Egypt, Qatar and mounting disquiet in the Gulf

Bassem Aly , Thursday 6 Mar 2014

The Gulf region is experiencing a crisis like never before, and Egypt-Qatari discord at the centre of events

A general view of the Interior ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) during their meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, May 2, 2012 (Photo: AP)

The decision of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar appears to signal the unfolding of a new political deadlock in the Gulf.

The four countries are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but Wednesday's move showed a gap between theory and practice in Gulf politics.  

The trio's statement: Worth checking

We have decided to take measures to protect our security and stability, and safeguard the interests of the GCC states, including neighbouring Qatar, the trio said in a statement.

Qatar's alleged intervention in the domestic affairs of other states and threats to the security of GCC members were also cited by the signatories as a reason for their action.

Although previously unseen since the six-nation GCC was established in 1981, the crisis has roots that involve issues other than breaches of national sovereignty.

According to the same statement, Qatar's emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani has failed to comply and put a security agreement into effect.

Finalised last year by the GCC, the agreement focuses on cooperation in the exchange of information and the tracking down of criminals.

Hasan Tariq Al-Hasan, a Bahrain-based political analyst, said the trio's reference to the agreement, signed by the six GCC countries, indicates a fundamental disagreement with Qatar over its refusal to "toe the party line."

Al-Hasan said such a line is drawn by Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent by the UAE, especially in terms of Doha's relations with "regional non-state actors."

The UAE and Bahrain claim Qatar's foreign policy has a "destabilising impact" on their internal security, he noted.

On its side, Qatar has not remained silent. The small island state expressed regret at the ambassadors' withdrawal, but said it would not take reciprocal action.

It expressed keenness on maintaining "brotherly links" with all Gulf states, and claimed the differences entail "issues outside the GCC."

Islamists: Strong cause of GCC split

The trio's statement referred to Qatar's support for "antagonistic media" – a reference to its state-owned Al Jazeera network that has been accused of biased coverage in favour of the beleagured Muslim Brotherhood, regarded by the trio as a threat to their rule.

Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, said the Gulf trio has been frustrated by Qatari support for the Brotherhood in the region.

"The monarchies' survival is their greatest motivator," Al-Ahmed noted.

The UAE has detained large numbers of Islamists during the last few months over alleged links to the Brotherhood.

Al Jazeera's coverage of events in Egypt in the past year has led to deteriorating relations between Doha and Cairo.

Qatar was the only GCC member that supported the Brotherhood's rise to power in Egypt.

In the aftermath of Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, the energy-rich country gave billions of dollars to Egypt and welcomed the election of Mohamed Morsi, a leading Brotherhood figure, as president in 2012.

Sheikh Tamim did congratulatd Adly Mansour after he took the oath as Egypt's new transitional president on 4 July, a step preceded by Morsi's ouster by the army in response to mass protests against his rule. 

But  Egypt's problem with Al Jazeera remained.

Twenty Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt are charged with links to the Muslim Brotherhood -- officially designated a terrorist group in December 2013 -- and harming national unity and social peace.

Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr, an affiliate of the network, has been accused by Egyptian authorities of being biased toward ousted president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement, as well as outright hostility towards the new interim government in post-Morsi Egypt.

Egyptian foreign ministry aide Nasr Kamel said on Wednesday that Egypt's ambassador to Qatar – who was recalled in early February - would not be returned to Doha.

Kamel said the decision was in protest at Qatari intervention in Egypt's internal affairs and for not handing over Egyptians wanted by prosecutors on criminal charges.

He added that Qatar must realign its position on common interests and solidarity with Arab countries by refraining from actions that fuel discord and division.

Mohamed Idris, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, cautioned Egypt must maintain a balanced foreign policy orientation towards the Gulf states.

"If Egypt adopts a pro-Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini stance and then the crisis reaches settlement, Cairo would be in an embarrassing position," he pointed out.

Idris also underlined other causes of inter-Gulf tensions, such as the stalled Gulf union endeavours and differing views on Iran's nuclear ambitions.

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