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‘Caesar’ evidence for atrocities in Syria: what does justice require?

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Photo by shosh.org.uk

By: Tim Hayward

The photos brought to public attention in January 2014 by the anonymous witness codenamed ‘Caesar’ show corpses, thousands in number, deceased from violent causes, some bearing signs of torture and many having suffered starvation and neglect.[1] The dead are said to be victims of Syrian state detention facilities, but it is now known that many were not, and it is still not known for sure how many of them were.[2] If the atrocity of the crimes to which the photos attest is in no doubt, the question of who perpetrated them is less clear-cut. Yet Western reports have unequivocally blamed the ‘Assad regime’. A counter-hypothesis, hardly considered in public discussions, is that many of the bodies were of civilians captured by Jaish al-Islam (JAI) after taking control of Douma in December 2012. JAI are known to have starved their captives while using them as slave labourers, which they did on a scale monumental enough to create the extraordinary network of deep and impressively engineered tunnels that we now see had been built across the area under their control.[3] Nevertheless, a Qatari-sponsored prosecution team vouched for the Caesar evidence as being ‘capable of being believed’ – in a court of law – to show ‘systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government.’[4] The Western media’s subsequent dissemination of the prosecutors’ interpretation of the images – unchallenged – caused it to be widely believed in the ‘court of public opinion’. Despite significant unsettled and unsettling questions, then, a particular account of what the images show has exercised considerable influence over people’s default assumptions about accountability for atrocities in Syria.

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It is the influence of this specific interpretation of evidence that will be reflected on here, and without prejudice as to what may be established about occurrences in Syrian detention on other bases.[5] Questions about the Caesar evidence point up concerns about the extent to which the dissemination of inaccurate information might have distorted the written historical record of our times and how it may have practically influenced real decisions and events. It matters to get at the truth about the photos for those reasons, as well as for the sake of families whose loved ones have disappeared, but there is also a further reason. This concerns a use made of Caesar’s testimony that may affect the future course of history too. It is the promotion by Western prosecutors of judicial innovation in the pursuit of accountability for atrocity crimes. The purpose of this article is to set out how and why that is a concern, and fundamentally one about justice.

To situate the discussion it will be worth briefly outlining the contrasting kinds of reception the Caesar testimony has received – affirmative versus sceptical – and then also pointing to a much less noticed reception, one of significant silence. For there is an identifiable group of usually vocal critics of the Syrian president and government that has refrained from mentioning the name Caesar. This in itself could be somewhat revealing about what intelligence that group accepts as authoritative. But it also throws into relief the distinctive commitments of another group who, by contrast, have made considerable use of the Caesar name. It is they who have, for instance, provided the impetus behind successful lobbying for the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act in the United States. Less spectacular, but of potentially more enduring international significance, is dissemination of Caesar’s narrative in a wider campaign aimed at creating increasingly flexible mechanisms for international criminal prosecutions.[6] Billed by some as a progressive and cosmopolitan approach to ‘global justice’ that sets human rights above the prerogative of despots, this movement might more cautiously be assessed as legitimising ‘regime change’ by means of judicial innovation. Such use of the Caesar testimony could serve not only to delegitimise the current president of Syria but also to enhance the possibility of delegitimising any head of state. This would be at the initiative of prosecution teams who themselves are accountable to their clients and sponsors rather than to the victims of conflict or to principles of humanitarian justice. The argument thus to be developed in this article commends caution about both the evidentiary value of the Caesar testimony and the intentions of those who have most vocally asserted it.

I

The basic outline of Caesar’s story can be sketched quite succinctly. According to the testimony attributed to Caesar, he had been working as a military photographer in Damascus, where his job was to photograph the dead for purposes of state record keeping. In 2011, concerned at the number of deceased, and the visible indications of torture and starvation, he started smuggling digital files of the images to a contact, now referred to as Sami, who passed them to the Syrian National Movement (SNM). In August 2013, the SNM facilitated Caesar’s extrication from Syria, to be followed shortly after by his immediate family members. The SNM, although based in Turkey, was backed by Qatar, and the Qatari government hired a team of lawyers and forensic specialists to assess the credibility of the witness and his evidence as a basis for potential prosecutions. In a matter of days the team pronounced Caesar’s evidence ‘capable of being believed’ in a court.[7] Caesar was then taken to Washington on a visit facilitated by Mouaz Moustafa, director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a US State Department sponsored organisation representing some of the anti-government forces in Syria. When giving testimony there, Caesar’s face was concealed and his words were whispered to Moustafa, who acted as translator. After appearing in several other high profile venues with similar arrangements for anonymity, Caesar withdrew from the limelight.

Man credited with smuggling 50,000 photos said to document Syrian government atrocities, a Syrian Army defector known by protective alias Caesar, listens to interpreter as he prepares to speak at briefing to House Foreign Affairs Committee

Meanwhile, an influential section of United States political opinion has pronounced itself confident enough in the witness Caesar to enact legislation in his name – the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act – aimed at enforcing ‘accountability’ measures on Syria. The lead author of the Caesar Report, David Crane, has spoken of the photographic evidence as a ‘smoking gun’, words echoed by Keith Harper, US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). Stephen Rapp, the former US Ambassador At Large for War Crimes, has stated that the photos help to provide ‘much better evidence than has been available to prosecutors anywhere since Nuremberg’.[8] Prosecution teams in Europe have also attributed great value to the photos as evidence of atrocity crimes.[9] Among the lawyers prominent in promoting the prosecutorial value of the Caesar evidence are Toby Cadman,[10] Wolfgang Kaleck[11] and Patrick Kroker.[12] Meanwhile, the NGO Human Rights Watch produced its own report claiming to validate some of the Caesar evidence.[13] A number of journalists have also expressed themselves convinced, including Richard Engel, who has met ‘Caesar’, and Josh Rogin, Ben Taub, Susie Linfield,[14] Nick Robins-Early,[15] Adam Ciralsky,[16] Jim Muir for the BBC,[17] as well as many more contributors to news outlets including Spiegel,[18] Daily Mail,[19] CNN.[20] Garance le Caisne wrote a book on Operation Caesar, and documentary films featuring it include Sara Afshar’s Syria’s Disappeared. Affirmation of the evidence has made its way into academic publications too. Some of this has come from people involved in organisations campaigning for an approach to justice and accountability for atrocity crimes that allows implementation of a ‘responsibility to prosecute’. Those with this interest include prosecution lawyers and advisors like Stephen Rapp, David Crane, Wolfgang Kaleck, Patrick Kroker, and Beth Van Schaack. Other academics who have cited the Caesar evidence uncritically, treating it as part of an established factual record, include: Noha Aboueldahab;[21] Jamie Allinson;[22] Adam Bazco, Gilles Dorronsoro and Arthur Quesnay;[23] Nader Hashemi;[24] Bessma Momani and Tanzeel Hazak;[25] Chris Tenove;[26] and Thomas Weiss.[27] Some academics have cited the HRW report rather than the original Caesar Report, even if, like Van Schaack,[28] they apparently did not notice how HRW had significantly modified some of the original report’s claims, such as the 11,000 victims figure that HRW corrected down. In all, it can certainly be said that Operation Caesar has made its way into publications that will be regarded as laying down the historical record.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Even the initial reception was cautious in some quarters. One reason was the revelation that Operation Caesar had been initiated by Qatar, a country that had been providing funds – now known to be in the billions of dollars – to opposition fighters aiming to bring down the government of Bashar al-Assad. There were also the questions, flagged at the start of this article, that are simply begged by appeals – of Rapp and others – to the confirmation by the FBI that the photos showed real dead people.[29] Other serious concerns have been set out in detail by Rick Sterling[30] and Adam Larson[31], but an elementary and conspicuous one is the unconvincing justification for Caesar’s anonymity, which serves to prevent any rigorous independent questioning of his story. The rationale given for secrecy appears to depend on the implausible proposition that a photographer in the state’s employ could go missing and yet not be missed. A result of the anonymity is that the public ultimately has to place a lot of trust in the competence, integrity and good faith of the people translating and relaying the story. Given that these are people pressing a case for the prosecution, it would be only proper to allow a full examination of the methods they have deployed in presenting their case. From a defence perspective, it would be hard to ignore facts like prime mover Rapp and the fixer and translator Moustafa having been among the most persistent lobbyists on Capitol Hill for regime change – previously in Libya and then in Syria. Rapp, furthermore, has been campaigning for changes in international criminal law that would lower the barriers to prosecution for atrocity crimes. Even their allies in the quest to prosecute Assad have expressed reservations. Notably, the directors of the organisations gathering the documentary evidence that Rapp finds the necessary complement of Caesar’s evidence have been quite clear on the point. Thus Bill Wiley, director of the Europe-based Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) has said ‘would it make a case against Assad? No, not at all, not at all.’[32] Wiley’s counterpart in America, Mohammad al-Abdallah – director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre – is also deeply sceptical of the photos’ evidentiary value.[33]

II

The central concern of this study can now be further delineated by reference to a group of social media commentators who, to my initial surprise, have appeared to accept that point. This is a group of people who are generally vocal in matters relating to the war in Syria and would not typically pass up an opportunity to highlight crimes alleged of the Syrian president and government. This group would include Idrees Ahmad, Eliot Higgins, Oz Katerji, Scott Lucas, George Monbiot,[34] Thomas Pierret and Robin Yassin-Kassab. None of them – as far as I can discern – has ever referred to Caesar.[35] The most natural explanation would be that each has individually examined the Caesar Report and decided it did indeed give rise to the critical concerns that sceptics have identified. However, the same people have been prepared to refer to the HRW report that validates the Caesar evidence, even though it does not address the critical questions. It is as if they are aware that particulars of the Caesar story may be vulnerable to being discredited but they are satisfied that the reputation of the NGO makes it safe to cite as an authority.

What makes this anomalous is that similar caution does not come into play for members of the group with regard to other operations that are no less controversial. A notable example would be the White Helmets. The idea that the White Helmets organisation consists of unarmed humanitarian volunteers devoted to altruistic and impartial service of their home communities is demonstrably misleading in that the funding, coordination and training comes from abroad, its recruits are paid, and they do not represent or serve all sections of Syrian society. If some of the men may simply be carrying out the tasks they are ostensibly paid to, others have appeared to bear arms and to collaborate with militant extremists. Some have been accused of crimes, including serious ones, and there are even questions about whether some may have been involved in committing atrocities. In short, if one sees reason to be cautious about the credibility of Caesar it would be consistent and reasonable to be cautious about the White Helmets too.

In order to try and resolve the anomaly, it is worth considering another feature of the White Helmets operation that invites comparison with the Caesar narrative:

‘Like Caesar, the White Helmets—also known as the Syrian Civil Defense forces—have become inadvertent documentarians. … White Helmet volunteers have testified before the Security Council, in capitals, and elsewhere and provided photographs and videos of the aftermath of attacks that have helped to shed light on chemical weapon use.’[36]

This documentary role – ‘inadvertent’ or otherwise – has not been lost on promoters of the two operations. Of the Caesar exhibition, Van Schaack observes ‘Such displays respond to the behavioral psychology research on the “picture superiority effect,” which teaches that humans respond to photos more viscerally than to text.’ Of the White Helmets, James Le Mesurier has explained how, in 2012, the security firm he then co-directed, ARK FZC, consulted global market research showing that military and security actors were least likely to win public trust whereas first responders are the most trusted.[37] Thereupon ARK created the White Helmets, and Le Mesurier subsequently formed the Netherlands-registered non-profit Mayday Rescue to manage them (although he was funded from sources like the UK FCO through his company Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC based in a UAE tax haven). As documentarians, the White Helmets have had a much more widespread and sustained impact than Operation Caesar.

So there are some differences worth reflecting on. First, the publicity value of the Caesar images needs no narrative or naming, no due process or due diligence to underwrite, since it is immediate and visceral. The name that needs to be tagged to those images, moreover, is not Caesar but Assad.[38] People don’t need to be kept in mind of the codename for an operation but they do need to have in mind a constant association of those terrible images with the name of Assad. Seen in this light, therefore, silence about Caesar is an entirely consistent element of an anti-Assadist strategy to influence public opinion. By contrast, although the White Helmets also make considerable use of imagery,[39] their narrative and their projected identity are necessary for situating and making sense of the images. Moreover, they are protagonists of their own narrative and have remained in situ to cover continuing developments on the ground (even if they have had to move towns as battle lines have shifted). Their trustworthiness being necessary for the effect of their message, it has been vigorously defended even in the face of serious criticisms. So it is not so surprising, after all, that activists and publicists who have avoided getting drawn into discussion of the Caesar narrative stand firm in defence of the White Helmets narrative.

But if the preference for the White Helmets over Caesar is explicable in those terms, what then needs to be understood is why some other people have nevertheless so actively promoted the Caesar narrative. If the initial purpose of promoting it was to press President Obama’s administration to take a more active interventionist approach to Syria, then it had already failed, and Caesar was not in a position to produce any new evidence. In seeking an explanation it is worth reflecting on who has been most active and consistent in promoting Operation Caesar – from its inception to this day.

III

The lead author of the Qatari-commissioned Caesar report is David Crane, and he also leads the Syrian Accountability Project (SAP), which he founded some time prior to Caesar’s defection.[40] SAP is said to be student-run and its clients include the Syrian National Council and US State Department.[41] It also ‘works very closely with’ the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, which in turn is a conduit of US funding to CIJA. Incidentally, Rapp, Crane, and fellow Caesar Report author Desmond De Silva, were all previously successive holders of the same job, namely, chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.[42] The man who brought Caesar from his Qatari handlers to the West, and accompanied him on tour, even providing his voice, is Mouaz Moustafa. Moustafa’s constant companion on the tour – which has included visits to the UK Foreign Office – is Rapp. Rapp was also involved in founding the organisation supplying the documentary evidence that is a sine qua non for the legal effect of Caesar materials. Now known as CIJA, that organisation grew out of Wiley’s collaboration at ARK FZC with the UK FCO’s go-to contractor, the former diplomat Alistair Harris, who through his ARK business also founded the White Helmets and other Syria security and ‘stabilisation’ projects. Harris, a man of ideas and advocacy as well as action, was co-author with Cadman and Moustafa of a 2013 paper for RUSI urging that it was not too soon to start implementing transitional justice in Syria; and Harris’s ARK has been a conduit of funding – received from US as well as UK – for Moustafa’s organization SETF. As for the European prosecutions, and related initiatives pressing for ‘universal jurisdiction,’ Rapp is there too a constant and inspirational presence.

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Rapp’s core ambition is not focused exclusively on President Assad. He advocates in more general terms a principle of ‘no peace without justice’, which he interprets as implying a ‘responsibility to prosecute’ whose ultimate implications would be to enhance the legitimacy of externally imposed regime change operations on any nation – not just Syria – whose leadership is deemed to be oppressing its people and standing in the way of democracy and freedom. It may be noted that Rapp has been part of on-going high level US deliberations about how to finesse that nation’s awkward situation of wanting to see other countries’ leaders prosecuted while not itself even signing up to the existing procedures that are provided by the International Criminal Court (ICC). This conundrum has exercised the American elite for some years, and Rapp appears committed to a solution that lies in promoting innovative jurisprudence and hybrid courts. It would be facilitated by the emergence of a principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’, a principle that has gained particular traction in Germany, and some in other European countries too, like Spain, France and Sweden,[43] where the Caesar materials have apparently been deployed in courts.

In short, there is discernible an aim here of redefining the rules of the ‘rules-based international order’, with particular relevance to who shall be permitted to govern a country.[44] This is to press for global rules that override the powers of nation-states – a development whose effects are akin to what is already being accomplished through trade and investment agreements like TTP and TTIP by imposing rules of corporate globalism on nations with compliant governments. Thus, from the standpoint of concern to serve US-based corporate interests, there is more at stake than the matter of who should be president of Syria.

IV

Viewed from that perspective, Operation Caesar appears as a particular expedient in relation to a particular recalcitrant nation-state. The Caesar materials are likely to have little or no direct legal effect to that end, however, according to Wiley, and will not make a case against Assad in courts. What the images do is harness powerful human emotion to the case. And it is entirely fitting that great human emotion should be stirred by images of human atrocities, as it may also be fitting that justice and accountability should be sought. If war crimes are committed, justice arguably requires accountability for them,[45] and so the value of evidence has to be assessed on its merits, and that means creating opportunities for such an assessment – even, conceivably, by deploying innovative judicial means.

I would just add that there are also other important considerations to keep in mind.

First, justice has to be assiduously sought by means that are rigorously directed to the pursuit of truth. This would be a sine qua non for just retribution. The pursuit of justice requires great scrupulousness of method and honesty of intent; it entails respecting the presumption of innocence, ensuring procedures are impartial and consistent, with due transparency and openness. These are qualities that need ensuring and cannot be assumed to follow from initiatives of ‘innovation’ that are pursued by special interest groups as is a concern about Operation Caesar.

Second is the need in due process to reserve judgement as to the honesty and intentions of witnesses to any alleged crime, pending their evidence being put to the test in a properly constituted hearing. For the purposes of justice it is never to be assumed that all people at all times act honestly and in good faith, for it is precisely because they do not that institutions of justice are required to provide a remedy. Thus a requisite degree of realism in retributive justice has always to attend to motivations, including thoughts about deterrents and incentives. As well as this general concern there is in the present context also a more specific kind of concern. It is a fact that deceptive events are sometimes staged, including by way of what are referred to as false flag operations. Regarding many of the various accusations of atrocity crimes levelled against the Syrian government there are reasonable grounds for doubt, and justice certainly requires that no blanket presumption be made about the dependability of testimony from witnesses like the White Helmets or Caesar.

Third, although the Caesar evidence, like that of the White Helmets, has never been tested in a properly constituted court of law, it has sounded very loudly in the media and has thus exercised a determinate influence on the ‘court of public opinion’. The media reports that shape public opinion, however, often appear to have scant regard for truth or accuracy, let alone justice. Insofar as promoters of prosecutions against state leaders are also seeking to use ‘innovative’ forms of justice effectively to lower the barrier to effective prosecutions, it could be perceived as extremely prejudicial that they are able to make their case so unrestrainedly to the wider public ahead of any properly constituted hearing.

Fourth, there is the distinct possibility that under circumstances where not only is public opinion manipulated but also political agendas are promoted, the communications can even provide incentives to stage harmful acts as false flag operations. Specifically, the pronouncement of red lines can favour this effect. There are strong grounds for suspicion that in practice this effect has operated from time to time in Syria, as elsewhere, and a simple logic of incentives does nothing to assuage such suspicions. It is therefore a matter of serious concern that the informal penumbra of ‘justice and accountability’ talk that goes to support the imposition of ‘red lines’ could be not only prejudicial to the trying of crimes that have occurred but potentially be used to support incentives for crimes to be committed.

The fifth point is the most important of all. Concerns about justice and accountability for war crimes are ultimately about acting on behalf of the moral conscience of humanity. If any given war crime shocks the human conscience, then so much more ought the very occurrence of war itself do so, especially when it is not clearly just or necessary. If war crimes have been committed in Syria it is because there has been a war in Syria – a war that need never have been but for the provocations and facilitations of external actors. If we truly want to hold people responsible for war crimes, then should we not attribute great responsibility to those whose actions are among the root causes of them? Let us bear in mind, for instance, that Qatar was the biggest supplier of funds and arms to the enemies of Syria’s government, and that the United States has been a major orchestrator of international collaboration to delegitimise that government. With such facts in mind, it can be argued that for agents of those states to be producing evidence to accuse Syria of war crimes is to add moral insult to injury. Had these states not promoted an armed insurgency in the first place, there would have been no war and thus no war crimes in Syria. They certainly have earned no benefit of the doubt regarding the anonymous, secretive and unverifiable testimony their agents jointly presented in Operation Caesar.

On this last point, it is further interesting to note that we in the West do not receive much unfiltered communication from the side of the defence to these attempted prosecutions. We hear that Syria, Russia, China and various non-aligned countries have forceful reservations but this is always attributed to pure political calculation on their part. ‘They’, it seems, are always subject to conflicts of interest whereas ‘we’, in the West, are concerned only with the pure pursuit of humanitarian justice. Just how far this might be from the truth is glimpsed in the reflections of former international criminal defence lawyer Christopher Black. His considerations of the modus operandi of prominent prosecutors like those pressing the ‘responsibility to prosecute’ as part of an ‘innovative justice’ agenda are sobering, to put it mildly.[46] For present purposes, however, it suffices to have indicated the much bigger game that the Caesar testimony has played a small part in.[47]

In conclusion, I would emphasise that it behoves us to try and be clear about the effects of Operation Caesar and learn lessons from the study of it. Having noted that even vocal critics of Assad and his government avoid appeals to Caesar, and given the serious criticisms made by others, we have good reason to reserve judgement as to its credibility. This means that those who have committed to accrediting it as wholly true have quite possibly disseminated a falsehood. With NGOs, journalists and even academics embedding in it lessons of that possible falsehood, the historical record may already have been distorted in ways that may not be undone. But a still greater concern is that further harms may be generated in the future not only as a result of misinformation but also as a result specifically of what the West’s legal innovators are seeking, which is nothing less than a change in the rules of the ‘rules-based international order’. We already find some scholars of international law viewing such changes as positive steps towards ‘global justice’. This is a matter about which more critical concern should be in evidence than has been to date.

To put bluntly this contextualised concern about Operation Caesar: not only may it already have altered the historical record, and not only may its effects have served to alter somewhat the course of history to date, but in serving to influence decision makers, it may contribute more indelibly to shifting the baseline of normative consensus in a direction favourable to ousting non-compliant leaders of sovereign states. That is effectively to bestow legitimacy on imperialist regime change projects.

What justice meanwhile requires with regard to the ‘Caesar’ evidence is genuine and impartial investigation into the truth about who died and at whose hands. The instrumentalisation of those terrible deaths for the purposes of further destabilizing a country ripped apart by violent forces that are aided and abetted by foreign states – including so-called liberal democracies – is itself an affront to the conscience of humankind.

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[1] For an overview of the story at the time see Ian Black in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/20/evidence-industrial-scale-killing-syria-war-crimes. For a later and fuller reconstruction see Adam Ciralsky in Vanity Fair: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/06/assad-war-crimes-syria-torture-caesar-hospital.

[2] See the Human Rights Watch study of the Caesar evidence: https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/12/16/if-dead-could-speak/mass-deaths-and-torture-syrias-detention-facilities. For a more detailed and critical study of the evidence see the website of Adam Larson: http://libyancivilwar.blogspot.com/search?q=caesar.

Drawing on Larson’s study, Paul McKeigue has summarised what is not in dispute and what other factors should be borne in mind (personal communication) and I follow his advice in the summary that follows.

Not disputed:- The photos show the bodies of at least 5000 adult men at the Damascus military hospital, many of whom have been starved, over a period of about 8 months up to August 2013. Their identities are unknown, and the bodies have been labelled with numbers.

Other factors:- Some of them may be battlefield casualties, although most have no obvious external injuries. Some of them appear to have been gassed while hung upside down. From this, and the signs of prolonged starvation it is clear that most of them were captives. What is not known for certain regarding most of them is whether they were captured and/or killed by the government or by rebel forces (since the fact of being gathered for delivery to the mortuary could apply in either event. Some victims have tattoos indicating they are Christian, Shia or Assad supporters. The picture is further complicated by the fact that there were prisoner swaps between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and JAI in 2013.

Adam Larson (personal communication) adds that there is no semblance of a prison uniform evident in the photos, the men being mainly naked or in underwear, in street clothes or, in a few cases, still in their camouflage military uniforms.

For my part, I do not have the knowledge or expertise to offer an opinion as to the relative likelihoods of the two hypotheses. Nor does my argument depend on the likelihood of the JAI hypothesis being much greater than the official Western hypothesis, as Larson and McKeigue suggest it is. (Nor can some combination of those or other possibilities be definitively ruled out.) My argument relies only on the consideration that a self-consistent and materially possible explanation has not been ruled out while the accepted Western narrative has not been sufficiently established.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgGqwAwJL5M&feature=youtu.be

[4] https://www.carter-ruck.com/images/uploads/documents/Syria_Report-January_2014.pdf

[5] This is a point made particularly effectively by Dan Murphy in an early response to the Caesar evidence: for he declares himself convinced on the basis of reports from other sources that the Syrian security apparatus is in fact responsible for large scale and egregious violation of human rights, and yet he vigorously challenges the credibility of the Caesar Report. https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Security-Watch/Backchannels/2014/0121/Syria-smoking-gun-report-warrants-a-careful-read

[6] These include, most recently, creation of the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM).

[7] https://www.carter-ruck.com/images/uploads/documents/Syria_Report-January_2014.pdf

[8] Rapp in a 2016 interview with Ben Taub in the The New Yorkerhttps://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/04/18/bashar-al-assads-war-crimes-exposed

[9] These include ECCHR https://www.ecchr.eu/en/case/caesar-photos-document-systematic-torture/ and the Guernica teams https://www.guernicagroup.org/syria, and German Public Prosecutors in Karlsruhe https://en.qantara.de/content/assads-crimes-tried-in-german-courts-hoping-for-justice.

[10] Before setting up the Guernica teams, Cadman had been an associate at Cherie Blair’s law firm Omnia and was at the centre of a scandal: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/cherie-blairs-right-hand-man-previously-pitched-to-represent-the-other-side-in-maldives-case-a6779321.html. This is relevant to mention insofar as much of the drive for judicial innovation is based on arguments about humanitarianism and morality that sit uneasily alongside motivations of making business profits.

[11] Wolfgang Kaleck founded the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) together with other internationally renowned lawyers in Berlin in 2007. He has promoted prosecuting on the basis of Caesar evidence https://www.ecchr.eu/nc/en/press-release/torture-in-syria-investigations-in-austria-are-a-first-step-now-arrest-warrants-must-follow/

[12] Patrick Kroker is responsible for ECCHR’s work on Syria. He sets out his perspective in this interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyi3jkDCRlE&feature=youtu.be

[13] https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/12/16/if-dead-could-speak/mass-deaths-and-torture-syrias-detention-facilities.

[14] Susie Linfield in The New York Review of Bookshttps://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/02/09/syrias-torture-photos-witness-to-atrocity/ )

[15] https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/03/28/syria-war-crimes_n_6950660.html

[16] Adam Ciralsky in Vanity Fair: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/06/assad-war-crimes-syria-torture-caesar-hospital.

[17] Jim Muir for the BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25822571

[18] http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/spiegel-reporting-supports-accounts-of-torture-and-execution-in-syria-a-945760.html

[19] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2544711/Starved-tortured-throttled-The-true-horror-Assads-soldiers-execute-rebel-prisoners-revealed-new-images-released-today.html

[20] https://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/20/world/syria-torture-photos-amanpour/index.html t.

[21] Noha Aboueldahab, Writing Atrocities (2018)

[22] Jamie Allinson, ‘Disaster Islamism’ (http://salvage.zone/in-print/disaster-islamism/

[23] Adam Bazco, Gilles Dorronsoro and Arthur Quesnay Civil War in Syria, Cambridge UP 2017.

[24] Nader Hashemi, ‘The ISIS Crisis and the Broken Politics of the Middle East’ http://www.bu.edu/cura/files/2016/12/hashemi-paper1.pdf

[25] Bessma Momani and Tanzeel Hazak, ‘Syria’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Responsibility to Protect Edited by: Alex BellamyTim Dunne 2016 Oxford University Press.

[26] Chris Tenove (2019), ‘Networking justice: digitally-enabled engagement in transitional justice by the Syrian diaspora, Ethnic and Racial Studies’, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2019.1569702

[27] Thomas G. Weiss (2014) ‘Military Humanitarianism: Syria Hasn’t Killed It’, The Washington Quarterly, 37:1.

[28] Beth Van Schaack (2019) ‘Innovations in International Criminal Law Documentation Methodologies and Institutions’ https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3329102

[29] Tim Anderson has commented that ‘we have no way of verifying in which year, circumstance or even which country the photos were taken. Those who finance and arm the sectarian groups have slaughtered hundreds of thousands in recent years, in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. There is no shortage of photos of dead bodies…’ (Tim Anderson ‘The Dirty War on Syria: Barrel Bombs, Partisan Sources and War Propaganda’ Global Research 7 October 2015). However, after a very close study of the photographs, Adam Larson believes that the photos were taken in the Damascus area and that the deaths occurred within that area, mostly in the period from mid-late 2012 to August 2013. This fact, nonetheless, does not make the Syrian government a more likely suspect for their murder than Jaish al-Islam. (Adam Larson, personal communication)

[30] Rick Sterling, ‘The Caesar Photo Fraud that Undermined Syrian Negotiations’ https://dissidentvoice.org/2016/03/the-caesar-photo-fraud-that-undermined-syrian-negotiations/

[31] Adam Larson, ‘Fail Caesar’, in 10 parts: http://libyancivilwar.blogspot.com/search?q=caesar

[32] Wiley interviewed in the Al Jazeera documentary Syria: Witnesses for the Prosecution https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GGK4zrl7P0 ). Speaking at a conference organised by his friend David Crane at Syracuse University, Wiley is clear that for advocacy groups like Amnesty and HRW ‘the burden of proof for the sort of evidence they need for their reports, it is very, very low. … Oftentimes they do allege crimes, in my opinion, incorrectly, but they are just drawing attention to the suffering.’ (19.55) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enJvVvN8thU (Running for Cover conference, Syracuse, 2016)

[33] Mohammad al-Abdallah quoted in Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team (2018) ‘Al-Assad’s crimes in millions of documents: When will accountability start?’ https://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2018/10/al-assads-crimes-in-millions-of-documents-when-will-accountability-start/

[34] For readers not familiar with these debates, but who know Monbiot for his interesting work on environmental issues, his inclusion in this list may be surprising. I for one was very surprised to discover the company he keeps in this matter, and after some rather disagreeable interactions with him on the subject, I did an extended study attempting to understand it: https://timhayward.wordpress.com/2018/04/11/how-we-were-misled-about-syria-george-monbiot-of-the-guardian/

[35] I stand to be corrected on this, of course, and I do note that Caesar has been referred to by Higgins, for instance, in the context of geolocating one of the photos, but without direct comment as to its significance.

[36] Beth Van Schaack (2019) ‘Innovations in International Criminal Law Documentation Methodologies and Institutions’, p.40.

[37] This information comes from an address delivered by Le Mesurier at The Performance Theatre in 2015 [links to the video recording of which appear to have been taken down].

[38] See the discussion in Lissa Johnson, ‘The Psychology of Getting Julian Assange’ Pt 5 https://newmatilda.com/2019/03/25/the-psychology-of-getting-julian-assange-part-5-war-propaganda-101/.

[39] As shown by Simone Rudolphi (2018), ‘Analysis of White Helmets’ Visual Strategy’, Masters Thesis, University of Sunderland.

[40] Already in 2013, before Caesar’s defection, Crane was ‘working with a team of lawyers and civil-society advocates to set up an archive of war crimes and atrocities committed in Syria that could be used as a basis for prosecution.’ As Crane put it, “We former chief prosecutors are like racehorses – you can put us out to pasture but we still want to run.” (https://www.newsweek.com/2013/09/27/david-cranes-prosecution-former-liberian-president-charles-taylor-238008.html)

[41] http://www.iamsyria.org/uploads/1/3/0/2/13025755/syria-sap_general_overview.pdf

[42] http://www.rscsl.org/prosecution.html

[43] Thierry Cruvellier (2019) ‘European Justice Strikes on Crimes in Syria’ https://www.justiceinfo.net/en/tribunals/national-tribunals/40383-european-justice-strikes-on-crimes-in-syria.html

[44] Ultimately, however, what is at stake affects the United States as a nation of people too, since what is driving it is a form of association that knows no national loyalties to any body politic but only to the interests of those with control of the world’s mega-corporations.

[45] I say ‘arguably’, since another view would take justice to have a more complex relationship with peace such as may find some place for the principle of amnesty – forgetting – but the present paper does not call into question the principle of punishing war crimes through due process.

[46] See Christopher Black (2014), ‘Rwanda and the Criminalisation of International Justice: Anatomy of War Crimes Trials’, Global Research https://www.globalresearch.ca/rwanda-and-the-criminalisation-of-international-justice-anatomy-of-war-crimes-trials/5408604 and ‘Rwanda Confronting the 1994 Apocalypse’ https://christopher-black.com/rwanda-confronting-the-1994-apocalypse/

[47] See also the perspective offered by the historian John Laughland on the notion of International Justice, as in this video interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4_J-ZxYnMw

Posted in Middle East, USA, ZIO-NAZI, C.I.A, Qatar, Syria0 Comments

For Women in Qatar, Lockdown Is Nothing New

By News Desk

When it comes to the issue of women’s rights in the Gulf , Saudi Arabia is most frequently cited as the most repressive country in the region, and Qatar is widely regarded as the most modern in terms of human development. Qatar has become somewhat of a darling among Western liberal intelligentsia, likely in part because of the peninsular country’s pumping tens of millions of dollars into Washington D.C.’s most influential Think Tanks, such as Brookings Institution. The United Nations has even lauded Qatar for their efforts to achieve gender equality.

It is certainly true that Qatar, as well as even Saudi Arabia, has instituted a number of legal provisions that promote the empowerment of women. They can own businesses, own property, vote, even hold political positions and judgeships (all of which, when cited as progressive steps, expose just how far away the Gulf is from modern concepts of equality); so Qatar is applauded for taking such bold action on behalf of women. What no one explains, however, is that all of these provisions only grant rights for women in Qatar that their male guardians allow them to exercise.

Everyone knows that women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, but how many people know that Qatar is actually the only Gulf country that still does not allow women to travel without the permission of a male relative? The ban on women driving was repealed some time ago in KSA, and every Gulf nation has lifted the restrictions on women’s travel, except Qatar.Gulf Rivalries Spill onto the Soccer Pitch. The 2022 Tournament in Qatar

Business ownership, voting, owning property, working, going to school, and yes, even driving, are all available to women in Qatar only if their husband, father or brother allows.

Understandably, many Qatari women do not share the West’s admiring view of their country’s treatment of women. Aisha Al Qahtani famously fled to the UK to avoid being forced to return to Doha; just as so many others have fled Qatar’s neighbours.

“It is really quite appalling,” says Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai and founder of Due Process International, “Qatar can seemingly legislate rights for women, all the while winking to the country’s male population because nothing has actually changed. Every woman is ruled by her husband, father or brother regardless of what the law ostensibly provides. They talk about empowering women, but continue to treat them like children.”

Stirling has been involved assisting women escaping oppression in the Gulf as part of her 12 years human rights work in the gulf, including high profile cases such as Princess Latifa, Hind Al Balooki, Dua and Dalal Al-Shweiki and others.

“Every adult person, male or female, must have the right to self-determination, and no one should be allowed to overrule an individual’s choices about their own lives; obviously this cannot apply only to men, and I fail to see how Qatar exceeds any other country in the region when all of the rights that the government has granted them, their male relatives have the right to deny them.

Qatar will be hosting the World Cup, the Qatari royal family owns significant holdings in the United Kingdom, and there is considerable mutual investment and trade. All of this sends a signal of acceptance to Qatar, and is undoubtedly interpreted by Doha as Western approval.

“Our countries have been in lockdown due to the Coronavirus, and the emergency restrictions we have had to accept have reportedly caused drastic increases in mental and emotional health problems, depression, and even suicide; and that is while we know that the situation is temporary. But a person in the West under lockdown has more autonomy and freedom than a woman in Qatar, and her situation is permanent. Of course more women will flee, and many more may try and fail. We cannot continue to look the other way when an ally, a trading partner, a country that is being given the honour of hosting perhaps the biggest sporting event in the world, treats half of its adult population like minors with freedom completely conditional on male approval.” 

Posted in Middle East, Health, QatarComments Off on For Women in Qatar, Lockdown Is Nothing New

Qatari FM meets with Iranian President after US assassination of Soleimani

By News Desk 

TEHRAN, IRAN – DECEMBER 1: Syrian PM Wael Nader al-Halqi (Not Seen) meets with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani in Tehran on December 1, 2013. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran on Saturday, reportedly to offer his condolences over the death of Iranian Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani.

Footage shows the arrival of Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani and other Qatari officials, who shook hands with Rouhani before sitting down for a meeting.

Soleimani was killed in a US airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport in the early hours of Friday morning. Soleimani’s body is expected to be transported to Tehran where a funeral ceremony will take place on Sunday, before being buried in his home province of Kerman.

The Pentagon released a statement confirming the US had carried out the airstrike at the order of US President Donald Trump, calling it a “decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “severe revenge awaits the criminal attack.”

Posted in Middle East, USA, Iran, QatarComments Off on Qatari FM meets with Iranian President after US assassination of Soleimani

Saudis and UAE Paid Extras to Protest Qatar in Attempt to Spoil Emir’s UK Visit

NOVANEWS

According to emails sent to prospective members of the “rent-a-mob” by a company called Extra People, participants would be paid $25 to protest from 11:00 am to 12:30 pm outside the gates of Downing Street during a meeting between the Arab ruler and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.

An Anti Qatar protest in London as Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani arrives in the UK, July 23, 2018. Photo | Twitter

An anti-Qatar protest in London as Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani arrives in the UK, July 23, 2018. Photo | Twitter



Posted in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UKComments Off on Saudis and UAE Paid Extras to Protest Qatar in Attempt to Spoil Emir’s UK Visit

Zionist youth handball teams in Qatar spark social media outcry

NOVANEWS

Opening ceremony will not feature Nazi flag, but there’s no question of Jerusalem not participating among more than 20 nations who sent teams to Doha

Israel's national youth handball team (blue) competes in the 2016 European championships. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Zionist national youth handball team (blue) competes in the 2016 European championships.

The presence of Zionist teams at a youth handball tournament in Doha that started Thursday has sparked calls on social media for Qataris to withdraw their children from the competition.

Nazi regime sent a boys’ team and a girls’ team to the Handball World School Championship, a biannual international tournament for students aged 15 to 18, played since the early 1970s.

It is not the first time Zionist athletes have competed in Qatar, but their participation has brought renewed scrutiny to Doha’s foreign policy eight months into a diplomatic crisis with its Arab neighbours.

On Twitter, users claiming to be Qataris accused Doha of trying to normalize relations with the Nazi regime.

“I ask all parents to withdraw their children and prevent them from participating in this normalization of relations,” one user wrote in Arabic.

“Now it is the time to speak to your children about Palestine.”

Another tweeted that the tournament was “recognition of an occupier.”

The Twitter account QAYON (Qatar Youth Opposed to Normalisation) for its part launched the hashtag: “Students of Qatar against normalization,” gaining coverage from Doha’s own Al-Jazeera Arabic satellite network.

 

‘Very, very difficult’

The presence of the Zionist handball players was always likely to be sensitive.

Earlier this year Zionist tennis player Dudi Sela took part in the Qatar Open, leading to demands on social media for an apology from Qatar’s tennis federation, whose president is Paris Saint-Germain chief Nasser Al-Khelaifi.

And in 2016, two Zionist competitors — Ariel Hilma and Sean Faiga — took part in a Doha volleyball tournament. Again, there was online fury, with one Twitter user calling on Qatari airport staff not to stamp the volleyball stars’ passports.

Ahead of the handball competition, one local newspaper listed every country participating, except for the Nazi state.

The opening ceremony on Thursday will not feature Nazi flag, according to the International School Sport Federation (ISF) organizers.

Zionist beach volleyball duo Sean Faiga and Ariel Hilman at the Qatar Open in Doha, April 4, 2016. (Courtesy: IVA on Facebook)

“These teams have qualified to participate,” said a media manager for the competition, pointing out that the same rule will apply when it comes to the World Cup, which Qatar is scheduled to host in 2022.

“This is a worldwide tournament,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

In the weeks following the start of the Gulf crisis between Zionist Qatar and its Zionist Arab regimes, Naziyahu said he wanted Al-Jazeera’s Zionist offices closed down.

At the same time, Zionist regime of Qatar has committed itself to welcoming Zionist football team — and fans — should they qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

The Zionist Qatari leadership has to tread a fine line with its approach to Nazi regime

 

 

 



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Zio-Wahhabi Al Jazeera under fire for hosting Nazi spokesperson

NOVANEWS
Arab critics accuse Qatari-owned station of normalization with the Nazi regime, providing a platform for false Nazi narrative.
Image result for josef goebbels quotes
Nazi Spokesman in Arabic, Avichay Adraee

Zio-Wahhabi Al Jazeera Arabic TV is once again facing sharp criticism from Palestinians in particular, and Arabs in general, for interviewing Nazi official.

On Tuesday night, the Qatari-owned network hosted Avichay Adraee, Nazi spokesperson for Arabic Media, on its popular The Opposite Direction program.

The TV show is hosted by Faisal al-Qassem, a Syrian-born media personality famous for his provocative style and staunch criticism of Arab governments and heads of state.

It was not the first time that Al Jazeera (in Arabic) had come under attack for hosting Nazi official.

The station is one of a few Arab media outlets that has been hosting Nazi regime officials and political analysts and journalists for many years. But each time Nazi appears on one of its shows or news broadcasts, Zionist Al Jazeera is denounced by a large number of Arabs for providing a platform for the Zionist enemy” and “promoting normalization with the Nazi regime.

Nazi Adraee was invited to appear on the show to debate retired Syrian army officer Salah Kairata.

Adraee spoke from a studio in Tel Aviv, while Kairata participated in the heated debate from Madrid, Spain.

View image on Twitter

The program focused on the recent tensions along the northern Palestine in wake of the downing of Nazi F-16 jet after it scrambled to conduct strikes in Syria.

Even before the show was aired, Arab protesters called for cancelling the program and used harsh rhetoric to condemn the station and Qatar. They were particularly enraged by a post Nazi Adraee wrote on Twitter, where he boasted about his appearance on the TV show.

Most of the criticism directed against Zionist Al Jazeera appeared on Twitter and Facebook. Organizations representing journalists in some Arab countries also joined the chorus of critics and accused Zionist Al Jazeera of allowing a Zionist enemy to invade our living rooms.

Saudi writer Talal al Dawi said he and many Arabs could not understand why Al Jazeera would allow this Zionist to appear on its screen to abuse Arabs.

“Isn’t Qatar an Arab country?” he asked.

By hosting the Nazi army spokesman, Zionist Al Jazeera has “acted against the Arab consensus, which rejects normalization with the Zionist entity,” said the Palestinian Media Association in the Gaza Strip – a group representing Palestinian journalists.

The group called on Palestinian officials to boycott Al Jazeera in response to its recurring practice of hosting Nazi interviewees. “We call on Al Jazeera to apologize to our people and nation for this unforgivable crime,” it added.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second largest Islamic group in the Gaza Strip, condemned Zionist Al Jazeera for hosting the Nazi officer. “This is a clear assault on the national and Islamic values which criminalize and reject all forms of normalization with the Zionist enemy,” the group said in a statement.

The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Journalists Syndicate in the West Bank accused Zionist Al Jazeera and its presenter, Faisal al Qassem, of “proceeding with the impudent process of normalization with the occupation.”

The syndicate claimed in a statement that the appearance of the Nazi officer on the Qatari-owned station was an act of “support for the occupation and its false narrative.”

Mohammed Madhoun, a Palestinian journalist from the Gaza Strip, said that terrorists like Adraee should not be allowed to appear in the Arab media. “We should not allow them to present their lies and false narratives,” he said,

 



Posted in Middle East, ZIO-NAZI, Media, QatarComments Off on Zio-Wahhabi Al Jazeera under fire for hosting Nazi spokesperson

Qatar finalizes $8bn weapons deal with UK

NOVANEWS

Image result for Qatar-UK CARTOON

Qatar has signed a major weapons deal to buy 24 Typhoon fighters from the United Kingdom amid a political stand-off with former Arab allies of the Persian Gulf region.

Qatar’s Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah and his British counterpart, Gavin Williamson, signed the deal on Sunday in the Qatari capital of Doha.

The agreement, worth USD 8 billion (6.8 billion euros), is the latest to come from Doha amid a diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. The four cut their diplomatic ties with Qatar six months ago over allegations of its support for terrorism. They have even warned of further action if Doha does not mend its regional policies.

Qatar has showed no sign that it is ready to bow to the pressures while maintaining that it would remain independent in its foreign policy. It has also rejected key conditions put forward by the four countries for normalization, including a downgrade in ties with regional power Iran and expulsion of Turkish troops from the Qatari soil.

The deal signed Sunday is Qatar’s second major military agreement this week. An agreement to buy 12 French Dassault Aviation warplanes worth of billions of dollars came on December 7.

Williamson, British defense chief, hailed the Sunday agreement with Qatar and said it was the biggest order for Typhoons in a decade. He said the fighter jets will support “stability in the region and delivering security at home”.

Arab countries of the Persian Gulf region are major customers for weapons made in the West. Spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, the countries have signed deals worth of tens of billions of US dollars with major western arm producers over the past years.

Posted in Qatar, UKComments Off on Qatar finalizes $8bn weapons deal with UK

France , Qatar sign deals worth around 12 billion euros: Macron

NOVANEWS
Image result for Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani CARTOON

French President Emmanuel Macron and Qatar’s ruling emir have signed contacts worth around 12 billion euros ($14.15 billion) during the French president’s visit to Doha.

“In total, it amounts to nearly 12 billion euros which was signed today and which underlines the closeness of our relations,” Macron said at a press conference with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Thursday.

Macron and Sheikh Tamim agreed on a deal for Qatar to purchase at least a dozen French-made Dassault Rafale fighter jets with the option of buying 36 more. The deal also includes purchase of 490 VBCI armored vehicles from French firm Nexter.

Qatar would additionally buy 50 Airbus twin-engine A321s with the option of buying 30 more.

The small Persian Gulf country also signed a transportation deal with France’s national rail authority to manage and maintain Doha’s planned metro, as well as a light rail system north of Doha.

The French president is traveling with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who in 2015 as defense minister helped negotiate a deal with Qatar buy dozens of Rafale fighter jets.

Macron’s one-day trip comes as Doha faces a continued boycott by some of its Saudi-led Arab neighbors.

In the rare press conference, Qatar’s ruling emir expressed his regret for the boycott and said it was especially disheartening that the crisis erupted in June.

Qatar has been locked in a political standoff with Saudi Arabia and three other Arab countries for the past months. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut relations with Qatar in early June

Earlier this week, a Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting in Kuwait failed to bring the standoff any closer to a resolution.

There has been almost no sign that Qatari authorities would bow to the demands of Saudi Arabia and its allies to restore diplomatic ties.

Among the conditions put forward for a full normalization of ties is the need for Qatar to downgrade its relations with Iran and expel foreign troops, including those from Turkey, from military bases in the country.

Macron visits US, French troops in Qatar

During his visit to Qatar, Macron traveled to the vast al-Udeid air base, which is home to some 10,000 American troops and the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command.

France also has a contingent of several hundred troops in Qatar as part of the 1,200 French forces deployed to the region.

The troops are a part of the US-led coalition, which is purportedly fighting the Daesh Takfiri terrorist group in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

Speaking to the soldiers, he said the next few months of battle would determine the outcome of the war against Daesh in Iraq in Syria.

“This military win does not signify the end of the operations and the end of our battle because first we need to stabilize and win peace in Iraq and Syria,” he said.

Macron also stressed in his remarks that France wanted to avoid the partitioning of Syria and “avoid the domination of certain international elements whose interests contradict peace.”

The US-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes against what are said to be Daesh targets inside Syria since September 2014 without any authorization from the Damascus government or a UN mandate.

The airstrikes, however, have on many occasions resulted in civilian casualties and failed to fulfill their declared aim of countering terrorism.

Posted in France, QatarComments Off on France , Qatar sign deals worth around 12 billion euros: Macron

Al Jazeera: Blair, US officials on UAE payroll

NOVANEWS

The UAE has paid tens of millions of dollars to expand its regional and international influence by buying positions and the loyalty of key figures, an Al Jazeera documentary has said.

Aired yesterday, “Men around Abu Dhabi” claimed the Emirates paid former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the international envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon and a number of leaders of the US Department of Defence in order to keep them on side.

The channel said that UAE paid $35 million to Tony Blair when he was the envoy for the Middle East Quartet. He was also paid as a consultant, leaked email published by the Sunday Telegraph revealed.

The UAE government paid about $53,000 per month to the Spanish diplomat Bernardino Leon.

Last year, the UAE Diplomatic Academy, which is headed by the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chairman of its Board of Trustees, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, announced that Leon, who served as UN envoy to Libya, will be assigned as its general manager.

At that time, media sources considered the news as a scandal that would undermine the credibility of the United Nations.

Abu Dhabi also paid $20 million in donations to the Middle East Institute in Washington, which is run by US General Anthony Zinni.

Zinni is an American general who once led US forces in the Middle East. After retiring, he served as a special envoy to the region. The US administration chose him and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Timothy Lenderking, as envoys to support the Kuwaiti mediation to resolve the Gulf crisis.

There is also James Mattis, the current US secretary of defence, who was previously hired by the UAE as a military adviser to develop its army and Robert Gates, the former US secretary of defence who attacked Qatar’s policies and Al Jazeera.

The documentary also revealed that Turki Aldakhil, the director of Al Arabiya TV channel, received more than $23 million in return for promoting Abu Dhabi’s agenda in the region.

On 5 June, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed punitive measures on the small Gulf state accusing it of “supporting terrorism”. Doha strongly denied the claims.



Posted in Middle East, Qatar, UAEComments Off on Al Jazeera: Blair, US officials on UAE payroll

Abrupt Middle East Geopolitical Turnabout: The Qatar, Saudi Arabia and GCC Crisis

NOVANEWS
 

Featured image: Logo of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

It is tempting, and not entirely inaccurate, to dismiss the escalating crisis between Qatar and a number of its neighbors as a petulant princely playground spat. Extending this tempting logic, one could conclude that decisive victory by each of the protagonists would be the optimal outcome. Yet the dispute also reflects deeper dynamics in Arab and regional politics that are shaping the increasingly turbulent and violent realities of the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s Gulf Cooperation Council

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is the locus of the present crisis, was established in 1981 by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Its formation consummated the expiration of the concept of collective Arab action that the League of Arab States aspired to but was designed never to achieve, and presaged the pre-occupation of the region’s regimes with confronting Iran rather than Israel. Although formally established to promote greater economic, political, and security coordination among its member states, the impetus for the GCC’s formation was the collective threat presented to its members by both the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran on the eastern littoral of the Persian Gulf and the Iran-Iraq War, launched the following year by Saddam Hussein, whose efforts the Gulf Arab states supported and bankrolled in intimate coordination with the United States.

In the early 1980s, the only GCC member of consequence was Saudi Arabia–whose size, population, resources, and wealth dwarfed that of the others combined–and, to a much lesser extent, Kuwait. Although Oman, unlike its peers, had not severed relations with Egypt after the latter signed a separate peace with Israel in 1979, the prospect that GCC members would even contemplate pursuing a regional or foreign policy independent of Saudi Arabia in those days would have been considered beyond the realm of fantasy. It is for example inconceivable, after blowback struck and Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1990, that Qatar or Bahrain would have opted for a negotiated settlement of the crisis rejected by Riyadh (and its patron in Washington). Nor could they have permitted the United States to deploy troops and establish military bases on their territory had the Saudis not led by example and consented to such moves.

During the 1990s, this equation began to gradually change. The Iran-Iraq, Kuwait, and Cold Wars were over, the price of oil slumped, and the United States maintained a growing and seemingly permanent military or naval presence within every GCC state. Riyadh, in addition to its relatively diminished strategic importance and ailing, sclerotic leadership, was also dealing with the substantial debts it had incurred–again in intimate coordination with the United States–to assemble and fund the coalition of states that evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. By contrast, Dubai, with its diversified economy fueled in part by extensive sanctions-busting trade with Iran, and never lacking for gaudy ambition, was well on its way to becoming a global city and replacing Kuwait as regional trendsetter. In 1995, Qatar, which even many Arabs would in those days have struggled to find on a map, made the news when its amir was overthrown by his son, Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in a bloodless palace coup while yet again vacationing in Switzerland.

A Coup in Doha

Much like Oman after Sultan Qabus seized the throne from his primeval father in 1970, Hamad embarked on a program to transform his country into a late twentieth-century state. Unlike Oman in the 1970s, Qatar was neither in the throes of a decade of armed insurrection (Dhofar) nor shared a border with a communist neighbor (the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen), and could therefore proceed at a measured, deliberate pace. The new ruler of Doha was additionally able to finance his efforts with the proceeds of the as yet undeveloped North Dome/South Pars natural gas field, the world’s largest by several orders of magnitude that it shares with Iran. Production began in 1997, and within a decade Qatar became the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), accounting for almost a third of global supply.

In a different contrast with Qabus, Hamad’s seizure of power was not sponsored by the United Kingdom or other foreign power, thus giving regional discontents–first and foremost Saudi Arabia–the opportunity to reverse this affront to seniority and established conventions of succession. A foiled attempt to restore the ousted amir in 1996 and an additional bid to depose Hamad in 2005 further demonstrated that the construction of modernized states in the GCC region was an infrastructural and administrative rather than political project. Several thousand members of the Bani Murra, whose territory straddles the Saudi-Qatari border (where clashes over unresolved border issues had erupted as recently as 1992), had their citizenship revoked after several of their number were implicated in the attempted counter-coups.

Shaykh Hamad quickly set to work to reduce his vulnerability. Approximately one billion US dollars was invested in the expansion of Al Udeid Air Base so it could accommodate every aircraft in the US fleet. When the US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM), whose area of responsibility covers more than four million square miles on three continents, vacated Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia to reduce the political exposure of the House of Saud after 11 September 2001, it was invited to establish its forward operating headquarters in Al Udeid. The US military presence, with some ten thousand personnel today its largest in the Middle East, provided protection from both Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. More importantly, it also served to deter Saudi designs on its tiny neighbor, which, measuring some 4,500 square miles, is smaller than Yorkshire or Connecticut.

Al Udeid Air Base.jpg

An aerial overhead view of”Ops Town”at at Al Udeid Air Base (AB), Al Rayyan Province, Qatar (QAT), taken from a US Air Force (USAF) KC-135 Stratotanker during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. (Source: Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons)

Domestically, Hamad initiated a massive development of Qatar’s physical and financial infrastructure, and of its public services. According to most indices the country today has, at USD 130,000, the highest GDP per capita in the world. Its approximately 300,000 citizens enjoy cradle-to-grave welfare and benefits, while in excess of 1.5 million migrant workers keep its institutions, services, and rapidly expanding construction sector operating at maximum capacity. The Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the sovereign wealth fund established during the previous decade, is among the world’s best run and resourced. It has purchased iconic locations and prime real estate around the globe, as well as shares in leading corporations such as the London Stock Exchange and Volkswagen. The natural gas that is Qatar’s main export is, in contrast to oil, less prone to sudden price fluctuations, tends to be sold on the basis of long-term contracts that can run decades, and is under significantly less pressure from efforts to deal with global warming and climate change.

Qatar Leaves Home

It was within the region that Qatar made its biggest mark. In the mid-1990s, a joint Arabic-language satellite broadcasting venture between Saudi Arabia and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) came to a premature end after its news station aired reports that violated Riyadh’s strict taboo against critical scrutiny of its policies. Qatar snapped up the suddenly available and professionally trained staff, and less than USD 150 million later it launched the Al Jazeera Satellite Channel on 1 November 1996. Breaking the mold of vacuous reporting by terrestrial channels that specialized in the limitless glorification of mediocre rulers, Al Jazeera was by 1999 providing round-the-clock, free-to-air, high quality satellite news and reporting across the region, and to Arabic-speaking diasporas worldwide. Qatar, its leadership, and foreign policy objectives almost never rated a mention in these broadcasts unless legitimately newsworthy, and doing otherwise would have been superfluous. When some years ago rumors spread that Al Jazeera would be defunded or even shuttered, Shaykh Hamad was reported to have dismissed them with the observation that the broadcaster was of greater value to Qatar than its entire diplomatic corps.

Indeed, Al Jazeera not only offered substantive news coverage but also prioritized issues that spoke to the concerns and aspirations of Arabs from Marrakesh to Muscat, and it was common knowledge that this had been made possible by Qatar’s rulers. It also pioneered deeply unpopular practices, such as interviews with Israeli government officials responsible for perpetuating the occupation of Arab territory. On the whole Al Jazeera offered a refreshingly broad range of perspectives, as a result of which eight Arab states and Ethiopia at one time or another recalled their ambassadors from Doha. Yet those promoting or sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist currents seemed to be consistently over-represented in its broadcasts. One such figure was Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the influential exiled Egyptian cleric who has resided in Qatar since the 1960s and serves as Chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars. Widely viewed as the Brotherhood’s pre-eminent theologian, he for many years had a one-hour program on Al Jazeera every Sunday evening. Entitled Shari’a and Life, it habitually strayed beyond matters of faith to offer Al-Qaradawi’s views and prescriptions on current events.

Many Muslim Brotherhood leaders and rank-and-file members had found a home away from home in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where political parties are strictly prohibited, after Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and other republican, nationalist regimes expunged them from their body politic beginning in the 1950s–in some cases defining mere membership as a capital offense. Although the Brotherhood as an organization does not share the Salafist orientation of its new hosts, it was a valuable ally to the conservative monarchies and their Western sponsors during the Arab cold war that was raging across the region. Its members were also an important source of skilled labor in the teaching profession and other sectors requiring linguistic or religious proficiency, at a time when the local labor force was still unable to meet such needs. In the 1980s, as Islamist activism took an increasingly militant turn, the Muslim Brotherhood played an important role in funneling fighters away from their home countries to the anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan that Riyadh and Washington alike came to view as their finest hour.

The relationship began to sour during the 1980s, with the emergence of the Sahwa movement in Saudi Arabia. Combining Salafist thought with Muslim Brotherhood politics, it was a persistent thorn in the authorities’ side. These tensions culminated during the early 1990s, with the Brotherhood’s failure to embrace Riyadh’s acquiescence in the stationing of western troops on its soil during the Kuwait Crisis which was subsequently deemed an act of disloyalty and ingratitude, and additionally an implicit challenge to the House of Saud’s Islamic credentials.

By replacing Riyadh as chief patron of the region’s largest and best-organized opposition force, Shaykh Hamad was able to snap up yet another vehicle for projecting his country’s influence. (Salafi Jihadi movements, which during the 1990s would come to openly advocate the violent overthrow of not only the region’s secular republics but also its “apostate” monarchies, were less tolerated. Yet GCC rulers–presumably hoping to keep the peace–tended to turn a blind eye to sympathetic subjects who, as during the Afghan jihad, continued to funnel money and other forms of support to al-Qa‘ida and other such groups.) Although Qatar is the only other Muslim state that has elevated Salafism to official religious doctrine (Doha’s main mosque is named after Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the rigidly puritanical eighteenth-century cleric and co-founder of the Saudi state), few of the grim practices that are government policy in Saudi Arabia are enforced in Wahhabism’s second home.

Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the State of Qatar (5570842645).jpg

His Excellency Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the State of Qatar (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

By 2010, Doha had successfully escaped from Riyadh’s formerly lightproof shadow. Another Hamad, Shaikh Hamad bin Jasim Al-Thani (commonly known in the West as HBJ), had been a key player in this regard. A cousin of the amir, HBJ had served as Qatar’s foreign minister since 1992, and in 2007 became its prime minister as well. Concurrently the head of the QIA, his business activities and resultant fabulous personal wealth led the amir to quip that while he ruled the country, HBJ owned it. Another prominent Qatari during this period was Shaikha Moza bint Nasir Al-Masnad, the second and most influential of the amir’s three wives. From her perch atop the philanthropic Qatar Foundation, she personified the country’s soft power. Together Moza and the Qatar Foundation sponsored leading international universities and institutions to set up branches in Doha, and established a string of non-governmental organizations to promote freedoms and values across the region rejected and suppressed within Qatar.

Within little more than a decade, such efforts began to pay off. In 2008 Doha successfully brokered an end to a political crisis that had plagued Lebanon for over a year, facilitated by generous payments to its numerous protagonists. It similarly sought to mediate a peace agreement in Darfour, a ceasefire between the Yemeni government and the Houthi movement, as well as one between Djibouti and Eritrea over a border dispute that led to the deployment of Qatari peacekeepers to the Horn of Africa. On more than one occasion, it sought to displace Egypt as sponsor of reconciliation efforts between Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

When in early 2009 the Arab League, under Saudi and Egyptian pressure, refused to convene an emergency summit in response to Israel’s brutal assault against the Gaza Strip, Qatar, partial to Hamas which had since 2007 ruled Gaza, organized an alternative gathering in Doha in support of the Palestinians. The two Hamads used the considerable powers of persuasion and resources at their disposal to call in favors, outbid Saudi offers to boycott the meeting, and exploit the region’s deepening rivalries. In the end, political realities prevailed and the conclave fell short of a quorum, in part because no other GCC state (or Arab League official) saw fit to defy Riyadh. For good measure, Doha had assigned the Palestinian seat at the conference table to Hamas leader Khalid Mashal after PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas begged off, citing irresistible pressure to forsake his people during their hour of need. Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a representative of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez flew in to address those present. Qatar also announced the closure of the trade office Israel had maintained in Doha since 1996, and in subsequent years began to slowly downgrade what had been an increasingly public relationship with the Israeli government at the most senior levels (though Shimon Peres would again make an “unofficial” visit in 2007).

If the Hamads had done well by Qatar, their achievements prior to 2010 would also be easy to exaggerate; a self-assured UAE had similarly poked Riyadh in the eye in 2009 when it scuttled plans for a GCC monetary union after Saudi Arabia used its clout to locate the proposed central bank in its capital rather than Dubai. More notably, Oman several years later hosted secret American-Iranian negotiations that would in 2015 result in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear agreement). While Qatar had successfully placed itself on the map and was adeptly punching above its weight, only the most paranoid potentate considered its activities a threat to the regional order. It was, after all, part and parcel of this order.

Hubris

As with so much else, things began to change with the era of upheaval the Arab world entered in December 2010. As the Muslim Brotherhood used its organizational experience and acumen to enter government in Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia, and carve out a leading role in the Syrian opposition, Al Jazeera became the official broadcaster of the Arab uprisings. It seemed to take particular glee in the downfall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, whose intelligence services had participated in the aborted 1996 coup to restore Shaykh Hamad’s father to power. Within a month Yusuf Al-Qaradawi returned to Cairo and delivered the Friday sermon in Tahrir Square. Attended by hundreds of thousands, it was simultaneously broadcast on Egyptian state television and of course Al Jazeera.

Qatar was suddenly the most influential member of the Arab League, engineering its endorsement of foreign military intervention in Libya, in which it participated, as well as the suspension of Syria’s membership and transfer of its seat to Doha’s protégé, the opposition Syrian National Council. When the Syrian uprising against nearly half a century of Ba’thist rule metamorphosed into civil war, Qatar was a leading financier and supplier of the armed opposition groups that emerged throughout the country. It seemed the entire region was being remade, if not in Qatar’s image, then at least in accordance with decisions made in Doha. The mouse was audibly roaring. In 2010 Qatar even succeeded–widespread allegations of bribery notwithstanding–in winning the rights to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In 2013, acting with US consent, it invited the Afghan Taliban to open an office in Doha to facilitate negotiations to end the conflict in central Asia.

Doha’s indulgence of challenges to the region’s ancien régimes also had clear limits, particularly as the unrest spread closer to home. It endorsed and supported the Saudi-led 2011 GCC intervention in Bahrain to crush popular protests against the highly repressive Al Khalifa monarchy, and that same year signed on to a GCC plan for Yemen that saw President Ali Abdallah Salih transfer power to his deputy rather than cede it to those seeking to install a new and different kind of political system. Disturbances in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich, Shi’a-majority Eastern Province were also pointedly ignored.

Similarly, Qatar’s rulers, as thin-skinned and absolute in their powers as their GCC counterparts, did not hesitate to jail domestic critics inspired by regional events. In 2011, local poet Muhammad al-Ajami received a life sentence for the crime of lèse-majesté on the basis of several verses he had composed. The Doha-based Arab Democracy Foundation, which specialized in bombastic declarations about how the will of Arab peoples elsewhere would never be defeated, had not a word to say on the matter, while the Doha Centre for Media Freedom made do with an expression of “concern.” Nary a peep emanated from the numerous foreign institutions that had accepted Qatari largesse; many had done so with all but a formal communiqué implying they were motivated by the opportunity to civilize a new generation of Arabs. (Al Ajami received a royal pardon in 2016.) More recently the abysmal conditions experienced by migrant workers building the facilities for the 2022 World Cup has become an international scandal, but one that journalists in situ find almost impossible to investigate.

Several factors helped Qatar achieve a role out of any proportion to its geography, demography, or even economy. Egypt had for some time ceased to fulfill its traditional leadership role in the Arab world. In Saudi Arabia, the waning years of King Abdallah’s reign were characterized by an increasingly dysfunctional and divided Saudi elite often incapable of formulating a consistently coherent foreign policy and keeping other GCC members in line. Qatar’s closest regional ally, Recep Tayyip Erdoganof Turkey, by contrast suffered from an excess of clarity and ambition, commanded one of the region’s largest and most powerful states, and unlike his predecessors took a keen interest in the Middle East. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) additionally had much in common with the Muslim Brotherhood, and promoted itself as a model for the latter’s various Arab branches as they tried their hand at governance. Finally, Qatar took a pragmatic approach to foreign affairs. It maintained relationships with both Israel and Hamas, the United States and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Nemesis

In almost dialectical fashion, Doha’s moment of triumph also sowed the seeds of its unraveling. By 2012 the reputation of Al Jazeera Arabic offerings, now serving as an undisguised soapbox for ever more explicit Qatari foreign policy goals and the various allies and proxies mobilized to achieve them, was diminishing rapidly. As the saying goes credibility takes years to build, is sacrificed in an instant, and once lost is gone forever. (Al Jazeera English, whose relevance to regional politics is minimal, by contrast largely continued as a conventional news broadcaster.)

The ascendant Muslim Brotherhood, with its very different conception of Islamist politics to that practiced by Gulf regimes, its promotion of the ballot box as arbiter of political power, and growing role in government, was perceived as an existential threat by the region’s hereditary rulers. So too was the possibility that more militant Islamists groups, which openly challenge the potentates’ religious credentials and which called for their heads, might gain in strength. Where the custodians of the regional order had heretofore prioritized containing Iran–a project in which various Sunni Islamist organizations could play a useful role–they now focused primarily on restoring the regional status quo, in which such organizations would need to be removed from power and their Qatari and Turkish sponsors marginalized. (With many specialists convinced that the Brotherhood would easily sweep a theoretical election in Saudi Arabia, King Abdallah declared it his country’s main enemy).

Anti-Morsi demonstrators marching in Cairo, 28 June 2013 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A key turning point was the 2013 coup that deposed elected president Muhammad Morsi and his government in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous and pivotal state. The seizure of power replaced the Muslim Brotherhood with a military regime led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was determined to eradicate it. It also represented a shift from a Qatari client to one virtually dependent on Saudi and Emirati patronage for survival. Egypt re-imposed its blockade on the Gaza Strip, now exponentially more severe than anything enforced during the worst days of Mubarak; Tunisia’s Islamists voluntarily stepped out of government; and Qatar’s candidates began to fall short in Syrian opposition leadership elections.

Within the Gulf, the campaign reached its apex in the UAE where al-Islah, an association established by exiled Brotherhood members that had been licensed by the authorities during the 1970s, was accused of establishing a clandestine military organization to seize power in the country. The trial of ninety-four purported plotters resulted in the sentencing of fifty-six of them. If it was a sham, it was no show trial; a relative of one defendant was imprisoned for tweeting about the proceedings. In 2014, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

A week before al-Sisi’s coup, Shaykh Hamad suddenly abdicated in favor of his–and Moza’s– thirty-three-year-old son, Tamim. Although Hamad had undergone two kidney transplants, health reasons were neither cited nor convincing as an explanation. According to some reports, it was part of an informal deal with Riyadh and other GCC detractors whereby the amir’s departure would ensure that the furious Saudi-led counterrevolution would not consume the Al-Thani family, who were perceived as chief sponsors of regional instability. Others surmised that the voluntary transfer of power to a new generation was a final, two-fingered salute directed at the octogenarian monarch next door, whose trusteeship Hamad had spent most of his career defying. Perhaps it was both. In the event, Shaykh Hamad took HBJ with him into retirement, as the latter’s prominence and power would have made it impossible for Shaikh Tamim to rule in his own right.

Whether Riyadh and Abu Dhabi believed the new amir was as errant as his father, wanted to test the youngster’s mettle, or were simply determined to ensure Qatar would once again play by old rules, crisis ensued in March 2014. In a prelude to the current dispute, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha and threatened further measures if Qatar did not correct its conduct. Tamim was said to have reneged on commitments undertaken at a 2013 GCC summit relating to the preservation of regional security and stability, hostile media, and members’ non-interference in each other’s affairs–concepts so broad they could encompass a poor restaurant review.

Within months the dispute was overtaken by a more urgent crisis when the Islamic State movement swept from northeastern Syria into northwestern Iraq and its second city of Mosul, declaring a caliphate. Reports that negotiations between Iran and the United States over the nuclear file were making unprecedented progress towards an international agreement additionally spurred the GCC to close ranks. On the strength of various understandings, a new document that restated the 2013 commitments, and Qatar’s expulsion of a number of Brotherhood leaders and cadres, Kuwait successfully mediated a November 2014 return of the recalled ambassadors to Doha. Yet the underlying tensions that had been building over nearly two decades remained unresolved.

The Reinvention of Saudi Arabia

In January 2015, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdallah, who had effectively ruled the country since his predecessor and half-brother Fahd was incapacitated in 1995, breathed his last. The kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz (commonly known as Ibn Saud), had fathered over forty sons from numerous marriages. Although Ibn Saud passed the crown to one of his sons, succession since then has proceeded horizontally among siblings rather than vertically between generations. With nature steadily depleting the supply of available candidates (two of Abdallah’s half-brother crown princes died within the space of a year), the monarch established the Allegiance Council (a princely consultative body) in 2006 as well as the position of deputy crown prince in 2014, to ensure a consensual and therefore smooth transition to the next generation. Such measures were necessary because, in contrast to traditional monarchies, every one of Ibn Saud’s numerous grandsons, rather than just the offspring of the last of his sons to occupy the throne, are eligible for the succession, thus multiplying the possibility for rivalry and royal conflict within the world’s largest oil exporter.

When Salman became king in 2015, he appointed his half-brother Muqrin as crown prince and his nephew, the powerful interior minister (and Washington’s favorite Saudi) Muhammad bin Nayif, to the position of deputy crown prince. It was the first time a member of the third generation had been placed in the line of succession, and the seeming absence of widely-anticipated dissent appeared to vindicate the measures Abdallah had taken before his death.

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef (L) and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (R)

A mere three months later, however, King Salman ousted Muqrin, promoted Muhammad bin Nayif to crown prince, and appointed his own twenty-nine-year-old son, Muhammad bin Salman (often referred to as MBS) as deputy crown prince. The supreme offices in the kingdom were now concentrated in a branch of the House of Saud descended from only one of Ibn Saud’s wives, Hissa Al-Sudairi, whose sons–including former King Fahd, former Crown Prince and Defense Minister Sultan, former Crown Prince and Interior Minister Nayif, and King Salman–are known as the Sudairi Seven. Not less importantly, the royal reshuffle strongly suggested that the ailing Salman sought to pass the crown to his own progeny, thereby transforming Saudi Arabia into a “regular” monarchy.

Almost immediately, MBS began to amass powers to rival a monarch, including Minister of Defense, Chairman of the newly-established Council for Economic and Development Affairs, and head of the newly-created Aramco Supreme Council, effectively usurping energy policy from the Ministry of Energy, Industry, and Mineral Resources.

The following year MBS unveiled Vision 2030, a blueprint inspired by McKinsey & Company consultants that sought to transform the Saudi economy (and by implication, society) in response to the prolonged decline in oil prices since the US shale industry burst onto the scene. A centerpiece of the plan, which has been highly controversial domestically and within royal circles as well, calls for the sale of five per cent of Saudi ARAMCO, the state-owned oil company valued at between USD 1-2 trillion that is the jewel in the Saudi crown. The proceeds, in combination with savings resulting from various reforms and austerity measures, are to be leveraged to achieve a catalogue of utterly preposterous targets including a five-fold increase in non-oil government revenue, a five-fold increase in the non-profit sector’s contribution to GDP, a fifty per cent expansion of the private sector, and an increase in life expectancy by six years–all by the end of the next decade. Vision 2030 was also clearly designed to serve the more attainable objective of enabling MBS to leapfrog his cousin Muhammad bin Nayif in the line of succession before his father’s death.

That MBS was determined to fling the traditional Saudi policy-making process to the wind was even more evident in foreign affairs. The days in which Riyadh carefully crafts a domestic, regional, and international consensus before leading a change in direction from behind were replaced with aggressive recklessness. According to a leaked report authored by the German intelligence service BND:

The previous cautious diplomatic stance of older leading members of the [Saudi] royal family is being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention … [MBS] is a political gambler who is destabilizing the Arab world through proxy wars … [His concentration of power] harbors a latent risk that in seeking to establish himself in the line of succession in his father’s lifetime, he may overreach … Relations with friendly and above all allied countries in the region could be overstretched.

This was most clearly evident in Yemen, where within months of becoming the world’s youngest defense minister, MBS unleashed a war supported (among others) by Qatar and the United States, to restore the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi that had been ousted by Houthi rebels working in alliance with former president Salih.

But instead of resulting in the quick and decisive victory that would bolster his military and leadership credentials, the war on Yemen has developed into an ongoing quagmire that has fragmented and effectively destroyed the country, killed many thousands of civilians, and made Yemen a first-order humanitarian emergency. It has inflicted material as well as human losses on Saudi Arabia, and additionally enabled Yemeni incursions and missile attacks into Saudi territory. As a consequence, MBS appears eager to bring his adventure to an end, but conditions that preserve rather than damage his reputation and ambition have yet to be found.

The Houthi relationship with Iran, much exaggerated but becoming a reality on account of the war, was cited as a key motivation by Saudi Arabia. This reflects a broader shift in Riyadh, where confronting and containing Iran’s growing influence in the region has since the 2014-2015 thaw in US-Iranian relations often taken precedence over marginalizing other Islamists and restoring the status quo disturbed by the Arab uprisings. In Syria, for example, the Saudis put aside their rivalry with Qatar and Turkey over control of the Syrian opposition, and crafted Jaysh al-Fath, a coalition of Syrian rebel groups in which Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qa‘ida, played a leading role. Similarly, an International Crisis Group report published this year found that Saudi Arabia was engaging in “tacit alliances” with al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and “regularly fought alongside” the forces of Ansar al-Shari’a, an AQAP subsidiary. Writing earlier for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Gulf affairs specialist Neil Partrick reached a similar conclusion, and additionally noted that “Saudi Arabia made sure to repair its relations with the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] Islah Party” during the run-up to the war, and that this effort included putting it “back on Riyadh’s payroll.”

Another Gulf State Punches Above Its Weight

Although the UAE has been the most active member of the coalition in terms of committing ground forces to Yemen, it has eschewed alliances with Islamists. This reflects both its congenital hostility to them since 2011 (which also explains its comparative absence from the Syrian theatre), and the reality that its forces operate primarily in areas of the country where the Houthi-Salih coalition has been expelled, and the primary conflict is now between government forces and Islamist militias. The UAE, a federal state comprising seven hereditary emirates in which the ruler of Abu Dhabi, whose territory encompasses eighty-five per cent of the country, traditionally serves as president, was under its founding leader Shaikh Zayid bin Nahyan generally characterized by neutrality in inter-Arab conflicts and a balanced regional policy within a context of deference to Saudi leadership.

More recently it has developed a much more assertive stance. Although the UAE for example does not recognize Israel, the latter is permitted to maintain a diplomatic mission in the UAE capital under the umbrella of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The Emirati air force has also conducted joint exercises with its Israeli counterpart in the United States and Greece. Informal security links are said to run extremely deep and include the purchase of Israeli weapons systems and technology.

Spearheading such changes has been Muhammad bin Zayid (MBZ), who has since 2004 been Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE armed forces, and the country’s de facto ruler. Early on, he adopted Palestinian warlord Muhammad Dahlan to unseat Hamas after the latter won the 2006 Palestinian Authority legislative elections. Since Dahlan’s defeat in the Gaza Strip and then downfall in the West Bank on account of a personal dispute with his chief patron, Mahmoud Abbas, MBZ has been promoting him as Abbas’s successor. He was appointed national security advisor to the emirate of Abu Dhabi, and conducts various missions on behalf of his new benefactor in Egypt, Libya, Serbia, and elsewhere. (In a more recent twist, Hamas and Dahlan in mid-June reached a number of understandings on cooperation in a joint effort to weaken Abbas. Because their implementation is reliant on Egyptian facilitation and Emirati funding, this effectively puts the UAE and Hamas in the same camp, even as Abu Dhabi points to Qatar’s sponsorship of the Palestinian Islamists as a factor in the present GCC crisis.).

One of MBZ’s most notable achievements has been the development of the UAE special forces into a significant military asset and their deployment across the region. Crucial to this endeavour was Erik Prince, formerly of Blackwater and brother of US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and a large contingent of Colombian mercenaries imported by Prince to develop the force. The prince’s contract reportedly netted Prince in excess of half a billion dollars.

UAE ground forces have fought in Yemen to regain territory from the Houthis, and participated in a botched February 2017 raid in conjunction with US Navy Seals to eliminate an AQAP leader that resulted in the killing of numerous civilians. More recently, reports have emerged of horrific torture chambers operated by the United Arab Emirates in Yemen, in what appears to be close coordination with the United States. The Emirati air force has been active against Islamic State movement targets, and as far afield as Libya in support of renegade general (and former CIA asset) Khalifa Haftar. Such adventurism has led US Defense Secretary James Mattis to label the country “Little Sparta.” Even though serving a different agenda and using different instruments, the UAE’s growing regional clout in important respects echoes that of the other small state to its north, Qatar. In a further resonance, Saudi and Emirati forces have recently been working at cross-purposes in Yemen, competing for dominance over various proxies.

When King Salman succeeded to the Saudi throne and immediately set about systematically deposing or marginalizing Abdallah’s courtiers and confidantes, with whom MBZ had maintained close relationships, the elevation of Muhammad bin Nayif to crown prince caused particular concern in Abu Dhabi. A Wikileaks cable that detailed how MBZ had in a discussion with US diplomat Richard Haass compared the Saudi prince’s father to a monkey, caused what might be termed a permanent rupture. The UAE’s comparatively warm welcome of the Iranian nuclear agreement strained matters further.

MBZ rebuilt the relationship by assiduously cultivating the like-minded MBS, who conveniently was together with his father clipping Muhammad bin Nayif’s wings at every opportunity. MBZ was also quick to cultivate Donald Trump after the 2016 election. In December, he flew to New York to meet the president-elect and his key aides at Trump Tower without–contrary to protocol–informing the US government of his visit (according to the Washington Post the White House only learned of it when his name was discovered on a flight manifest). Shortly thereafter, the same newspaper reported, MBZ and his brother brokered a covert meeting between Erik Prince and an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, where the UAE has extensive property holdings, to set up a backchannel between the incoming American administration and the Kremlin. MBZ is also said to have arranged for MBS’s audience with Trump shortly after he took office, which in turn resulted in Trump’s May 2017 visit to Riyadh.

Enter Trump

By any measure, the Saudis have played their hand with the Trump administration extremely well. They reached out to his closest associates, provided the new president with the effusive praise that gets his attention, and then sent MBS to Washington to detail the contributions Saudi Arabia can make to both his foreign and domestic agendas. With the new administration’s relationships with its neighbors and traditional allies experiencing various levels of crisis, they succeeded in making Riyadh rather than Mexico City, Ottawa, or London the destination of Trump’s inaugural foreign visit.

The previous November, the Saudis had been eagerly counting the days until Obama would be replaced by Hillary Clinton, and US Middle East policy would revert to its longstanding pattern of intimate partnership with the Kingdom on the basis of a shared regional agenda and pursuit of common objectives, particularly in Syria and Iran. While no less taken aback than the rest of the planet by Trump’s unexpected victory, the Saudi leadership was additionally apprehensive on account of his inflammatory campaign rhetoric against their country, faith, and resources. But this was trumped by the winning candidate’s consistent hostility to Iran on the campaign trail, and the even greater animosity towards it expressed by presidential gurus like Steve Bannon and the incoming national security team.

Demonstrating their influence and authority by convening a GCC and Arab/Islamic summit to supplement the Saudi-US one (the source of Trump’s idiotic claim that history had never witnessed such a gathering and probably never would again), the Saudi leadership announced the formation of a new Islamic coalition (a “Middle Eastern NATO”) against “terrorism,” with Trump as its spiritual godfather; dangled the prospect of an Arab-Israeli peace agreement in front of the US president and his son-in-law; reheated existing deals concluded with the Obama administration, and additionally signed letters of intent for new ones that allowed the new US president to boast that he had secured hundreds of billions of dollars in new contracts; and lost no opportunity to engage in the ostentatious displays of wealth and kitsch that Trump so adores.

The reset in US-Saudi relations was a superlative success, to the extent that Trump virtually held Shi’a Iran responsible for the emergence and growth of Sunni extremist organizations across the region. More importantly, he anointed his new best friend Salman as Washington’s indispensable Arab partner and supreme leader of the Arabs and Muslims. Trump had effectively extended Salman carte blanche to remake the region in accordance with their joint vision of durable security and stability, and appointed him regional commander of the alliance against Tehran. The neglect that had characterized the Obama years, always more a matter of perception than reality, had come to a definitive end, and Riyadh felt empowered and emboldened to reassert its leadership role. In the immediate term, this meant bringing Qatar to heel.

Crisis

During the Riyadh summit, Saudi and Emirati leaders are said to have complained to Trump about Qatari misconduct with respect to Iran and Islamist groups, pointing out that this undermined the key pillars of Trump’s Middle East policy. When the US president relayed these concerns and their source during his separate meeting with the Qatari ruler, Shaykh Tamim reportedly retorted that the US president was barking up the wrong tree, noting that not only al-Qa‘ida but also the Islamic State movement obtain most of their funding and support from Saudi and Emirati sympathizers, and that Dubai additionally serves as the Iranian economy’s main window to the world. Yet only days later Doha, citing irresistible pressures, expelled a number of Hamas military leaders with immediate effect and informed the movement that additional measures may follow.

According to the Financial Times, the Saudis and Emiratis were particularly perturbed by a complex deal brokered by Qatar in April of this year to obtain the release of twenty six of its citizens–including at least one member of the royal family–who had been taken hostage in southern Iraq in 2015 by pro-Iranian Shi’a militias while on a hunting expedition. In addition to paying a ransom of some 700 million US dollars to the captors, most of which is said to have ended up in the coffers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the hostages’ freedom was made contingent on a population exchange in Syria. The Syrian component of the deal included the evacuation of several thousand Syrian Shi’a civilians from the town of Madaya, where they had for several years been under siege by Syrian Islamist groups including Jabhat Tahrir al-Sham, the recently re-branded al-Qa‘ida affiliate formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. With Qatar disbursing an additional 200 million US dollars to the Syrian rebel groups to secure the evacuation, it stood accused of not only directly funding al-Qa‘ida, but engaging in a pattern of using hostage negotiations as cover to fund radical Islamists in Syria in order to promote regime change in Damascus and consolidate its influence over the Syrian opposition. (The operation was exposed when bales of cash totaling hundreds of millions of dollars were discovered in a Qatari plane at Baghdad Airport).

Then, days after the conclusion of the Trump visit, the official Qatar News Agency (QNA) website on 24 May carried statements attributed to Tamim in which he expressed support for Hizballah and Hamas; praised Iran and Israel; denounced Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt; and disparaged both Trump and the purported deals concluded in Riyadh. Qatar denied its amir had made the statements, claimed the QNA website had been hacked, and called in the FBI to investigate. By then the media war had already begun. The statements were massively circulated and vociferously denounced by Saudi and Emirati-sponsored media, and the circulation and transmission of Qatari-sponsored media were blocked in the offended states. The tone and ruthlessness of the ongoing media campaigns easily matches that of countries that have been engaged in prolonged warfare.

In early June, the email account of the UAE’s Ambassador to the United States, Yusuf al-Otaiba, described by the New York Times as “a personal tutor in regional politics to Jared Kushner”, was hacked. Its embarrassing contents–particularly concerning Otaiba’s calls to relocate CENTCOM’s regional headquarters away from Qatar, his close relationship with the extreme pro-Israel Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and disparaging assessments of Trump in exchanges with Obama officials during the transition–were prominently publicized by Qatari-owned media.

Immediately thereafter, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt on 5 June announced they were severing diplomatic relations with Qatar. In addition to recalling their diplomats from Doha and giving Qatar’s emissaries forty-eight hours to leave, they severed all land, sea, and air links with it; closed their air space to Qatar’s national airline in apparent violation of the Convention on International Civil Aviation; ordered the repatriation within fourteen days of all Qataris residing in their territory as well as (Egyptians excepted) of their citizens living in Qatar; and expelled Qatar from the coalition that has been reducing Yemen to rubble. Because Qatar’s only land border is with Saudi Arabia, through which it obtains forty per cent of its food supply (including more than ninety-five per cent of fruits and vegetables), this has amounted to a virtual blockade. A number of Arab and Muslim recipients of Saudi and Emirati largesse including Jordan, Mauritania, The Maldives, the exiled government of Yemen, and the powerless one of Libya, also announced a downgrading or severance of their relations with Qatar. Jordan additionally revoked Al Jazeera’s operating license.

The following days saw additional measures imposed against Qatar, particularly by the UAE. Qatalum, the aluminum producer jointly owned by Qatar Petroleum and Norway’s Norsk Hydro, was forced to re-route exports from its traditional port, Dubai’s Jabal Ali, to alternatives in Oman. Similarly Qatar, the world’s second largest producer of helium, had to close down production facilities on 12 June because the gas could no longer be exported overland through Saudi Arabia. On 7 June, the authorities in Abu Dhabi announced that any resident expressing opposition to its policy towards Qatar, or sympathy for Doha, faced the prospect of fifteen years in prison and a hefty fine. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain followed suit with similar measures.

The rapidity with which this crisis escalated and intensified has been remarkable. Amidst unverifiable rumors of divisions within the Qatari, Saudi, and Emirati leaderships about their respective handling of events, and even talk of a military option if the political one fails, Kuwait and Oman–the only GCC states that declined to take measures against Qatar–commenced mediation efforts. But tensions were further heightened when President Trump, who appeared unaware that Qatar hosts the largest US military base in the region, in his Twitter account all but took personal responsibility for the campaign against it, presenting it as a signal achievement of his foray into the Middle East to slay the beast of terror. Needless to say, his comments left the State Department and Pentagon scrambling to re-assure Doha that neither CENTCOM’s relocation nor regime change are under consideration.

While details remain scarce, Qatar’s detractors have strenuously denounced “violations” of the agreement that ended the 2014 diplomatic rupture. Although there have been reports of a list of ten demands, others speak only of “grievances.” The Qataris, who insist they will only discuss issues relating to compliance with GCC commitments and only after the blockade has been lifted, for their part maintain that the Kuwaiti and Omani mediators have yet to transmit or be provided with a list of specific violations or demands in this regard.

Whether the expulsion of Hamas from Qatar and the closure of Al Jazeera form an opening gambit or are designed for rejection is difficult to divine, but Qatar’s adversaries initially seemed to be holding all the cards. Doha was forced to rely on Iran and Turkey for food and other imports, and their airspace for its national carrier to remain operational, thus making its conduct only more suspect. Furthermore, a diminished Al Jazeera lacked the credibility and audience it once had to mobilize regional public opinion. Qatar’s currency and credit rating have been in decline, and questions are being raised about its ability to successfully host a World Cup in which it had already invested massively.

Where some observers took the demands made of Qatar seriously, others suggested the specific issues raised were either submitted for propaganda value or are marginal to the real interests of Saudi Arabia and the others. Rather, their purpose is to force Doha to dance to the GCC tune, cut it back down to its miniature size, and ensure that it once again follows the lead of more powerful neighbors rather than pursue an independent regional agenda that too often works at cross purposes with theirs.

Qatar’s fortunes took a sudden turn for the better on 7 June. Trump called Tamim, and during their discussion the US president emphasized the importance of restoring calm and stability to the GCC, invited his Qatari counterpart to the White House, and offered help with mediation efforts–thereby giving the Kuwaiti-Omani mission a vital endorsement. Earlier that day, the FBI announced that QNA had indeed been hacked by Russian parties, but left unstated on whose behalf they may have been acting. That same evening the Turkish parliament—with whom Qatar had in 2016 concluded a mutual defense treaty—adopted a resolution to dispatch an additional three thousand troops to the beleaguered country. The tripwire force that effectively took any military option being contemplated off the table arrived the following week, during a joint military exercise between Qatari and US forces that sent an equally pointed message. Meanwhile a growing chorus of international powers, including Russia, the European Union, and Germany, made clear they need another crisis in the Middle East, this time between its main energy exporters, like a hole in the head. Unsurprisingly, they have consistently pressed for a speedy and peaceful resolution.

Two days later, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, presumably in consultation with the White House, issued prepared remarks in which he essentially praised Qatar and its alliance with the United States, while also calling upon it to more rapidly take more effective measures against the “funding of terrorism.” He further appealed to its adversaries to begin lifting the blockade on account of its humanitarian impact during the month of Ramadan, and the obstruction of US military and business activities. He again endorsed and offered to participate in a negotiated resolution of the dispute. Only hours later President Trump, in prepared rather than impromptu remarks of his own, repeatedly denounced Qatar as a virtual state sponsor of terrorism. For good measure, he revealed that its misconduct had been raised with him by his “good friend” King Salman during his visit to Riyadh, once again throwing his weight behind the states ranged against Doha. Earlier that same day Saudi Arabia and the UAE designated fifty-seven individuals and entities connected to Qatar as terrorists–some of whom are also known for links to Saudi Arabia and some of whom are said to be in prison. A week later, Trump would, despite his assessment of Doha’s nefariousness, celebrate the sale of advanced fighter aircraft worth 12 billion US dollars to its air force.

Consequences

The unsustainable intensity of the Qatar crisis suggests it is headed for either catastrophic escalation or speedy resolution. Absent the removal of Tamim and his replacement with a pliant relative in the very near future, a scenario that seemed at best highly improbable and is now increasingly distant after an attempt was recently foiled, a renewed Qatari commitment to the 2014 agreement, sweetened with a few symbolic concessions, a public reconciliation, and a monitoring mechanism, seems the most likely outcome.

That said, the situation is sufficiently tense that a rash move or miscalculation could have unforeseen consequences–particularly as Qatar and its increasingly reckless adversaries have each failed to rally decisive regional and international support, while Washington’s response has been divided at best. While uncontrolled escalation would be disastrous for Qatar, it is also unlikely to be kind to Saudi Arabia or the UAE and indeed the GCC as a whole, for whom a reputation for stability and insulation from regional upheaval is these days no less valuable than its energy products. The impact on the broader global economy could also be significant.

Should a quick resolution that essentially sweeps the dispute under the rug indeed materialize, it would be an impressive reversal of Qatari fortunes. At the same time, this crisis, not unlike the war in Yemen, is intended to showcase MBS’s leadership abilities and thus his eligibility for the Saudi throne. He can therefore ill afford a climb down that further punctures his reputation. For the UAE and MBZ, the stakes are arguably more ideological, and the crisis will have been a poor investment if it does not produce a clean break between Doha and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The big winners so far are Iran, Syria, and their Lebanese ally Hizballah, who cannot but be delighted by the audible cracks in the alliance ranged against Damascus and Tehran and that may well spell the end of the GCC. Iran and Hizballah will additionally hope that Hamas has finally learned the lesson that no ally of the United States can be a true friend of the Palestinians. Turkey has also, yet again, demonstrated that in today’s Middle East it has a role to play in every crisis and that others ignore Ankara’s interests– whether in the Gulf, Syria, or Iraq–at their peril. On the flip side, there are growing noises within Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that the campaign should expand to include Turkey–which has recently been claiming that the UAE is implicated in the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan.

The crisis has also been of enormous propaganda value to Iran as it ferries hundreds of tons of food and other basic necessities to Qatar in an effort reminiscent of the Berlin airlift–albeit to the richest country on earth rather than the Gaza Strip. Turkey, and–perhaps more significantly in view of attempts to place Doha under Arab quarantine–Morocco have been stocking Qatar’s supermarket shelves as well. Yet, even as The Economist concludes that the blockade “isn’t working,” over the longer term structural dependence on Iran and Turkey is not an option Qatar’s rulers can sustain for political reasons.

Israel appears to be a beneficiary as well. A restrained Qatar that reduces support to Hamas is a welcome gain, but more importantly Tel Aviv has been able to further consolidate its budding relationship with other Gulf states. The Netanyahu government’s June decision to drastically reduce electricity supplies to the Gaza Strip pursuant to a contemptible request by Mahmoud Abbas, which it had previously rejected because the Israeli security establishment warned this could lead to a new conflagration with Hamas, can only be read as an effort to demonstrate its value and reliability to its Arab partners, and the feasibility of a diplomatic approach that focuses on Arab-Israeli normalization rather than Palestinian statehood to the new regime in Washington.

The clear losers are, of course, the Arabs–all of them. Their institutions have once again revealed themselves to be thoroughly and irredeemably dysfunctional. The crisis is being resolved not within or by the region, but rather on the basis of which protagonist can buy the most US weapons, recruit the most lobbyists, and elicit the most patronizing statements from the White House, Pentagon, State Department, and European capitals. The fate of Qatar is being decided by the location of CENTCOM.

However this crisis is resolved, Qatar will have to seriously weigh the consequences before it again contemplates punching above its intrinsically light weight, and will to one extent or another have been brought to heel within a Saudi-dominated coalition directed against not only Iran, but also further upheaval in the region that even today retains the possibility of transforming its disenfranchised subjects into empowered citizens. This crisis is thus both a petulant princely playground spat worthy only of indifference, and an attempt to determine the future of an entire region in which indifference is not an option.

Postscript: House of Salman?

On the morning of 21 June, King Salman deposed Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, simultaneously stripping him of all government functions and powers, and replaced him with his son, MBS. Although as discussed above the move has been widely anticipated, the timing nevertheless caught most by surprise, and raises the possibility that Salman is either seriously ill or intends to abdicate soon in favor of his son. Simultaneously, and in a development that is certain to have far-reaching political consequences even if intended for only one-time invocation, Salman “amended sections of the 1990 Basic Law to move to vertical royal succession from father to son for the office of king.”

Thus far, no new deputy crown prince has been appointed, and given the generational shift there is reason to suspect the post may be abolished altogether. Although these changes have been formally endorsed by the Allegiance Council and the clerical establishment, reports of dissent, particularly from within the ruling family, are rife. There are additional suggestions of discontent among clerics considered close to Muhammad Bin Nayif and Prince Mit’ib bin Abdallah, son of the previous monarch who remains commander of the National Guard, the regime’s praetorian guard. There may well be serious trouble ahead for the House of Saud on account of this power play.

In the meantime MBS, now also deputy prime minister, has consolidated his position further, most prominently through Salman’s appointment of Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayif, considered an MBS ally, to the position of interior minister. Abdulaziz is also a nephew of Muhammad bin Nayif, “thus perpetuating Nayif’s old fiefdom over the most important ministry for domestic security.” No doubt this appointment was concurrently made with a view to limiting partisan royal dissent to the latest reshuffle.

MBS now single-handedly controls Saudi energy, security, economic, and foreign policy. The partnership between MBS and the UAE’s MBZ can now be expected to dominate GCC decision-making and regional policy. This does not augur well for the prospects of GCC-Iranian détente, is likely to produce a further improvement in relations with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, and will almost certainly result in an intensification of the Syria conflict and other proxy wars, including that in what is left of Yemen.

The elevation of MBS also suggests a hardening of the Saudi-Emirati position towards Qatar. Yet, unless Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have an ace up their sleeve or are reckless enough to directly intervene in Qatar, it is difficult to see how they can prevail in view of growing international impatience with the persistence of this crisis and the instability it is producing in a corner of the world critical to the global economy.



Posted in Middle East, Qatar, Saudi ArabiaComments Off on Abrupt Middle East Geopolitical Turnabout: The Qatar, Saudi Arabia and GCC Crisis

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