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Opinion

June 10, 2017

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On the verge of war

On June 5, six Arab countries did something strange – they moved against one of their own, Qatar, by announcing a total breakup of diplomatic relations with the country. The gravity of this move can be gauged from the fact that even Russia and Ukraine who are engaged in a bitter war over Crimea have not snapped diplomatic relations with each other.

India and Pakistan, with their tense border situation and occasional skirmishes, have not pulled out their high commissioners. The US and USSR were locking horns for decades during the Cold War but never crossed this limit. Our Arab brethren are bent upon doing to each other what even hardened enemies don’t do. Saudi Arabia and Egypt and four other Arab countries have accused Qatar of destabilising the region. The countries also include the UAE, Bahrain, Libya, and one government of Yemen.

Interestingly, Yemen itself has two different governments ruling over different territories under their control. The southern and eastern regions are mostly controlled by the Saudi-backed government in Yemen, with their capital in Aden. Mostly the north-western parts of Yemen are under the de-facto rule of the Houthi tribes who have occupied the capital Sanaa. Qatar has termed the Saudi-led action as unjustified and has rejected allegations that it had been helping or supporting extremist organisations in the region.

This extreme step of severing the diplomatic relations signifies that these Arab countries are not willing to reduce the tension by negotiating. Initially an American hand behind this row was not clearly visible, but then President Donald Trump boasted, in his signature style, that his recent trip to Saudi Arabia was bearing fruit. In his address to the 40-country military alliance, Trump had talked about possible actions against those countries that harbour terrorists. According to Trump, Iran was one of them, and there were implications that Qatar was the other.

On the face of it, the US is trying to stay clear of this spat but its secretary of state has called for a negotiated settlement of the issue. Even more disappointing is the fact that these Arab countries are not content with just severed diplomatic ties. Saudi Arabia has gone a step further by closing its borders with Qatar on the pretext of safeguarding its territorial integrity by keeping terrorists out. Following in the Saudi footsteps, the UAE has ordered the Qatari diplomatic staff to leave the country.

A statement released from Abu Dhabi reiterated accusations against Qatar regarding terror financing and extremism. Another allegation is about propagating sectarianism; though it was not specified which sect they were talking about. The UAE has also stopped its official airline, Etihad, from flying to Doha, the capital of Qatar. Normally this is done when there is an imminent possibility of war. Threats have been issued against anyone who tries to show a soft corner for Qatar by posting, talking, or writing anything favourable to Qatari position. Similar steps have been taken by Bahrain, which has blamed Qatar for interference in the country’s internal affairs by creating unrest there.

Egypt has also blocked all land and air links with Qatar and cited similar concerns for its national security. A related development was the ouster of Qatar from the Saudi-led military alliance against the Houthi tribes in Yemen.

To some extent, the allegations against Qatar could have some truth in them. Not long ago, Qatar was trying to prove that the Taliban were worth negotiating with and Doha offered a safe haven to the Taliban leaders to open an office there.

But the question is: if Qatar was supporting the terrorists, what were the other six Arab countries doing? None of these countries can claim to have clean hands. All have a long history of nurturing extremists and fundamentalists.

Be it Egypt and Saudi Arabia supplying Soviet weapons to Pakistan in the 1980s for onward shipment to the so-called Mujahideen, the first incarnation of Taliban; or Bahrain and the UAE stifling any spark of dissent by any means, all have contributed to the spread of extremism and intolerance albeit some keeping a more moderate façade. Despite Qatar’s transgressions, it has been running a much more liberal and independent TV channel that has been highlighting serious issues in the Arab polity. Of course, the group of six wants it to either shut down or tame its criticism of its neighbours.

It is likely that Qatar will be forced to comply with the demands of the six with a bludgeon from the US. If that happens, the autocracies will be strengthened and dissenting voices will be crushed.

 

The writer holds a PhD from the
University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad. Email: [email protected]

 

 

 

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