The Sunni coalition

Qatar’s foreign policy is nuanced and balances seemingly contradictory interests.

A man walks past Qatar Airways office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 5, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man walks past Qatar Airways office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 5, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There has been much talk of late about a coalition of “moderate” Sunni states that actively opposes Iran’s influence in the region and seeks to stamp out Islamist radicalism and terrorism. Now we have proof that this “coalition” is not just a notion or a concept on paper, but is alive and kicking.
On Monday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain announced they would sever their ties with Qatar, accusing the wealthy Gulf Arab state of supporting terrorism.
The three Gulf states gave Qatari visitors and residents two weeks to leave their countries. All four states announced they would close transport ties with Qatar.
“[Qatar] embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and al-Qaida, and promotes the message and schemes of these groups through their media constantly,” a Saudi news agency said.
The move by the four Sunni states was apparently triggered by remarks by Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, including on Twitter. During the recent summit in Riyadh with US President Donald Trump, Thani was quoted as saying that it was not smart to be at odds with Iran. Thani also reportedly opposed including Hezbollah and Hamas on the list of terrorist organizations.
Qatar claimed that Thani’s Twitter account had been breached and that he had not sent out the messages. But the Saudis and other leaders rejected the Qatari claim, citing similar statements made in the past.
Qatar’s foreign policy is nuanced and balances seemingly contradictory interests. On one hand, Qatar is host to the largest US military base in the Middle East, has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in the US economy, maintains ties with Israel and joined the anti-Iranian coalition created by the Saudis a year and a half ago.
At the same time, Qatar and Iran jointly own the world’s largest natural gas field. The two also signed a military cooperation deal. Qatar is also a major supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, which are considered terrorist organizations by Egypt and the Saudis.
Qatar also funds rebel groups aligned with al-Qaida that are fighting against the Assad regime in Syria. Qatar cooperates with Turkey in its war against Assad, while at the same time the country has worked as a broker between Assad and the rebel groups.
Particularly galling for many Sunni states is Qatar’s success with al-Jazeera, which has been used not only to influence Arab world opinion but also to undermine a number of Arab nations. The media outlet uncovered purported ties between Jordan and the Zionist movement during Israel’s formative years. And investigative pieces reported on corruption in Saudi Arabia.
Egypt broke ties with Qatar in the past over al-Jazeera’s positive coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly during the time the political movement took control of Egypt’s government after winning elections.
Now Qatar is being pressured to choose sides. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Sunni states are now demanding that Qatar commit to towing the line against Iran and Hezbollah and against Sunni terrorist groups affiliated with ISIS, al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a testament to the strength of the coalition spoken about by Trump during the recent summit in Riyadh – a coalition which happens to dovetail with Israeli interests almost perfectly.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain take seriously the threats presented by Iran and by various terrorist groups, whether they be Sunni or Shi’ite.
It is overly simplistic to split the region between Shi’ites and Sunnis.
There are Shi’ites who have fought together with the US against Saddam Hussein and against Sunni groups. And there are Sunnis who are adamantly anti-American and espouse a nihilistic ideology. The distinction that should be made is between those who support terrorism of all forms – whether it be committed by Sunnis or Shi’ites and those who don’t.
Qatar is under pressure to commit to a Middle East order that promotes and defends the sovereignty of nations and opposes Iran’s destabilizing actions along with those of the many terrorist organizations active in the region. And this is a positive sign that a coalition of “moderate” Sunni nations is not just a notion or a concept. It is a concrete reality that advances Israeli and US interests.