The Gulf is breaking up, but unity is the solution

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FRANCISCO S. TATAD

FRANCISCO S. TATAD

THAT the dead assailant at the Resorts World Manila attack, which killed 38 and injured 54 others on June 2, turned out to be a crazed gambling addict with no known links to the Islamic State (IS), which had claimed responsibility for it, has done little to clear the Philippines of the IS threat. Aside from the ongoing fighting against government forces by the supposedly IS-influenced Maute terrorist group in Marawi City, 1,200 IS operatives are said to be in the Philippines, according to the Indonesian defense minister at the Singapore Dialogue of Southeast Asian defense chiefs. And the Australian defense minister has warned from Sydney that hardened IS fighters could create havoc in Southeast Asia after training in the Middle East.

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The Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police will now try to verify the intelligence report from Singapore, while President Rodrigo Duterte tries to end the Marawi violence by putting a P15-million bounty on the heads of the IS-influenced Maute leaders and bringing in US security advisers to help the local forces. Meanwhile, a terror strike in London has kept the IS terror on top of the breaking world news, together with Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and the Maldives breaking off relations with Qatar for allegedly “financing, adopting and sheltering extremists” — a charge denied by the Doha government.

A first-class political security mess
With or without DU30’s questionable “martial law” proclamation in Mindanao, which has now caused several petitions against its constitutionality to be filed before the Supreme Court, we are now in the middle of a first-class IS-related political security mess. Just as the Resorts World Manila incident has revealed the lack of an adequate security system at the expensive casino-hotel and the obvious failure to enforce the building code in the construction thereof, the Marawi incident has shown the absence of a viable policy vis-a-vis the Filipino Muslim communities, in the face of the well-known threat from the Syria- and Iraq-based Caliphate. The armed forces and the police are left to fight the Mautes alone, without the active support of the native communities.

DU30’s confident forecast of ending the Marawi violence soon may not be easily achieved, even with the use of air strikes, as in Syria and Iraq, where the IS fighters have not been eliminated. For one thing, modern technology may not work that well. Because of the peculiar topography of Lanao and the neighboring areas, many of the anti-government fighters are water-borne and not easily exposed to such air strikes. Politically, the government has lost the active intervention of the Islamic religious leaders, who used to be solidly organized under the Ulama League of the Philippines, and worked closely with the Catholic and Protestant bishops under the Bishops Ulama Conference.

The BUC was Mindanao’s primary instrument and resource in carrying out active inter-faith and intercultural dialogue in the grassroots among imams, priests and pastors; in the academe; with the youth; among families of the BUC members; and with the military and the police in the face of recurrent fighting with Moro rebels. Organized by then Davao Archbishop (now Emeritus) Fernando Capalla, the late Dr. Mahid Mutilan, president of the Ulama League of the Philippines and former governor of Iligan, and Bishop (now Emeritus) Hilario Gomez Jr. of the United Church of Christ of the Philippines—the three convenors—it counted on 24 Catholic bishops, 26 ulama (Arabic for “learned ones” and plural for alim) and ustadz (Arabic for teacher), and 18 Protestant bishops as members; and functioned regularly through a board of directors called the Tripartie Commission, composed of four Catholics, four Muslims, and four Protestants, with the three convenors among them.

The Bishops-Ulama intervention
The BUC enjoyed the support of then President Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but was treated with indifference, if not disdain, by B. S. Aquino 3rd. It withered in the vine under his administration. In the last few years, Capalla has tried to revive the BUC with Bishop Gomez and some ulama, but his efforts have been cold-shouldered by the government. I have attended a couple of these meetings as a guest speaker, and could only admire the tenacity of the convenor. A recent attempt on Capalla’s part to relaunch the BUC through an important anniversary celebration in Davao drew a positive response from GMA, but not from the Davao-based President.

Yet, despite the death of some Muslim religious leaders in recent incidents, and the government’s continued indifference to this still necessary intervention, active inter-faith interest remains, which DU30 would do well to rekindle. Intercultural and interfaith—and now intrafaith—dialogue should replace the fighting. This could be the best way to deny the IS a hospitable ground for its Islamic extremism.

Having recently visited Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, DU30 should have a keen appreciation of, and interest in, what’s happening to the Persian Gulf countries which employ close to two million Filipino overseas workers. Even if the political crisis arising from the severance of diplomatic ties between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Maldives, and the eastern Libyan government on the other does not degenerate into actual hostilities, it could still have untoward consequences on the livelihood of many Filipinos. This requires a clear policy at home in relation to the OFWs, in case they are forced to come home, and a balanced policy abroad in relation to the Middle Eastern governments in conflict, which are all our friends.

The 260,000 Filipinos constitute the fifth largest national group in Qatar, which has a population of 2,334,863, made up of 87 nationalities, the biggest being the 650,000 Indians, followed by the 350,000 Nepalese, the 313 native Qataris, and the 280,000 Bangladeshis. Leichenstein is the smallest national group with only one member. In Saudi Arabia, with a population of 32.2 million, there are anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 OFWs. In the United Arab Emirates, with 9.2 million people, there are 700,000 OFWs, 450,000 of them in Dubai alone, 21.3 percent of its population. In Bahrain, there are 40,000 Filipinos out of the 1.2 million population, 568,000 of whom are Bahrainis, 660,000 of whom are non-nationals. Among the 91.5 million Egyptians, there are 2,300 legally documented Filipinos, and 1,878 undocumented. In Yemen, there are 400 Filipinos among the 26.8 million national population. In the Maldives, population 409,163, there are 300 OFWs.

Focus on Qatar
Among the countries mentioned, it is Qatar where the situation of the Filipinos bear watching. Although physically small, it is one of the richest countries in the world and has used its enormous wealth to build up an impressive array of infrastructure in Doha, which includes top-grade hotels, museums, universities, and a magnificent airport in preparation for hosting the World Cup in 2022. It also runs one of the best airlines in the world, Qatar Airways.

It hosts and funds Al Jazeera, the Pan Arab news network that now stands head to head with CNN and BBC, and so many of the Ivy League universities in America have established their respective campuses in Doha, and some of the world’s leading architects have designed its most famous buildings. But although it produces as much oil and gas as Saudi Arabia, it imports all its food from outside, a whole 40 percent of it from the Royal Kingdom. Qatari diplomats had been given 48 hours to leave Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain; Qatari citizens, 14 days to do the same. The latest report says people in Doha—presumably including the Filipinos—have begun stocking up on food and cash, in preparation for the worst.

I feel genuinely sad about these developments. I have been official guest of the Emir twice in Doha—I am referring to the previous Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the father of the present Emir Sheikh Tanim bin Hamad al Thani, the former’s fourth son and the eighth emir, and have seen how he treated Filipinos in the emirate. At the Ritz Carlton, where my wife and I were billeted and shared the Emir’s table on both occasions, the Filipinos occupied the most exalted positions. Only Filipino food servers were allowed at the Emir’s state dinner. In Doha itself, the Emir donated a Catholic Church so that the Filipinos, the Indians and others who were Catholic, could freely practice their faith. Here I have attended several Catholic masses, with the El Shaddai providing the lively choir. This was something completely unthinkable in other Islamic domains.

Some contradictions
But Qatar suffers from some contradictions. Like all the other Gulf states, Qatar has good relations with Washington. In fact, it hosts a major American base, which is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and supports insurgents against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime, which is backed by Iran. Nevertheless, it has managed to maintain excellent relations with Tehran, despite the latter’s erratic relations with Washington. Despite the Emir’s known opposition to Assad, he is said to have once gifted Assad an Airbus plane. Last month, amid some tension with the US on Iran, Sheik Tanim was quoted, erroneously he pointed out later, that US President Donald Trump may not stay in power long.

This apparently angered Qatar’s allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia charged Qatar of “financing, adopting and sheltering extremists,” naming the Muslim Brotherhood, IS and the Houthi rebels. And invited the others to join the Kingdom in the diplomatic rupture. This has created the gravest Middle East crisis in years, whose first casualty could well be the US effort to forge a broad coalition against the Caliphate in Iraq and the Levant. As The New York Times report pointed out, warplanes from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE can no longer visit the US base in Qatar while air, sea and land travel to and from Qatar is forbidden by its previous allies.

In April, DU30 made an unsolicited offer to send Philippine troops to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar to fight whatever wars they had or were planning to have. Everybody was kind enough to ignore him at that time. There was no need for Filipino mercenaries then, there is no need for them now. But the situation there has certainly gotten worse, while ours is no better. We can only hope that in the Middle East as in Manila and Mindanao, all will recognize that the IS is the enemy, which must unite rather than divide peoples and nations.

fstatad@gmail.com

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