The Saudis are making clear they want the Qatari emir ousted, but how do they plan to achieve that?
By Abdel Bari Atwan
The crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has recently taken a potentially serious turn for the worse. More than two and a half month months into the quarrel – during which the Saudis and their allies the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain have subjected Qatar to a land, sea and air blockade and a ferocious diplomatic and media campaign – another red line was crossed late on Thursday night.
This was revealed when it was announced that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had decided to enable Qatari pilgrims to perform the upcoming Muslim Hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia despite the blockade. The Salwa border point, the only overland crossing between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, would be temporarily reopened exclusively for the use of Qatari pilgrims. And special Saudi flights would be sent to Doha – at King Salman’s ‘personal’ expense — to pick up any pilgrims who prefer to travel to the holy sites by air via Jeddah.
What brought on this sudden outpouring of Saudi magnanimity over an issue that had caused weeks of rancour between the two sides? The answer lies in the announcement that these concessions were made thanks to the mediation of a member of the Qatari ruling family: Sheikh Abdallah bin-Ali Al Thani. It was reported that he had reached agreement on these measures during talks in Jeddah with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin-Salman. He later travelled to Morocco to call on the vacationing King Salman in his holiday palace in Tangier, where he was accorded a high-profile televised reception and feted at a banquet attended by many Saudi princes and officials.
Sheikh Abdallah bin-Ali Al Thani is a son of a former ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Ali bin-Abdallah bin-Jasem Al Thani. Abdallah’s brother Ahmad took over from their father as ruler and was in power in 1971 when Qatar became independent of Britain. But he did not last long, and was overthrown the following year in a bloodless palace coup by his prime minister and cousin Sheikh Khalifa bin-Hamad. Khalifa was in turn ousted in 1995 in another bloodless coup – much to the ire of the Saudis – by his son Hamad, who remained emir until 2013 when he abdicated in favour of his son Tamim, the current emir.
For such a figure to be publicly feted by Saudi Arabia and received by both the king and crown prince at a time when it has been maintaining a total diplomatic boycott of Qatar, and to be credited with resolving the impasse over Qatari pilgrims, is no minor matter. It serves public notice that the kingdom is escalating the dispute by championing a rival wing of the Qatar ruling family against the present emir and his branch. It remains unclear what Riyadh has in mind: is it seeking to install Abdallah as emir or merely using him to put pressure on Tamim? We will have to wait and see. But it clearly has an agenda that goes far beyond the pilgrimage issue.
When Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin-Abderrahman Al Thani was asked about Riyadh’s decision to ease its restrictions on Qatari pilgrims, he replied that ‘the banning was for political reasons and its lifting was for political reasons.’ Doha neither welcomed the Saudi move nor thanked King Salman for his gesture. This means the Qatari government is not pleased with Sheikh Abdallah’s supposed mediation. Indeed, it released an official statement stressing that he did not represent it and had no mandate to mediate with the Saudi authorities over the pilgrimage issue.
The Saudi media have meanwhile been lionizing the hitherto little-known Qatari sheikh, according extensive and detailed coverage to his meetings with Saudi leaders, his supposed mediation effort and his subsequent statements praising Saudi authorities, and running and background pieces on him. Suddenly, he has become a media star. Laudatory profiles have also been published of his father and brother, the former emirs, describing them as the founders of modern Qatar and architects of its independence. The Al Arabiya television channel has gone to unprecedented lengths in this respect.
State-sponsored Saudi Tweeters have been posting peons of praise for Sheikh Abdallah. The royal court’s media advisor, Saud al-Qahtani, who holds the rank of minister, went so far as to address him in his Tweets as ‘his highness’, and ‘the emir (prince)’ – when, unlike Saudi Arabia, everyone knows Qatar has only one ‘prince’, the emir, Sheikh Tamim. This is extraordinary and unprecedented behaviour. The intended impact is obvious: to portray Abdallah and his branch of the Al Thani as the legitimate rulers of Qatar.
That Saudi Arabia wants to see a change of regime in Qatar and be rid of Tamim and his father is obvious from the Saudi media.But what is it actually planning? It is certainly not acting on a whim, but in coordination with its allies in the anti-Qatar coalition. This was confirmed when Bahrain released what it said was a recording of a conversation between the former Qatari premier and now-jailed Bahraini opposition leader Ali Salman in which they supposedly conspired against the Bahraini authorities.
But if the Saudis have a candidate to replace Tamim, and can cast him as legitimate as his branch of the family were former rulers who had power usurped from them, how do they propose to empower him? By splitting the Qatari ruling family, or turning the people against the current ruler? There is no sign of either thing happening. That leaves another option: military intervention, as was attempted in 1996 by the same four countries that constitute the current anti-Qatar coalition in a bid to depose Hamad and restore his father Khalifa to power.
Whatever is being cooked up, the Qatar crisis is set to escalate, and this is a big step in that direction.