Bringing the issue of Saudi control of the holy places into the dispute can only make it worse
By Abdel Bari Atwan
No new measures or sanctions against Qatar were announced after Sunday’s meeting of foreign ministers of the four countries that have been subjecting the country to an air, sea and land blockade. But there was a distinctly escalatory tone to the press conference they held after their gathering in the Bahraini capital of Manama. It is not unlikely that ‘understandings’ were reached which were kept secret, and whose practical implementation we may witness in the days or months to come.
It was widely noted that the formal statement issued by the ministers referred to ‘dialogue’ for the first time since the crisis erupted some two months ago. This was seen by some as a possible sign of a climb-down. But the four ministers lost no time explaining that there could only be any dialogue with Qatar after it accepts the 13 demands and six principles spelled out at their previous meeting in Cairo on July 5. Any negotiations would be purely about the how these conditions would be met, not about the demands themselves.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri made a point of stressing this, declaring that any talks would be purely about ‘mechanisms of full and transparent implementation, in a manner that serves the states of the region and the entire world.’ The question this raises is that if the Qataris are expected to comply with all conditions in advance without any discussion, what does actually ‘dialogue’ mean in this case?
The key issue driving the four countries towards escalation was highlighted by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir at the press conference, and later in an interview with the Saudi-controlled Al Arabiya TV channel, presumably on instructions from his government. He condemned what he described as Qatar’s demand for the ‘internationalization’ of the Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Madina, denouncing this as unacceptable interference in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs and calling it a ‘declaration of war’ to which the kingdom reserves the right to respond.
Jubeir was referring to a letter sent by the Qatari National Human Rights Commission to the UN’s rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief protesting against Saudi restrictions on Qataris planning to perform the upcoming pilgrimage, or hajj. The letter expressed ‘grave concern at the politicization of religious rituals in Saudi Arabia and their use to achieve political gains, in blatant violation of all international conventions and norms,’ and demanded ‘the separation of religious practices from politics.’
Qatari spokesmen have said their country resorted to the step of complaining to the UN because of increased Saudi harassment of Qatari pilgrims, and after the failure of attempts to seek the mediation of regional bodies – with the Arab League side-lined and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) paralysed. Doha says Saudi hajj authorities have been refusing to register Qatari pilgrims or guarantee their safety, requiring them to travel to Saudi Arabia only via third countries and on non-Qatari airlines, using just two designated entry points, and argues that these measures make it harder for citizens and residents of Qatar to perform the pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia considers any discussion – or mere mention — of international control over the holy places to be an ultra-sensitive subject, a blatant intrusion into its domestic affairs and a challenge to its management of the sites. The Qatari authorities were surely well aware of this when they lodged their complaint.
Few countries have dared publicly question Saudi Arabia’s control of the holy places or management of the pilgrimage in the past. This has usually happened when they have been at odds politically with Riyadh and their pilgrims have faced restrictions or mistreatment as a result. Libya did so under the late Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi, as has Iran. Pro-Iranian commentators have long demanded the creation of an independent commission to supervise the holy places controlled by representatives of various Muslim countries, a kind of Muslim Vatican. The Saudis have always furiously rejected any such suggestions.
It is potentially explosive for this issue to become entangled in the current Gulf crisis. Saudi control of the holy places has rankled for decades with both the Turks – Qatar’s longstanding allies — and the Iranians – its newfound friends. They have long supported the idea of pan-Islamic control of the sites and advocated it either directly or indirectly, in light of the rivalry between various Sunni and Shia authorities regarding jurisdiction over sacred places and leadership of the Islamic world. They will be delighted to hear that call now being echoed by an Arab country, and especially a Gulf state.
Some observers argue that the Saudi authorities could have avoided any criticism or accusations of harassing Qatari pilgrims by allowing them to travel via the normal routes. They could have issued a special exemption in this regard, valid only for the duration of the pilgrimage season. After all, they have repeatedly stressed that their blockade of Qatar is not aimed against its ‘fraternal’ people but only their government. It is not too late to take such a step to enable Qatari citizens and residents to perform their pilgrimage.
But instead, the Saudis have seized on the issue of ‘internationalization’ of the pilgrimage, with Jubeir deeming any move in this direction as ‘hostile action’ and a ‘declaration of war’ and affirming his country’s right to respond to any party involved. Is this meant mean that Saudi Arabia considers Qatar’s complaint to the UN as an act of hostility or war? And how and when will the response come?
This can be understood as a hint at possible military action. It is the first time since the crisis began that a Saudi official has employed such a clearly threatening tone. It is worrying in this regard that both the Bahraini and Egyptian foreign ministers obfuscated when asked at Sunday’s press conference about reported plans to establish a big joint military base on the Hawar islands just off the Qatari coast.
With all attempts to mediate a solution having failed, and with both sides sticking firmly to their positions and refusing to make concessions or back down, the Gulf crisis has gone back to square one, and further escalation can be expected. Qatar’s accusers may have some ‘shock treatment’ in mind for the days and weeks ahead.