a very useful role in moderating this list of demands and maybe getting these countries to come to some kind of understanding.
TCB: Qatar has been accused of financially supporting terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS, in addition to Hamas. Is there any proof of direct links between Qatar and these groups?
Grappo: When you’re talking about ISIS and al Qaeda and groups of that ilk, these are very old claims. I’m not sure there is much truth to them now, though suspicions about Qatar’s support for ISIS persist. It may be quite true, however, that certain individuals with connections to these groups have been allowed to pass through Doha.
Now when it comes to providing funding for groups in Syria, I don’t think there is any question that Qatar is supporting some of the more violent, Islamist groups fighting in Syria. I believe the U.S. probably has pretty strong evidence of that.
There is without question a certain hypocrisy in Qatar’s position. Its government would never tolerate the activities of many of the groups that it supports outside the country inside Qatar. Yet, in Egypt, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, it backs the actions of many of these various groups that are strictly prohibited inside Qatar. Ditto with Al Jazeera, which has considerable freedom about what it may report on elsewhere in the Middle East but cannot comment about inside Qatar. This hypocrisy understandably grates on these countries.
TCB: Last week, Saudi King Salman reshuffled the Saudi royal family and appointed his son, Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman, as next in line to the throne. Could Saudi internal dynamics be playing a role in the events that have unfolded relating to Qatar?
Grappo: I don’t think there is any question that Mohammad bin Salman, the newly declared Crown Prince and son of the king, has had a very strong hand in all of this. We know, for example, he has taken a very strong adversarial positions vis-à-vis Iran, and therefore was very likely to oppose some of the things that Qatar has been doing with Iran. The same holds for the Muslim Brotherhood. So, this action against Qatar would certainly reflect his thinking.
I don’t think Saudi Arabia would have tabled something like this without getting his explicit endorsement, so his fingerprints are on here without a doubt.
TCB: How is Qatar likely to respond? What options does Qatar have? What could happen if Qatar does not comply with this list of demands? Could tensions further increase?
Grappo: One of the first actions that Qatar is going to have to take is immediately reaching out to the U.S., both to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, because the U.S. has no interest in seeing a fractured GCC. Therefore, getting those two senior U.S. officials to weigh in on this, to try and get this ten-day deadline extended, and then to begin working on language for an eventual resolution are critical.
At the same time, Qatar is going to have to say something for public consumption about these very onerous demands. They are going to have to word any statement very carefully so that it doesn’t sound like out and out rejection – which is pretty much what it feels like it probably has to do – but also show a willingness to discuss the concerns that these other countries have, who by the way are all allies of Qatar and also of the U.S.
Those are the two actions that I would hope and expect Qatar to take to look at finding ways of lowering the temperature and extending the deadline. Reaching out to friends and allies who can work behind the scenes to temper this language, and ultimately reach some kind of an understanding that all the states can accept.
In the end, Qatar is going to have to, if not explicitly, at least implicitly modify its position on some issues and take a somewhat different direction, but maybe not too drastically. Certainly, regarding things like forcing Turkey to leave or shutting down Al Jazeera and its affiliates, I think Qatar would probably draw a pretty firm line there. Even the U.S. would feel very uncomfortable about one group of countries demanding that another country shut down a particular media arm, especially one as large and extensive as Al Jazeera is.
So, I would hope and expect that Qatar would begin to take these kinds of actions, and I would hope and expect the U.S. and possibly the EU to also be very proactive in stepping in and trying to usher the sides toward a more agreeable position. Unfortunately, while the U.S. has issued some encouraging statements, there does not appear to be genuine, concerted action, which is counter to America’s traditional role in a region where we have such major interests.
TCB: Where you surprised at any of the demands?
Grappo: One thing that really struck me is the demand about reparations and compensation. It’s very loosely worded and there is no specificity. It says “compensation for loss of life and other financial losses” without specifying which loss of life or which financial losses.
I’m actually surprised that the Saudis would toss this in there for the very reason that if you recall last September, Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsor of Terrorism Act over former U.S. President Barack Obama’s veto. The Saudis were obviously vehemently opposed to it and lobbied extensively in Washington to try to get this legislation removed or at least softened. This particular demand, therefore, could resurrect that whole issue. At least to me it does. So, I’m a bit surprised that the reparations demand is in there. I don’t recall anyone pointing the finger at Qatar for a specific terrorist incident in which lives were lost or property damaged or destroyed. The lack of specificity and the implications that Qatar is somehow responsible for things happening around the world make this really vague. I’m a bit surprised that something like that would be put in there.
TCB: There is also a demand for Qatar to admit supporting opposition movements in various countries including Saudi Arabia? Would the Qatari government actually admit to doing that?
Grappo: No, they are not going to do that. Things such as severing ties and stopping all means of funding – all of that implies admission by the Qatari government, which it’s highly unlikely to do. In fact, it’s not going to do that.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that they couldn’t begin a discussion on these issues and working to word them differently in order to bring Qatar more in line with international standards, whether it’s the UN or even some of the U.S. imposed sanctions when it comes to dealing with these organizations and groups. That’s where the U.S. would find some sympathy with countries like Saudi Arabia, but without being as demanding in terms of public admission by the Qataris.
TCB: Ultimately, can Qatar’s relationship with the GCC be salvaged, particularly in a region where hurt feelings are so important?
Grappo: Depending on how it’s ultimately resolved, there could be more than just hurt feelings. Don’t forget, folks in this part of the world tend to have very long memories and don’t forget when they’ve been embarrassed or when actual physical harm has been brought to them. And there has been some harm in the sense that families have been separated and jobs have been jeopardized.
Even if the crisis is resolved, depending on how it is resolved, there could still be lingering hard feelings, making it very difficult for the GCC to cooperate in the way it has in the past. That’s why I said at the outset that I was a bit taken aback by this Arab vindictiveness and apparent intent to humiliate the government of Qatar. That’s something typically not done in the Arab world – it runs counter to their culture in my experience.
Now getting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain to back down from some of these demands is also going to be something of an embarrassment to the countries that issued them. Right now, nerves are a bit frayed, and there is probably way too much emotion involved at the moment for the kind of diplomatic solution that is needed. This requires some very cautious diplomacy, which hopefully the U.S. can provide, along with a more tempered and moderated approach from the Qataris and some of the cooler heads in Riyadh, Cairo, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere.