Qatar crisis deepens as Gulf sides stand their ground

Lyse Doucet
Chief international correspondent
@bbclysedouceton Twitter

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Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Qatar was cut off by its Gulf neighbours earlier this month

Three weeks in to the worst Gulf crisis in decades, questions are still being asked about why unprecedented diplomatic and economic sanctions were imposed on the state of Qatar by its powerful neighbours.

Now even Washington is expressing doubt.

"We hope the list of demands will soon be presented to Qatar and will be reasonable and actionable," was the diplomatically phrased message of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

His polite nudging came a day after an unusually blunt statement from Washington over a delay in providing details that had "mystified" state department officials.

"At this point, we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar's alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long simmering grievances?"a spokeswoman asked.

That rebuke stood in sharp contrast to President Donald Trump's fulsome support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, backed by neighbouring Bahrain and Egypt, when they first took actions that included closing Qatar's only land border and limiting its airspace.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Football fans in Doha expressed their support for Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad Al Thani

An answer to the state department's question is said to be on the way.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told us on Friday that a list of "grievances" would be presented to Qatar "fairly soon", addressing its alleged support for terrorism and extremist groups destabilising the region.

Mr Jubeir and UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, who have been shuttling between capitals, also said a monitoring and verification system aimed at stopping flows of money and other support was in the works. One source said details of a new mechanism should be ready within a week.

But Qatar is already rebuffing what is expected to be the next salvo.

"Those who oppose Qatar's political stances always use 'terrorism' as a pretext," was the response of a senior Qatari diplomat in Doha, who told me by email they were still receiving "mixed messages".

He said "no demands had been put forward" and dismissed new moves as "the latest chapter in a concerted and co-ordinated smear campaign to dictate Qatar's foreign policy".

And Qatar's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, has made it clear there would be no negotiations until the punishing measures were lifted.

For the moment, it is hard to see a way out of a diplomatic deadlock which is also a deeply personal test of political wills.

'Zero trust'

Tensions have simmered for years as ambitious, gas-rich Qatar forged its own agenda in the region.

Powerful ruling families in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have kept a watchful and worried eye on Doha's support for Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, its relations with Riyadh's arch-rival Iran, as well as funding of jihadist forces including, they claim, groups linked to al-Qaida on the battlefields of Syria and Libya. Doha denies providing support to the most extreme Islamist groups.

Last week, the new offensive gathered pace as Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini foreign ministers converged on London with more ammunition to win over allies at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and woo the media. Qatar's foreign minister had been there just days before.

Image caption,
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash: "This is not about regime change."

In the hushed surroundings of an elegant room in a London hotel, charge sheets of "Qatari support for extremism" were distributed by Emirati diplomats and aides.

Mr Gargash was categorical: "This is about behaviour change, not regime change."

He described plans for the monitoring system as still in the stage of "vague ideas". But he tried to make it crystal clear why it was needed.

"Fifty-nine people, many of them on the terrorist lists in the US or at the UN, are roaming free within the state of Qatar," he said in an interview after the press briefing.

And he pointed to an urgent need to monitor money flows after a recent "episode" in which ransom money, reportedly as much as a billion dollars, was dispatched to Iraq to free a hunting party, including Qatari princes, taken hostage by Iran-backed militias.

Iraqi officials are said to have seized the suitcases of money at the airport.

"There is zero trust," insisted Mr Gargash, who said a monitoring system was essential and could only work if "our Western friends play a role".

Qatar anger

A few hours later, at the Saudi embassy in London, Mr Jubeir said they are also working on the list of grievances but made a point of saying: "I would not call them demands." He batted away suggestions this had more to do with Iran and regional rivalries.

"At its core, it's about stopping the funding of extremism and terrorism as well as incitement and interference in the affairs of other countries," he said.

"We hope wisdom will prevail and Qatar will respond," he said in an interview, calling it the "demand of the whole world".

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister says Riyadh is preparing a list of complaints against Qatar

But Qatar is pushing back against efforts to pull in outside powers instead of keeping this in the royal families.

"These allegations breach our Riyadh Agreement of 2014, which includes a mechanism to resolve our differences," pointed out the Qatari diplomat who sent his own charge sheet to me by email.

"We believe this crisis should be resolved within the GCC," he added, in reference to the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council, established in 1981 to consolidate countries' financial and political clout.

Kuwait's emir is shuttling between capitals, so far with little success. So is the foreign minister of Turkey, which along with Iran has offered assistance to Qatar to cope with shortages and travel disruption. Western diplomats, including Secretary Tillerson, are carefully calling for de-escalation and discussion.

Trump effect

Both the Saudi and Emirati ministers say they have tried dialogue before. They accuse Qatar's emir of breaking promises made three years ago.

So why now? Has their new ally in the White House now emboldened them?

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Donald Trump praised Qatar but days later accused it of fostering terrorism

"On a macro level, I would say yes," conceded Mr Gargash. "We see the Trump administration's prioritisation of the fight against extremism and terrorism, and this is a big, big change."

But this fight is a murky business in the region. Money from official and private sources has flowed to armed groups from most Gulf states for years. In Syria's war, it often amounted to sacks of cash dropped at hotels in Turkey. That is where accountability often ended as money moved across the border to messy battlefields.

Qatar repeatedly came under criticism in many capitals for allegedly backing the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which was previously known as al-Nusra Front and is one of the most formidable jihadist groups battling President Bashar al-Assad's forces. But other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, also fund hardline Islamist fighters.

In recent years, Riyadh has taken steps to clamp down.

"We shut down the financing of terrorism," insists Mr Jubeir who, like his Emirati colleague, now refers to any misdirected funds as "legacy".

"We can't shut it completely but as much as we can, and more than any other country in the world."

Dangerous moment

But Qatar says it has also taken action. Its reply to its neighbours' latest charge is to point to its bona fides as an active member of the US-led coalition against so-called Islamic State.

Just weeks before this crisis erupted, the US ambassador to Doha posted a tweet praising the country as "a strong partner in combating terrorist financing".

"The monitoring won't be effective if you single out one source," says Sultan Barakat, who heads the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Qatar says it can weather the sanctions imposed by its neighbours

"There are sympathisers right across the region, some more dangerous than others."

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE accept that every country must play its part, but for now the target is Qatar and there is a lot at stake.

"If Qatar can be convinced to give up support for militant groups abroad, including the Muslim Brotherhood which isn't regarded by most countries as terrorist, they may as well give up having their own foreign policy and run it from Riyadh," explains a Western expert on Islamist movements.

It is not clear how far Qatar's critics will go. Mr Gargash admitted it was a dangerous moment. "I'm worried less about escalation and more about isolation" of Qatar, he said.

Both sides are now marshalling allies and political ammunition for what looks set to be a long haul.

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