Last week, in an unexpected move, the Saudis recalled their ambassador to Doha, a move that was meant to signal their displeasure with current Qatari regional policies. The UAE and Bahrain joined the bandwagon as well, as they too recalled their diplomatic envoys.
Stating that Qatar had not abided to the principles of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and not taken the appropriate steps to ensure the security of the GCC states, the Saudi Press Agency said the move was taken “to protect their security and stability” of the three GCC states.
Charging that Qatar failed to implement previous agreements on regional issues, the Saudi statement asserted that “Unfortunately, these efforts did not result in Qatar’s agreement to abide by these measures, which prompted the three countries to start what they saw as necessary, to protect their security and stability, by withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar starting from today, March 5 2013.”
In justifying this dramatic step, the Saudi statement added that the GCC members who had adopted this policy had “exerted massive efforts to contact Qatar on all levels to agree on a unified policy... to ensure non-interference, directly or indirectly, in the internal affairs of any member state,” and had also requested Qatar, “not to support any party aiming to threaten security and stability of any GCC member.”
The Saudi statement stressed that despite the commitment of Qatar’s Emir Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani to these principles during a mini-summit held in Riyadh in November with Kuwait’s emir and King Abdullah, his country had failed to carry out the implementation of the agreement.
The three member states resorted to this diplomatic initiative after several attempts to “persuade Qatar to remain within the fold of the GCC in its overall policies toward the Arab region, mainly to withdraw its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and stop being a launching pad for dissidents and activists not only in the wider Arab region but also in the Gulf itself.”
The Qatari reaction to the recent diplomatic move was one of “regret and surprise.” In an official statement, Qatar said that it was “absolutely keen on brotherly ties between the Qatari people and fellow brotherly people of the GCC, which prevent Qatar from taking a similar procedure of recalling its ambassadors.”
Ties with Doha by some GCC member states have been swinging on a pendulum in recent times. A month ago, the Qatari ambassador to the UAE was summoned and handed an official memorandum “protesting statements made by the Doha-based religious cleric Yousuf Al Qaradawi against the Gulf state.”
The UAE recently sentenced some 30 Emiratis and Egyptians to jail time from three months to five years for “organising a Muslim Brotherhood unit.”
Qatar’s open-ended long-time support of Islamist groups of various factions plays a worrisome scenario on its GCC neighbours who fear that such support would embolden fanatics within their own populace to stir up trouble.
The Saudis have been victims of Al Qaida-sponsored terror activities and are perhaps the most concerned by such Qatari support. They also consider the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation that has been banned in their country, as a threat to their national security. [Saudi Arabia on Friday listed the Muslim Brotherhood and two Syrian jihadist groups as terrorist organisations .]
The Saudis are also irritated by some of the hostile commentary directed at them by Doha’s Al Jazeera network, a channel widely viewed around the region, and have on more than one occasion protested at what they thought was blatantly distorted reporting on Saudi affairs.
This annoyance goes back a long way. In 2002, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Doha after protesting over broadcasts by the Qatari sponsored channel Al Jazeera which criticised the kingdom and its founding king. The status quo remained in effect for some five years.
Dr Mustafa Alani, a scholar at the Gulf Research Centre in Geneva, believes that the Saudis and UAE are upset because Qatar did not join Egypt in declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist threat.
“Qatar has never hidden [its] support of the Muslim Brotherhood. In all the other countries, Qaradawi and his like are on the black list, but the Qataris give this man a platform to attack and criticise the security policies of the other states in the Gulf. The Qataris are not toeing the line,” he asserted.
Differences of opinion within GCC states are nothing new. Oman had recently begun to express its differences publicly. It rejected the integration of Jordan and Morocco into a new GCC, and Kuwait was not accommodating to the concept as well.
Oman was also seen as welcoming direct talks between the US and Iran over their nuclear arsenal, a departure from the policies of some GCC states who remain suspicious of Iran’s intentions. The single unit currency that was long touted by financial figures within the GCC is also becoming more of a pipe dream.
So where does that leave the GCC today? One must not quickly assume that current differences would lead to irreversible divisions. The union is still tightly bonded by a common people with family ties with each other. What is going on now must not transcend a “family matter”, a spat within the family that would eventually be sorted out to address the concerns of all its members. In a region that has not been tranquil for some decades, too much is at stake to let current emotions run the course of the future.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena