Cipher Brief Expert View: Qatar’s Rift with Arab States Brewing for Years

Robert Richer
Former Associate Deputy Director for Operations, CIA

Monday morning, several Middle Eastern countries, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Yemen, Libya’s eastern-based government, and the Maldives, announced their intentions to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar within 48 hours. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain gave Qatari citizens two weeks to leave their territory and also banned their citizens from travelling to Qatar. In addition, the Gulf states suspended all flights from Doha, while Saudi Arabia closed off its land border-crossing with Qatar and expelled all Qatari soldiers participating in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

Tensions between Qatar and its neighbors heightened last week after divisive comments attributed to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani appeared on Qatari news sites. The comments lauded Iran, criticized Saudi Arabia, and outlined Qatar’s support for Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as U.S. designated terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and ISIS. Qatari officials have said that the posted comments were fake and labeled the incident a “shameful cyber crime.”

While in Riyadh meeting with regional leaders two weeks ago, U.S. President Donald Trump spoke of a unified effort to fight ISIS and denounced Iran.  It’s unclear whether Trump’s speech was seen by the Saudis and other leaders as tacit approval for their decision to cut relations with Qatar.  Qatar is a key ally of the U.S., with approximately 10,000 American troops stationed at a military base in Doha.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is traveling in Australia, called on the parties to resolve their dispute. “I think what we’re witnessing is a growing list of disbelief in the countries for some time, and they’ve bubbled up to take action in order to have those differences addressed,” he said. “We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address those differences.” Tillerson does not expect the diplomatic crisis will have “any significant impact, if any impact at all” on the fight against terrorism.

The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel spoke with Rob Richer, former Associate Deputy Director for Operations at the CIA, about these recent developments and how the situation could play out moving forward.

The Cipher Brief: Is the rift between Qatar and the other Gulf countries, as well as other countries in the region, a new development that resulted from the hack of Qatar’s news agency that occurred last week, or has this been a longstanding issue that has been pinned on recent developments as is now playing out?

Rob Richer: This rift has been brewing for years. It goes back to Al Jazeera, a prominent news agency based in Qatar, serving as the messenger for al Qaeda.  And it goes back to Qatar hosting the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that is trying to undermine a number of countries, including Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. So it goes back many years.

Where this really got a push had to do with U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia where Iran was the topic. Qatar is seen as the only GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] member who has some linkage to Iran. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, made a statement not too long ago where he called Iran an “Islamic power.” That offended the Saudis, and in that part of the world, so much of this is personal.

What’s interesting is that the Qataris have people embedded in the Saudi-led coalition fighting against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and al Qaeda in Yemen, and now they are going to pull them out.

What’s lost in this dialogue is you have the kettle, that is Saudi Arabia, calling the pot black. If the theme here is that Iran is a sponsor of terrorism and a threat, the majority of groups today that are killing people around the world and who are Sunni based, had some basis and connection in some form to Wahhabism, the conservative extremist form of Islam, which is percolated from some of the mosques in Saudi Arabia. Obviously, al Qaeda came from that.

What’s interesting to me here is that we’re jumping on little Qatar, which is actually a very small state – a couple hundred thousand real nationals and the rest are all ex-pat workers – and I don’t know where the bigger threat is coming from. I don’t see Iran as doing anything very significant. However, we’re seeing Sunni backed groups, like ISIS, posing a serious threat. So this is more politics, this is more incestuous infighting, and this is hurt feelings.

Missing in this is the fact that Qatar shares a major oil and natural gas field with Iran, which produces a lot of their income. So Qatar needs to have some type of relationship with Iran.

TCB: Could Iran have initiated the hack in part to break Qatar away from the other Gulf countries and draw them closer to Iran?

RR: That’s something to think about, but Iran doesn’t really need to do that. Qatar is already not an enemy of Iran. They share natural resources in that one major field. Qatar is not a threat of any type, and it’s a minor player within the GCC at large. So it is possible, and the Iranians are pretty good at cyber.  But there are a whole lot of other players who would love to see this thing generate and become a problem, including people inside some of the other GCC countries. So it’s a possibility, but I don’t think it’s a reality.

TCB: In the past, some of the other Gulf countries have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. Do you see the recent severing of diplomatic ties between Qatar and its neighbors as something that will last or is it more of a reactionary move?

RR: There have been no serious issues recently, but his is a pretty significant step – throwing Qatari citizens out of other countries, cancelling all flights from Doha, and blocking the border so there is no land transport into Saudi Arabia. Qatar is an isolated area. They are going to have serious food and internal problems. This is a pretty major step, and I didn’t see a lot of other short steps to try to mitigate this problem.

What’s interesting is the timing. This happened basically two weeks after President Trump was in Riyadh where Iran was a major theme on the Saudi part. The Saudis and the other GCC countries are unlikely to have taken this step without some type of tacit approval from the Trump Administration, which has a very strong Iranian agenda, particularly [senior White House aide] Steve Bannon and the people around him who see Iran as a threat no matter what.

What we should be watching for is to see what the U.S. does to support this. Does it move our Central Command military base out of Doha? To me, that’s a signal we’ve been working with the other countries on this. The United Arab Emirates and others have been trying to get us to move our base to their countries for years. It will be interesting to see how all of that plays out.

TCB: According to the Saudi Press Agency, one of the reasons the Kingdom was cutting off ties with Qatar was due to Qatar’s support for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS, in addition to their support of Hamas, Hezbollah, and its relations to Iran. Is there concrete evidence that Qatar or individuals within the country back these groups?

RR: I’ve not seen that. What’s interesting, though, is that one of the more extremist groups inside Syria that is fighting ISIS but is just as bad as ISIS is the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which is now known as Hayat Tahrir al Sham. Nusra was Saudi backed and supported, as it was with Qatar and others. So it’s rocks being thrown where everyone lives in a glass house in terms of who is supporting what type of group.

Al Jazeera and some of the other media outlets in Qatar carry a message that could be seen as endorsing some of the extremist points of view, but I’ve not seen a direct connection. Friends in the Middle East have told me that Qatar is responsible for some of the ISIS problem, just as people will tell me that Saudi Arabia is part of the problem, particularly when ISIS grew to push back against growing Shiite influence in Iraq. There are those who believe that that was at least passively supported by individuals inside Saudi Arabia. So they are all playing, in some way or another, with their own factions.

TCB: Do you view the severing of ties by all of these countries as an overreaction? Is it a way to create a guardianship over Qatar? Is it a rivalry issue?

RR: This is a very aggressive move. Right now, we are looking at the world optic on this. Since the U.S. is kind of a guarantor of Qatar with our huge military base there, the fact that U.S. has seemingly supported this move signals there may be more aggressive steps. At one point many years ago, former Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan al Saud said that Saudi Arabia can invade and occupy Qatar overnight. That was a number of years ago at the beginning of the rise of ISIS and the Syrian opposition issue.

My point, though, is that this type of action has been talked of, it would be a relatively easy thing to do if the U.S. said we’re not involved, and it would pose both a personal and a political problem inside the GCC. Is it possible? There is more potential for that to happen than there has been at any point in the past. We need to watch the next couple of days.

For more on the rift between Qatar and the other GCC countries, and the impact it could have on U.S. troops based in Doha listen to the latest podcast from General Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army: In My Own Words: How Qatar’s Diplomatic Rift Affects U.S. Forces.

The Author is Robert Richer

Rob Richer retired in November 2005 from the Central Intelligence Agency as the Associate Deputy Director for Operations (ADDO). Prior to his assignment as the ADDO in 2004, Richer was the Chief of the Near East and South Asia Division, responsible for Clandestine Service Operations throughout the Middle East and South Asia. Mr. Richer currently consults on Middle East and national security issues and is a senior partner with International Advisory Partners.

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