SINCE I wrote last on the Persian Gulf crisis, (“Today we are all Qataris,” The Manila Times, July 5, 2017), I have been swamped with various reports on what’s happening in that region where live over a million overseas Filipino workers. It is nearly two months now since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut off diplomatic ties with, and all land, air and sea traffic to and from the state of Qatar, ejected all Qatari nationals and Qatari-funded media from their respective territories— for allegedly supporting terrorism, which Qatar vehemently denies.
They have imposed 13 conditions for the normalization of relations, which seem even more severe than the terms of surrender imposed on Japan or Germany by the victorious allies during the last world war.
These include scaling down diplomatic and trade ties as well as intelligence and military cooperation with Iran, an important neighbor with whom Qatar shares ownership and control of a large field of natural gas, but which Saudi Arabia considers its biggest regional rival; the immediate closure of the Turkish military base, which is under construction as of now; the immediate shutdown of Al Jazeera, the most watched TV network in the Arab world, and all news outlets funded directly or indirectly by Qatar; the severance of ties with all sectarian and ideological organizations suspected of terrorist activities; a ban on Qatari Muslim pilgrims going to Mecca; stopping all citizenship grants to Saudi, UAE, Bahrain, and Egyptian nationals who have problems with their respective governments; and regular monthly, then quarterly, then annual audits of compliance with the said conditions for the next 10 years.
If Qatar were a bank, these conditions would have put it on receivership, without establishing the just basis for it. This means a total surrender of Qatar’s sovereignty and independence, without having fought and lost a bloody war to the Saudi bloc. Qatar has rejected the 13 conditions, and the Saudi bloc was compelled to relax some of them. As a result, Qatari Muslim pilgrims may now come to Mecca so long as they don’t travel via Qatar Airways; and citizens of the four “blockading” countries may now resume watching sports, and only sports, on the Sports Channel of Qatari-funded TV.
But the “diplomatic blockade” imposed by the four Arab countries on June 5 is far from over. The mediation effort undertaken by Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, the Emir of Kuwait, a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, has produced some good but not enough results, despite the support coming from the United States, Russia, Turkey, Germany, France, Britain and the European Union in general.
Qatar and all the blockading countries are part of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Qatar hosts the 10,000 US troops at the US Central Command regional headquarters in al-Udeid Air Base, while Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. In an apparent effort to show Qatar is absolutely and unreservedly committed to fighting terrorism, Emir Sheikh Tanim bin Hamad al Thani on July 20 amended his country’s 2004 anti-terrorism laws after signing an agreement with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to bolster measures aimed at curbing terrorism financing.
The amendment, as officially reported, defines terrorism and terrorist acts, freezes funding and financing of terrorism, creates two national terrorism lists and sets the rules for listing individuals and groups on each list. It also allows the US government to post officials at Qatar’s state prosecutor’s office to monitor the campaign against and prosecution of terrorists.
The Emir’s speech
But the Emir’s most important accomplishment in the last few days has been his well-timed speech explaining to his people the origin of the current crisis, thanking them for standing up for Qatar’s sovereignty and independence, and calling on them to work harder to prosper Qatar’s economy and protect its security and peace.
While speaking plainly about the attack that had been carried out against Qatar, “by planting statements that had not been spoken, in order to mislead public opinion and the world and achieve predetermined goals,” the Emir indicated complete openness to constructive dialogue where errors may be identified and corrected, and mutual understanding and joint commitments enhanced.
He expressed satisfaction that despite the apparent effort of the blockading countries to make life for the Qataris unbearable, “day to day life has continued as normal,” and that “all those who live in this country have become spokespersons for Qatar.” Despite the siege and the attempt to incite anger and discontent among the people, “they have amazed the world by maintaining a high level of tenacity in tackling the situation,” the Emir said.
“It has become evident to those near and far that this campaign and the steps that followed it had been planned well in advance,” the Emir said. But “those who took these steps did not realize the people of the world do not accept injustice so simply, and people do not believe the forgeries of those who do not respect their minds. After all, there are limits to the efficacy of orchestrated propaganda that is not believed even by the very people who forged them,” he said.
Hacking Qatar’s news sites
This refers to Doha’s instant claim that its government news and social media sites had been hacked in order to post incendiary false messages attributed to the Emir. Among the provocative quotes falsely attributed to the Emir was one that reportedly called Iran an “Islamic power,” and another that reportedly praised Hamas, the Palestinian Sunni-Islamic fundamentalist organization, which the US State Department and the European Court of Justice have labelled as a terrorist organization.
Qatar’s Attorney General Ali Bin Fetais al-Marri has been quoted as saying certain iPhones used in the hack had originated from countries laying siege to Qatar. An independent article in the Washington Post on July 16, 2017, written by journalists Karen de Young and Ellen Nakashima, with contributions from Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and Carol Morello in Washington, D.C., claimed that the UAE “orchestrated” the hacking of Qatar’s government news and social media sites to post the false incendiary quotes attributed to the Emir.
Information gathered by US intelligence agencies confirmed that on May 23, 2017, senior UAE officials discussed the plan and its implementation, the report said. It was, however, not clear whether the UAE carried the hacks itself or contracted them out to a third party, the report added. The hacks and the posting happened after US President Donald Trump met with the leaders of the Gulf countries in Riyadh on May 22, where he delivered a speech to 50 Muslim leaders.
Trump with Salman
In that meeting Trump devoted much attention to his host, King Salman, whom he described as a wise leader, and who agreed to purchase $110 billion in US arms and signed letters of intent to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in deals with US companies. On May 24, the false statements attributed to the Emir appeared on Qatar’s news agency website, in a report on his appearance at a military ceremony. The government promptly sent out urgent alerts saying the information was false, and it was quickly taken out of Qatar’s news sites. But it continued to be broadcast in Saudi Arabia even after that, the report said.
The UAE Ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, called the Washington Post story false.
The Emir said Qatar is fighting terrorism relentlessly and without compromise, and that this fact is internationally recognized. The growing number of countries and government leaders pushing for a constructive dialogue between the parties tends to confirm this. The central player, however, namely the US, seems to stand divided. Tillerson clearly supports Qatar’s effort to put an end to the blockade through dialogue, but Trump appears more inclined to take the side of Riyadh. All parties are allies of the US and are all users of US defense equipment. In fact, Qatar has just signed a $12-billion contract for the acquisition of US F-15 jet fighters.
Tillerson’s apparent differences and difficulties with Trump have elicited suggestions that he may not see himself staying much longer at the State Department. But the real problem appears to be not so much Tillerson as Trump. He needs to be motivated to join the other leaders in pushing the blockading countries to opt for the much-needed dialogue. Perhaps it’s time for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, his two biggest dialogue partners, to help. Putin has already indicated his eagerness to weigh in, and may already be on his way, but perhaps Xi has to be pushed just a little bit to shift his gaze a little from his One Belt, One Road project and lend his good offices to this cause.
In fact, if the Emir or his Ambassador Ali Ibrahim Al Malki in Manila promises not to express surprise, I would propose that our own President Rodrigo Duterte, who visited Doha and Riyadh during the Holy Week and offered to send “his soldiers” to fight for the Saudis and the Qataris where they were needed, now add his own voice to the mediation effort.