• Why Marawi? And why Qatar?

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    FRANCISCO S. TATAD

    FRANCISCO S. TATAD

    Writer’s note: In yesterday’s issue, The Manila Times wrote: “Palace denies Tatad’s claim Duterte had mild stroke.” I never made any such claim. I reported on Monday, quoting Cabinet sources, what Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr. was said to have told some members of the Cabinet last Friday about the President’s health. Nothing would make me happier than to know the President never visited Cardinal Santos Medical Center, and never had any procedure of any kind. Mr. Evasco will have to deny ever having talked to his colleagues about the President’s condition. My first problem though is that my sources, both in Malacanang and at Cardinal, are not ready to disown their story. My second problem is that more people may want to believe what I write than what they hear from the presidential spokesman.

    This, however, is not our topic today.

    WHAT people are asking about Marawi City they are also asking about the Gulf states. The question is, why Marawi? And why Qatar? Same question, but different answers—-if we could get to the answers.

    The beautiful Islamic city in Lanao del Sur (Mindanao) has been reduced to a deadly desert, with hundreds of dead and nearly all of its 200,000 inhabitants displaced, after four weeks of intense fighting between the Philippine military and the Islamic State-influenced Maute terror group. Why did these Islamist extremists target this Muslim city rather than any other city of this predominantly Christian country, if their real purpose, however misdirected, was to demonstrate the power and might of Islam against the rest of the world?

    This is not so easy to plumb. Now, if they had not hesitated to destroy the country’s most beautiful Islamic city, what would prevent them from wanting to destroy some other, non-Islamic city or cities? Certainly, the danger of a future attack in a yet undisclosed place looms in the dark. This is what the Duterte government and the nation can only prepare for, but not correctly predict.

    Shattered solidarity
    In the Persian Gulf, the IS has not struck, but the solidarity of the neighboring states has been torn apart by unsubstantiated accusations against Qatar of alleged support for the IS. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have severed diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar after alleging, without proof, that the tiny rich state has been “supporting terrorists.” They were joined by Egypt, Yemen, the eastern government of Libya, Maldives, Mauritania and Senegal; Jordan and Djibouti merely downgraded their ties.

    On the other hand, many countries have expressed sympathy and support for Qatar and called for an end to the “diplomatic blockade” through “constructive dialogue.” Some have called the diplomatic blockade a “new Berlin wall” which needs to be brought down. Kuwait, a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has initiated active mediation efforts, and this has gained the support of many, including UN Secretary General António Guterres, King Abdullah II of Jordan, King Mohamed VI of Morocco, French President Emmanuel Macron, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, etc.

    No particulars till now
    But after nearly three weeks into the crisis, the three Gulf states have yet to release a bill of particulars against the Doha government. The US State Department has expressed puzzlement over this failure, so have other governments. Aside from dismissing offhand the loose accusation of “supporting terrorists,” Qatar has said nothing more on the alleged reason for the “blockade.” The government has ordered an investigation into the alleged hacking of Qatar News Agency to manufacture false statements attributed to the Emir, Sheikh Tanim bin Hamad Al Thani, and to his Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, which were not complimentary to US President Donald Trump and some of the GCC states.

    The investigation is still ongoing, but available evidence, according to Qatar’s Attorney General Ali Bin Fetais al-Marri on Tuesday, shows that “certain iPhones originating from countries laying siege to Qatar were used in the hack of Qatar News Agency.” But if “fake news” had a major role to play at the beginning of the crisis, it seems to play an even bigger role today. The world continues to be bombarded with false stories saying that many of Qatar’s 2.33 million population are starving, and the food shelves are empty.

    Fake news continues to play
    The exact opposite is true. The emirate is well stocked, and many countries are shipping in food. Shipments are coming in from Turkey and Morocco; Iran has brought in five planeloads; 12 vessels from Oman have brought in 300 containers.

    I wanted an answer to the “why?”, so I spoke to Ambassador Ali Ibrahim Al Malki, Qatar’s ambassador to the Philippines, at his residence on Tuesday. He was most accommodating, but I could sense that to the Doha government, their neighbors’ actions remained a complete “mystery.” Do they have any long simmering conflicts or rivalries? None that should have caused this kind of bitterness on the part of the others.

    As a Filipino, I have a deep appreciation for the way the Qatari and Saudi governments have taken care of the Filipinos working and living there. There are 260,000 Filipinos in Qatar, 800,000 in Saudi Arabia. While I do not wish to take any side in this conflict, I cannot be indifferent to the fact that in the whole Middle East, it is only in Doha where the Emir had personally built a Catholic church so that the Filipinos and other nationalities could practice their faith openly and freely.

    I feel even more strongly about this today after speaking with some Capuchin priests yesterday, who had just sent off their fellow Capuchin, Father Rally Gonzaga, who was returning to his church in Doha. I could be completely wrong, but I cannot imagine such a government supporting terrorism. Nor can I imagine the US treating Qatar as a strategic partner in the global fight against terrorism, if it were bankrolling any terrorists. After all, it was President George W. Bush who launched the global war on terror after al-Qaida attacked the US on Sept. 11, 2001.

    The Emir as Catholic patron
    In retaliation for the 3,000 deaths or so and the massive destruction at the World Trade Center building in New York and the Pentagon at Washington DC, the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and “weapons of mass destruction.” If Qatar had anything at all to do with IS, the US would have been the first to know and would have destroyed it as an enemy, instead of making it a strategic partner. And yet Qatar hosts the US Central Command’s forward headquarters at Al Udeid Air Base, from which the US Air Force flies many missions.

    And just a few days ago, US Defense Secretary James Mattis signed an agreement with Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah in Washington DC on the purchase of US F-15 fighter jets for $12 billion. At the same time, two US naval vessels have arrived in Doha for joint naval exercises with the Qatari Emiri Navy. According to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatar along with Turkey has taken “the most determined stand against the terror organization Daesh (the other name for IS).”

    Saudi’s own experience
    Ironically, Qatar’s principal accuser Saudi Arabia has also been accused of financing al-Qaida in 9/11. Certain quarters claimed that the US Joint Inquiry Report into 9/11, released by Sen. Bob Graham and Sen. Richard Shelby in December 2002, contained a whole section of 28 pages that was allegedly damaging to Saudi Arabia, but which had been excised from the report on orders of the White House. A letter from the US Senate, signed by Senators Joe Biden of Delaware, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Hillary Clinton of New York, and others, had asked the White House to declassify the 28 pages, but without success.

    As pressure mounted for the publication of the redacted pages, President Obama ordered Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who later became a member of the US Supreme Court, to file a legal brief urging the courts to prevent any of the 9/11 families from suing any Saudi government official on the ground that they enjoyed sovereign immunity.

    Together with Kuwait and Oman, the three Gulf states and Qatar organized the GCC in Riyadh in May 1981 to promote stronger brotherhood and cooperation among the six Arab neighbors. They had since provided the best shining example of a closely knit family of like-minded nations in the Middle East. But on June 5, the three Gulf states cut off land, air and sea travel to and from Qatar, and gave its diplomats 48 hours to leave their posts, and its citizens living and working in these countries two weeks to do the same.

    Lately, Saudi Arabia expelled 12,000 camels, and 5,000 sheep and their Qatari herders, and barred Qatari Muslims from going to Mecca. In Bahrain, a human rights lawyer was arrested for challenging the sanctions against Qatar. In Doha, the national football team was threatened with disciplinary action from FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) for wearing T-shirts showing support for the Emir during a warm-up for a World Cup qualifier. Doha will host the World Cup in 2022.

    An extreme measure
    The reported ban on pilgrims appears to be rather extreme. Pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam, the others being belief in one God (Allah) and in Mohammed his prophet; prayer (salat); alms-giving (zakat); and fasting (sawm) as observed during Ramadan. Muslims have to visit Mecca at least once in their lifetime. Although the King of Saudi Arabia, as custodian of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, regulates the number of pilgrims who may be admitted to Mecca at any one time, because of the sheer number of pilgrims, Muslims from a particular country have not been barred before for similar reasons.

    Qatar is the world’s second largest producer of helium, the gas used to cool superconducting magnets in medical magnetic imaging scanners (MRI), as a lifting gas in airships and balloons, as a gas to breathe in deep-sea diving and to keep satellite instruments cool. With the closure of Saudi Arabia’s border with Qatar, it has been forced to close down two helium production plants whose product can only be transported overland across the border. With the plants’ closure, at least 25 percent of the world’s supply of the gas is gone.

    The expulsion of diplomats from their posts is nothing unusual. But the expulsion of Qatari nationals living and working in the three Gulf states is unprecedented in the history of neighbors that are not at war. So, it appears, is the unilateral ban on Qatar Airways from Saudi, UAE and Bahrain civil airspace, without the sanction of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal.

    For its part, Qatar has declared it will not expel citizens of any country that has severed or suspended ties with it. It has not even used strong language to respond to its neighbors. The only apparent sharp reponse Qatar took was when it pulled out its 450 peacekeeping force from the Djibouti-Eritrea border after the two conflicted African states took Saudi’s side against it.

    “We are one family,” said one diplomat, “we are going through some difficulties now, but the best is yet to come.” If anything can work, Qatar’s mild and non-confrontational approach should do it, not only to end the Gulf crisis but also to provide a model for others who may be going through a similar patch.

    fstatad@gmail.com

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