The Gulf crisis: Small states battle it out ( SSRN Working Paper Part 2)

By James M. Dorsey 

Shaping the environment

If Qatar’s strategy was to promote political change by supporting legitimate opposition forces, the UAE’s was to help engineer coups that would put in power men who were more to their liking. The Gulf crisis, provoked according to US intelligence officials, by the UAE orchestrating the hacking of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes attributed to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim, was but the latest example of the Emirates’ interventionist policies. The US intelligence assertion carries weight given that Qatar invited the FBI to investigate the hacks that were allegedly approved by senior UAE officials. The false reports planted by the hack constituted the basis for the boycott of Qatar declared by the Saudi-UAE-led alliance.[i]

The hack followed a pattern. In 2013, the UAE bankrolled a military coup in Egypt that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, and together with Saudi Arabia has kept his successor, general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who brutally cracked down on the Brotherhood, financially afloat.[ii]

The UAE, in a twist of irony, may have created in Turkey, which has sent troops to Qatar in the wake of the Gulf crisis, one of the major obstacles to the ability of the Saudi-UAE-led alliance to impose its will on the Gulf state. Turkish media aligned with the government have accused the UAE of funding the 2015 failed coup aimed at overthrowing Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a watershed event in modern Turkish history, that served as an excuse for his massive crackdown on dissent. Erdogan has arrested tens of thousands of his critics; dismissed up to 140,000 people from jobs in the judiciary, the military, law enforcement, civil service and education sector; declared a pro-longed state of emergency; and used the failed takeover to introduce a presidential system of government in which he has far-reaching powers.

Yeni Safak columnist Mehmet Acet quoted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as saying that “we know that a country provided $3 billion in financial support for the coup attempt in Turkey and exerted efforts to topple the government in illegal ways. On top of that, it is a Muslim country." Acet said the minister identified the country as the UAE in a subsequent conversation.[iii] Daily Sabah, another paper with close government ties, as well as Turkish foreign ministry officials repeated the assertion.[iv]

Middle East Eye, an allegedly Qatar-supported online news website, quoted Turkish intelligence officials as charging that Mohammed Dahlan, an Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief with close ties to the UAE’s Bin Zayed, Al-Sisi and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, had served as the UAE’s bagman and contact with Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Turkish in the United States, whom Erdogan blames for the attempted coup.[v] The UAE, in a bid to mend fences with Erdogan once the coup had failed, detained two Turkish generals at Dubai airport and deported them to Istanbul.[vi] Moreover, a  senior UAE foreign minister official, Abdullah Sultan al-Nuaimi,, told a Turkish columnist that his country had offered to drop its objection to the Turkish military base in Qatar and was willing to hand over Gulen supporters resident in the Emirates in exchange for the extradition of nine Emiratis members of the Brotherhood in Turkey.[vii]

While there is no independent confirmation of the Turkish allegations against the UAE, what is clear is that Gulen with his propagation of a liberal and tolerant interpretation of Islam would fit the Emirati efforts to create an alternative, anti-Salafi, anti-Islamist and anti-Brotherhood religious authority.

In Libya, the spectacle of small states punching above their weight and waging proxy wars against each other far from home has at the very least aggravated the struggle for the future of the country since the 2011 toppling of Colonel Moammar Qaddafi. In a twist of irony, Qatar rather than the UAE is backing the legitimate, United-Nations-recognized Islamist government while the Emirates and Egypt support an anti-Islamist alliance led by a renegade general.

Five of the 59 people listed by the Saudi-UAE-led alliance as Qatar-supported terrorists were Libyans, including Al Sallabi, the intellectual and spiritual leader of the Libyan Brotherhood and a disciple of Qaradawi. Al Sallabi served as the main conduit of Qatari financial and material support for Islamist rebels in Libya.[viii] Also listed were Abdul Hakim Belhadj, a former jihadist who was rendered by the CIA before being returned to Libya, where he emerged as a military commander and conservative politician; former mayor of Tripoli Mahdi al-Harati who commanded an anti-Qaddafi militia before heading an anti-Assad group in Syria; Ismail Mohammed Al Sallabi, Ali al-Sallabi’s brother and the head of another Libyan rebel group; and Libyan Grand Mufti Al-Sadiq Abdulrahman Ali Al Gharyani.

In the case of Palestine, Bin Zayed convinced the Saudis to drop Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot that controls the Gaza Strip, from the list of groups the Saudi-UAE-led alliance wanted Qatar to distance itself from to create an opportunity for the return of Mohammed Dahlan, the UAE-backed Palestinian politician and former security chief who frequently does the Emirati crown prince’s bidding[ix] and whom US President George W. Bush described during an internecine Palestinian powers struggle in 2007 as “our boy.”[x] If successful, the UAE would have succeeded in clipping Hamas wings and installing its own man in the Gaza Strip in a move that would likely strengthen cooperation with Israel, potentially facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and take the Jewish state’s increasingly close ties to the Gulf state out of the shadows.

The UAE effort involved a carrot and stick approach in which Israel and Palestine Authority (PA) President Mahmood Abbas played bad cop while Egypt was the good cop in a pincer move that was intended to weaken Hamas. A lowering of public sector salaries in Gaza by Abbas and reduced electricity supplies by Israel at the Palestinian leader’s behest[xi] drove Hamas into the arms of the UAE and Egypt as the International Red Cross and other international agencies warned of an impending calamity.[xii]

In response, Egypt and the UAE moved to alleviate the economic crisis in Gaza in a bid to sweeten an agreement on power sharing between Hamas and Dahlan that was being negotiated in Cairo. At the same time, Egypt began to send diesel fuel at market prices, but without taxes imposed by the PA, and has signalled that it would open the crucial Rafah border crossing between Gaza and the Sinai. Associates of Dahlan were reported to be preparing the border station for re-opening with a $5 million donation from the UAE.[xiii]

Egypt reportedly was supplying barb wires, surveillance cameras and other equipment to enhance border security.[xiv] The UAE, moreover, has earmarked $150 million to build a power station and has hinted that it would fund construction of a port. “If the plan does come to fruition, it could make an Israeli-Egyptian dream come true… It will ensure a fine profit for all sides, except for Abbas and Palestinian aspirations to establish a state,” said prominent Israeli columnist Zvi Bar’el.[xv]

In Yemen, the UAE walked a tightrope between ensuring that it had a seat at the table in Riyadh while pursuing its own goals that at times differed from those in the kingdom and managing a widening rift with Saudi-backed Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi fired in April 2017 two ministers known for their close ties to the UAE.[xvi] One of the ministers, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, a former governor of Aden, declared the formation of a transition council that would govern southern Yemen.[xvii] Al-Zubaidi’s move fuelled concern that the UAE was laying the groundwork for a return to the pre-1990 era when Yemen was divided between two states in the expectation that the south would align itself with the Emirates. "The extent of this rift reverberates in the Arab coalition, particularly as the sidelined southern leaders are supported by the UAE," said Yemeni a government official.[xviii]

In a twist of irony, the UAE and Qatar were both seeking to project themselves as key US allies by focusing on different aspects of overall US policy. While the UAE positioned itself as Little Sparta, Qatar largely appealed to values underwriting US foreign policy such as freedom and more pluralistic societies. Both countries presented themselves as pushing reform of Islam, albeit in ways that supported their visions of regime survival.

The UAE quietly nurtured the creation of moderate Islamic institutions such as the Muslim Council of Elders, the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies and the Sawab and Hedayah Centres in a bid to counter the influence of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Brotherhood, and more militant Islamist forces.[xix] For its part, Qatar promoted itself as a centre of theological change that endorsed basic political rights and opposed autocracy.

It was that ideological divide that deepened the rift between the Gulf states. Accusing the UAE of being against Islam,”[xx] Qaradawi rejected religious edicts by UAE and Saudi-backed clerics as well as Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Juma during the 2011 uprisings that insisted that Muslims had an obligation to obey an unjust ruler as long as he publicly did not commit apostasy. Drawing on the jurisprudential principle of quietist Islam that stipulates that legitimate peaceful  protests are rendered illegitimate on the basis that they will lead to civil strife, Juma ordained that for “the youth of Egypt, it is obligatory for all of you to withdraw … Coming out to challenge the legitimacy (of the regime) is forbidden, forbidden, forbidden! Right now, you are guilty of causing this unrest which is not in the country’s interests.”[xxi]

In opposition to the backing of autocratic regimes beleaguered by protesters by Juma and other UAE-and Saudi-backed scholars, Qaradawi developed a jurisprudence of revolution that was anathema to Emirati rulers.[xxii] “If they are used to achieve a legitimate end, such as calling for the implementation of the Sharia, or freeing those imprisoned without legitimate grounds, or halting military trials of civilians, or cancelling a state of emergency which gives the ruler absolute  powers, or achieving people’s general aims like making available bread, oil, sugar, gas, or other aims whose legitimacy admits of no doubt-in things like these, legal scholars do not doubt the permissibility (of demonstrations],” Qaradawi ruled.[xxiii]

Adding fuel to the fire, Qaradawi took his support of dissent a step further by calling for the killing of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi. “To shed “the blood of this man is lawful. His blood is halal for two reasons… Because of the massacres which he has perpetrated against the Libyan people … and…as a preventive measure against what may happen (if he is not stopped)… Therefore, it is from out of the jurisprudence of balancing, the jurisprudence of consequential outcomes, and the jurisprudence of priorities that we sacrifice one man for the sake of the salvation of a people... 

Whoever is able to draw nearer to God by killing him, may he do so, and may his blood rest upon my shoulders! By God, this man (Qaddafi) is a criminal man, truly!”, Qaradawi ordained in a sermon at a Doha mosque.[xxiv] Qaradawi’s fatwa fed claims made by Saudi Arabia after the eruption of the 2017 Gulf crisis that Qatar had been a party to a 2003 Libyan plot to assassinate Saudi King Abdullah.[xxv] It also coincided with one of the few occasions in which Qatar participated in military intervention as Qatari fighter jets and troops joined Western forces in support of anti-Qaddafi rebels.[xxvi]

In effect, Qaradawi was conveying religious legitimacy to Qatari policy by redefining the traditional notion banning rebellion against the ruler as relating to the rebellion of the ruler against his people. 
“When it is not the people who rise in arms against a regime but it is the regime which starts massacring them – because of peaceful demonstrations for example – that power loses its legitimacy and religious scholars must intervene to defend the believers,” Qaradawi argued.[xxvii]

Qatar’s sincerity and willingness to back political change and let the chips fall where they fall and Qaradawi’s ideological legitimization of Qatari policy quickly failed their litmus test with the eruption not long after the revolts in Egypt and Libya of uprisings in Bahrain and Syria. Bahrain was simply too close to home for Qatari comfort while Iranian support of President Bashar al-Assad and the growing involvement of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militia in the Syrian conflagration threatened the delicate balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia that Qatar sought to manoeuvre.

Acting as a barometer of Qatari policy, Qaradawi was quick to condemn the Bahraini revolt, even though it started like others in the region as a peaceful, cross-section protest in demand of greater equality and social and economic opportunity, and as in Syria, stopped short of calling for the fall of the regime. “Truly the Bahraini revolution, it’s not a revolution, rather it’s a sectarian uprising… That’s the problem, it’s Shiite against Sunni, I’m not against the Shia, I’m against fanaticism…They aren’t peaceful, they’re using weapons,” Qaradawi said.[xxviii] Qaradawi spoke as Saudi and UAE forces entered Bahrain in March 2011 with the blessings of Qatar and at the invitation of the minority Sunni Al Khalifa ruling family that had deliberately turned the revolt into a sectarian conflict with the island state’s majority Shiite population.

Similarly, advances in Syria in 2013 by Hezbollah and Assad’s forces that alarmed Qatar and other Gulf states prompted Qaradawi, even more clearly than he did in the case of Bahrain, to break with his long-standing advocacy of improved Sunni-Shia relations and support of Hezbollah against Israel, again legitimizing Qatari support for militant Sunni rebel groups. In a further indication of a brief rapprochement in Qatari and Saudi policy, Qaradawi’s condemnation of Hezbollah also constituted a reversal of his earlier support of the group against Saudi condemnations of it because it was a Shiite militia. It also reflected Qatar’s naïve belief that it could ring fence the process of regional change, supporting it in some countries and joining the UAE-Saudi-led counterrevolutionary roll back of achievements elsewhere, as well as the reputational cost of picking and choosing rather than acting on principle.

“Tens of thousands of these men have come from Iran! From Iraq! From Lebanon! From such a multitude of countries, from all the countries of the Shia! They’re coming from all over the place - to fight the Sunnis…  Everyone who is able, who knows how to fight, who knows how to use weapons, who knows how to use the sword or the gun…must go to Syria to aid their brothers,” Qaradawi thundered from his pulpit in Doha.[xxix] Similarly, Qaradawi turned on the Alawite sect from which Assad and many of his associates hail and that is a pillar of the Syrian regime, condemning its adherents with the words of 14th century, controversial Islamic scholar Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah as “more unbelieving than Christians or Jews.”[xxx]

War of words

The Gulf crisis is but the latest instalment of the battle of the small states. The UAE and Qatar have been waging a covert war in the media and through fake NGOs even before Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain first withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in 2014. The media war substituted for imposition of a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar at the time of the withdrawal. The three states contemplated a boycott but opted at the time to first try a less aggressive attempt to force a change in Qatari policies.
The UAE, the world’s largest spender on lobbying in the United States in 2013[xxxi], sought, according to US media reports to plant anti-Qatar stories in American media. To do so, it employed California-based Camstoll Group LLC that was operated by former high-ranking US Treasury officials who had been responsible for relations with Gulf state and Israel as well as countering funding of terrorism.[xxxii] Camstoll signed a consulting agreement with Abu Dhabi’s state-owned Outlook Energy Investments LLC in December 2012,[xxxiii]  a week after it was incorporated in Santa Monica.[xxxiv] Camstoll reported receiving $4.3 million in 2012[xxxv] and $3.2 million[xxxvi] from Outlook in 2013 as a retainer and compensation for expenses.

Under the contract, Camstoll would consult Outlook on “issues pertaining to illicit financial networks, and developing and implementing strategies to combat illicit financial activity.”[xxxvii] In its registration as a foreign agent, Camstoll reported that it “has conducted outreach to think tanks, business interests, government officials, media, and other leaders in the United States regarding issues related to illicit financial activity.”[xxxviii]

Camstoll’s “public disclosure forms showed a pattern of conversations with journalists who subsequently wrote articles critical of Qatar’s role in terrorist fund-raising,” The New York Times reported.[xxxix] Camstoll reported multiple conversations with reporters of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Dow Jones News Wires, Financial Times, Bloomberg News, CNN and the Washington Free Beacon.[xl]

The lobbying effort resulted among others in a Daily Beast feature entitled ‘U.S. Spies Worry Qatar Will ‘Magically Lose Track’ of Released Taliban’ that asserted that Qatar’s track record is troubling” and that “the emirate is a good place to raise money for terrorist organizations”[xli]; a CNN special report asking ‘Is Qatar a haven for terror funding?’[xlii] The Washington Post carried stories reporting  that “private Qatar-based charities have taken a more prominent role in recent weeks in raising cash and supplies for Islamist extremists in Syria,”[xliii] there was “increasing U.S. concern about the role of Qatari individuals and charities in supporting extreme elements within Syria’s rebel alliance” and linked the Qatari royal family to a professor and U.S. foreign policy critic alleged by the U.S. government to be “working secretly as a financier for al-Qaeda.”[xliv]

One Washington Post story quoted among others “a former U.S. official who specialized in tracking Gulf-based jihadist movements and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because much of his work for the government was classified.” The description of the source appeared to fit the bios of Camstoll executives, including the company’s owner, Matthew Epstein, a former Treasury Department official who served as its financial attaché to Saudi Arabia and the UAE; Howard Mendelsohn, former Acting Assistant Secretary of Treasury, who according to a US State Department cable “met with senior officials from the UAE’s State Security Department (SSD) and Dubai’s General Department of State Security (GDSS)” to coordinate disruption of Taliban financing,[xlv] and other former Treasury officials who had been contact with Israel regarding their strategy to counter funding of Palestinian groups.[xlvi]

In disclosing the UAE’s efforts to influence US media reporting on Qatar, The Intercept’s Greenwald argued that “the point here is not that Qatar is innocent of supporting extremists… The point is that this coordinated media attack on Qatar – using highly paid former U.S. officials and their media allies – is simply a weapon used by the Emirates, Israel, the Saudis and others to advance their agendas… What’s misleading isn’t the claim that Qatar funds extremists but that they do so more than other U.S. allies in the region (a narrative implanted at exactly the time Qatar has become a key target of Israel and the Emirates). Indeed, some of Qatar’s accusers here do the same to at least the same extent, and in the case of the Saudis, far more so.”[xlvii]

Qatar’s response to the media campaign against it was illustrative of its ineptitude in fighting its public relations and public diplomacy battles, clumsiness in developing communication strategies, meek denials of various accusations, and failure to convincingly defend its controversial policies. In a bid to counter its World Cup critics, Qatar contracted Portland Communications founded by Tony Allen, a former adviser to Tony Blair when he was prime minister, according to Britain’s Channel 4 News.[xlviii]

The television channel linked Portland to the creation by Alistair Campbell, Blair’s chief communications advisor at Downing Street Number Ten and a former member of Portland’s strategic council, of a soccer blog that attacked Qatar’s detractors. Britain’s Channel 4 reported that the blog projected itself as “truly independent” and claimed to represent “a random bunch of football fans, determined to spark debate.” The broadcaster said the blog amounted to “astro-turfing,” the creation of fake sites that project themselves as grassroots but in effect are operated by corporate interests. Portland admitted that it had helped create the blog but asserted that it was not part of its contractual engagement with Qatar. The blog stopped publishing after the television report.

Qatar also thought to undermine UAE efforts to tarnish its image with the arrest in 2014 of two British human rights investigators of Nepalese origin. The investigators worked for a Norway-based NGO, the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), that was funded to the tune of €4.2 million a year by anonymous donors believed to be connected to the UAE.[xlix] The investigators were detained and later released at a time that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain had withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar in a bid to force it to stop it support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Founded in 2008, GNRD was headed by Loai Mohammed Deeb, a Palestinian-born international lawyer who owned a UAE-based consultancy, and reportedly operated a fake university in Scandinavia, according to veteran Middle East author and journalist Brian Whitaker who took a lead in investigating the group.[l] GNRD said it aimed to “to enhance and support both human rights and development by adopting new strategies and policies for real change.”[li]

In 2014, GNRD published a human rights index that ranked the UAE at number 14 in the world and Qatar at 97. Heavy criticism of the index persuaded the group to delete the index from its website. GNRD, moreover, consistently praised the UAE’s controversial human rights records with articles on its website on the role of women, the UAE’s “achievements in promoting and protecting the family, environmental efforts, care for the disabled and its protection of the rights of children.[lii]

Appointed as a monitor of Egypt’s 2015 parliamentary election GNRD reported that “the Egyptian people have experienced a unique process toward democratic transition, and despite the fact that minor errors and inaccuracies occurred, these do not shed a negative light on the overall results of the electoral process.”[liii] GNRD made no mention of the fact that the election occurred in an atmosphere in which hundreds of Muslim Brothers were killed by security forces, thousands more were incarcerated and repression limited expression of dissenting opinions and independent media coverage.[liv]

GNRD was closed following police raids in 2015, the confiscation of $13 million in assets, and charges of money laundering that have yet to be heard in court.[lv] Norwegian investigators said that UAE diplomats had fought hard to prevent the case going to court.[lvi]

Punching above their weight

The Gulf crisis is not about to end any time soon. Yet, it has already established that small states need not surrender to larger neighbourhood bullies and can not only stand their ground but also shape the world around them. That is a conclusion that small states like Singapore that were debating their place in the international pecking order and their ability to chart an independent course of their own in the wake of the Gulf crisis, appear to have drawn. The debate in Singapore, echoed in other small states, was sparked when former UN ambassador and dean of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy Kishore Mahbubani asserted that Qatar's troubles showed that small states should always behave like small states and be wary of getting entangled in affairs beyond their borders. "In the jungle, no small animal would stand in front of a charging elephant, no matter who has the right of way, so long as the elephant is not charging over the small animal's home territory," Mahbubani said.[lvii]

Using an animal metaphor of his own, Singapore ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan retorted, in a rare public airing of differences, that Mahbubani’s approach would amount to surrender of one's sovereignty and set a dangerous precedent. "Singapore did not survive and prosper by being anybody's tame poodle... I don't think anyone respects a running dog," Kausikan said.[lviii]

Adding his voice, prominent Singaporean diplomat Tommy Koh argued that “the lesson learnt is that, at the end of the day, a small country must develop the capacity to defend itself. It cannot depend on others to do so.” said.[lix] Ong Keng Yong, the head of RSIS and Singapore’s ambassador to Iran and Pakistan asked, “what happens when small states’ core interests are impinged upon, and caught within broader big-power dynamics? Or do small states’ interests not matter, and should be subordinated to that of big states? Putting it another way, must Singapore be so governed by fears of offending bigger states that we allow them to do what they want or shape our actions to placate them even if they affect our national interests? ... There is no choice but to stand up. Doing otherwise will encourage more pressure from those bigger than ourselves.”[lx]

The jury on the differing UAE and Qatari approaches is nonetheless still out. Qatar has been able to defy the boycott and, so far convincingly, reject demands of the Saudi-UAE-led alliance that would undermine its sovereignty and turn it into a vassal based on its financial muscle and an international refusal to endorse the approach of its detractors that many view as extreme, unrealistic and unreasonable.

Taking the long view on the assumption that change is inevitable, Qatar could emerge as having been on the right side of history even if the notion that it can promote change everywhere else except for at home is naive at best. A wave of nationalism with Qataris rallying around their emir in defiance of the Saudi-UAE-led boycott that reinforced the notion that Qatar is Al Thani and Al Thani is Qatar, masked criticism of the ruler’s policies and the Gulf state’s repression of dissidents.

Assuming Qatar emerges from the crisis with its ability to independently chart its own course and emotions have calmed, Sheikh Tamim’s challenge will be the transformation of the wave of nationalism into a form of sustainable support for his regime. “In the marketed image of Qatar, all Qataris accept being ruled by the Emir, and always have done. In the idealized vision of Qatar, the image projected to the outside world, there is no politicking, there are not always even clear positions on international affairs, except a position defined by security, development and prosperity… Yet this idealized narrative obscures a more complicated and interesting history, a history that lies just beneath the five-star hotels, international news channels and premium airport lounges. Qataris themselves have not forgotten this history,” noted Qatar scholar Allen J. Fromherz.[lxi]

The notion that Qatar can be exempted from waves of political change is embedded not only in the Gulf state’s approach to support of opposition forces everywhere else and hard-hitting news coverage of everyone but itself, but also in its approach to education. The attraction of top Western universities such as Georgetown and Northwest to Doha’s Education City is to ensure that Qataris have internationally marketable skills and can connect to the global community. It is not in Fromherz’s words “to create a larger ruling class that is a source of criticism of the ruling Al-Thani family.”[lxii] As a result, there is a dearth of critical histories, analysis, and literature that offers an alternative perspective on official Qatari mythology.

Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami realized that when he was sentenced in November 2011 to life in prison in what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” His sentence was subsequently reduced to 15 years in prison. Al-Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine”. It celebrated the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.[lxiii]

Al Ajami’s sentencing coincided with Qatar getting its own albeit limited taste of the fallout of the year’s popular uprisings with conservative Qataris organizing online boycotts of the state-owned telecommunications company as well as Qatar Airways and in a few cases publicly questioning the ruler’s authority to issue decrees. The protests were largely connected to concerns related to the Gulf state’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, including cost, a significant rise in the number of migrant workers, being exposed to criticism of the country’s labour regime and human rights record, and the risk of having to make concessions on public mores and the consumption of alcohol to accommodate fans. Conservative Qataris worry that an increasing number of their compatriots, often dressed in full-length robes, the Gulf's national dress, would drink publicly in hotels and bars. "It is a taboo in Qatar to see somebody wearing the national dress and drinking," said Hassan Al Ibrahim, a Qatari commentator.[lxiv] Some Qataris were also critical of Qatar’s support of the Brotherhood.[lxv]

A group of some 500 Qataris called in early 2012 for a boycott of the state-owned airline, a major tool in the positioning of the Gulf state as a global travel hub, in protest against its serving of alcohol on flights, high fares and failure to allocate more jobs to Qatari nationals. The protesters’ campaign featured the Qatar Airways logo with a no entry sign superimposed on it. It followed an earlier protest decrying the level in telecommunications services. The protests were fuelled when the Qatar Distribution Company, a Qatar Airways owned-retail shop, introduced pork alongside the alcohol it was already selling to expatriates. "I never thought the day would come that I have to ask the waiter in a restaurant in Qatar what kind of meat is in their burgers," said a Qatari on Twitter. "Ppl don't get it. Its not about the pork—its about us feeling more & more like a minority—in our own country,” tweeted another Qatari.[lxvi]

Just the beginning

However the Gulf crisis ends, Qatar’s revolutionizing the Middle East and North Africa’s media landscape with the 1996 launch of Al Jazeera speaks to the ability of small states to shape their environment. The television network’s free-wheeling reporting and debates that provided a platform for long suppressed voices, shattered taboos in a world of staid, state-run broadcasting characterized by endless coverage of the ruler’s every move. Al Jazeera, despite its adherence to the Qatari maxim of change for everyone but Qatar itself by exempting the Gulf state from its hard-hitting coverage, forced irreversible change of the region’s media landscape in advance of the advent of social media.

Qatar’s brash and provocative embrace of change as opposed to the UAE’s subtler projection of power that shies away from openly challenging the powers that be, may be too risky an approach for small states to emulate. What is clear, however, is that the ability of small states to chart their own course is at the end of the day a function of vision, policy objectives, assets small states can leverage, ability to network, appetite for risk, and the temperament of their leaders. Qatar and the UAE represent two very different approaches that offer lessons but are unlikely to serve as models. In the final analysis, both Qatar and the UAE may pull off punching far above their weight even if they fail in achieving all their objectives. It comes however at a price paid in part by others that ultimately may come to haunt them.

Already, the long-standing media war between the UAE and Qatar in which allegations of support of terrorism bounce back and forth, has prompted victims of 9/11 to consider naming the UAE alongside Saudi Arabia as a defendant in a host of law suits. Court documents filed in New York alleged that Dubai Islamic Bank "knowingly and purposefully provided financial services and other forms of material support to al Qaeda ... including the transfer of financial resources to al Qaeda operatives who participated in the planning and execution of the September 11th attacks."[lxvii] That could be just the beginning.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

[i] Karen Deyoung and Ellen Nakashima, UAE hacked Qatari government sites, sparking regional upheaval, according to U.S. intelligence officials, The Washington Post, 16 July 2017,
[ii] Ibid. Kirkpatrick
[iii] Mehmet Acet, 15 Temmuz’u fonlayan Körfez ülkesi (The Gulf country that funded July 15), Yeni Safak, 12 June 2017,
[iv] Yunus Paksoy, UAE allegedly funneled $3B to topple Erdoğan, Turkish government, Daily Sabah, 13 June 2017,
[v] David Hearst, Exclusive: UAE 'funnelled money to Turkish coup plotters,' Middle East Eye, 29 June 2017,
[vi] Daily Sabah, 2 Turkish generals in Afghanistan detained by authorities in Dubai, 26 June 2017,
[vii] Kenan Akin, UAE: We have no objection to a Turkish base in Qatar (BAE: Türkiye'nin Katar'da üssü olmasına itirazımız yok), Yenicag, 17 July 2017,
[viii] Mukhabarat el-Jamahiriya, Libya: The correlation between the extremists in the Eastern region, Al Qaeda core, Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, and the extremist groups, 24 March 2011,
[ix] James M. Dorsey, All the UAE’s men: Gulf crisis opens door to power shift in Palestine, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 9 July 2017,
[x] David Rose, The Gza Bombshell, Vanity Fair, April 2008,
[xi] Raf Sanchez, Israel cuts Gaza electricity after Palestinian president says he will no longer pay the bill for Hamas, The Telegraph, 12 June 2017,
[xii] International Committee of the Red Cross, Electricity shortages affect all aspects of life in Gaza, 15 May 2017,
[xiii] Amos Harel, If Gaza Doesn’t Explode, Thank Egypt, the Qatari Crisis and Abbas' Biggest Rival, Haaretz, 5 July 2017, 
[xiv] Kifah Ziboun, Egypt to Provide Hamas with Barb Wires, Surveillance Cameras, Asharq Al-Awsat, 2 July 2017,
[xv] Zvi Bar’el, The Dahlan Plan: Without Hamas and Without Abbas, Haaretz, 29 June 2017
[xvi] Agence France Presse, Rifts grow on both sides of Yemen conflict, 12 May 2017,
[xvii] Khalid Al-Karimi, UAE-Saudi differences risk boosting separatists in Yemen, The New Arab, 16 May 2017,
[xviii] Ibid. Agence France Presse
[xix] Ibid. Chaudhuri
[xx] Ibid. Roberts
[xxi] YouTube, Audio clip of Mufti Ali Juma during the revolution and comment on Sheikh Mohammed Saad Azhari,, 25 October 2011,
[xxii] David H. Warren, The ʿUlamāʾ  and the Arab Uprisings 2011-13: Considering Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the ‘Global Mufti,’ between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Legal Tradition, and Qatari Foreign Policy, New Middle East Studies, 2014,
[xxiii] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, The legitimacy of peaceful demonstrations (شرعية المظاهرات السلمية), Facebook, 27 November 2013,
[xxiv] Yahya Michot and Samy Metwally (trans), The fatwa of Shaykh Yûsuf al-Qaradâwî against Gaddafi, Hartford Seminary, 15 March 2011, 
[xxv] Al Arabiya, Saudi royal adviser reveals Qatar-Libya plots to assassinate late King Abdullah, 16 June 2017,
[xxvi] Ian Black, Qatar admits sending hundreds of troops to support Libya rebels, The Guardian, 26 October 2011,
[xxvii] Ibid. Warren
[xxviii] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Sheikh Qaradawi and demonstrations in Bahrain (الشيخ القرضاوي ومظاهرات البحرين), YouTube, 19 March 2011,
[xxix] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Friday sermon by Dr. Qaradawi 05/31/2013 (خطبة الجمعة للدكتور القرضاوي 31-5-20), YouTube, 31 May 2013,
[xxx] Ibid. Al-Qaradawi, Friday sermon
[xxxi] Lindsay Young. 2014. What countries spent the most to influence the USA in 2013, May 8, Sunlight Foundation,
[xxxii] Glenn Greenwald. 2014. How former Treasury officials and the UAE are manipulating American journalists, September 26, The Intercept, / David D. Kirkpatrick. 2014. Qatar’s Support of Islamists Alienates Allies Near and Far, September 7, The New York Times,
[xxxiii] US Department of Justice. 2012. Exhibit A to Registration Statement Pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, as amended, December 10, 
[xxxiv] Wysk B2B Data. 2014. Wysk Company Profile for CAMSTOLL GROUP LLC, THE, August 26,  
[xxxv] US Department of Justice. 2013. Supplemental Statement Pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 as amended, July 30,
[xxxvi] US Department of Justice. 2014. Supplemental Statement Pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 as amended, January 30,
[xxxvii] Ibid. US Department of Justice, 2012
[xxxix] Ibid. Kirkpatrick
[xl] Ibid. US Department of Justice 2013 and 2014
[xli] Eli Lake. 2014. U.S. Spies Worry Qatar Will ‘Magically Lose Track’ of Released Taliban, June 5, The Daily Beast,
[xlii] Erin Burnett. 2014. CNN OUTFRONT SPECIAL REPORT: Is Qatar a haven for terror funding?, June 8, CNN,
[xliii] Joby Warrick. 2013. Syrian conflict said to fuel sectarian tensions in Persian Gulf, December 18, The Washington Post,
[xliv] Joby Warrick. 2013. Islamic charity officials gave millions to al-Qaeda, U.S. says, December 22, The Washington Post,
[xlv] US Embassy United Arab Emirates. 2010. US-UAE Further Cooperation to Disrupt Taliban Finance, January 7, Wikileaks,
[xlvi] US Embassy Tel Aviv. 2009. GOI'S New Terror Finance Designation Strategy, July 9, Wikileaks, 
[xlvii] Ibid. Greenwald
[xlviii] Channel 4 News. 2014. FA chief slams attacks made on blog set up by Qatar's PR, September 26,
[l] Brian Whitaker, An odd organisation,, 6 September 2014,
[li] GNRD’s website has been closed and links to it various pages have been removed
[lii] GNRD’s website has been closed and links to it various pages have been removed
[liii] GNRD’s website has been closed and links to it various pages have been removed
[liv] James M. Dorsey, UAE embarks on global campaign to market its brand of autocracy, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 11 February 2015,
[lv] Brian Whitaker, 'Rights group' GNRD goes bust,, 5 July 2016,
[lvi] Interviews with the author, September to December 2015
[lvii] Kishore Mahbubani, Qatar's troubles showed that small states should always behave like small states and be wary of getting entangled in affairs beyond their borders, The Straits Times, 1 July 2017,
[lviii] Belmont Lay, Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan rebuts LKY School of Public Policy dean Kishore Mahbubani, Mothership, 2 July 2017,
[lix] Tommy Koh, International law serves as shield and sword but small countries must also be self-reliant, The Straits Times, 4 July 2017,
[lx] Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh and Chew Hui Min ,Minister Shanmugam, diplomats Bilahari and Ong Keng Yong say Prof Mahbubani's view on Singapore's foreign policy 'flawed,' The Straits Times, 2 July 2017,
[lxi] Ibid. Fromherz, p. 2
[lxii] Ibid. Fromherz, p. 11
[lxiii] James M. Dorsey, ITUC: Qatar agrees to trade unions amid region’s call for greater freedom, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 2 December 2012,
[lxiv] Ted Mann, Qatar Moves to Curb the Use of Alcohol, The Atlantic, 7 January 2012,
[lxv] Ibid. Al-Qassemi
[lxvi] James M. Dorsey, Alcohol ban raises specter of problems for Qatar’s hosting of 2022 World Cup, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 11 January 2012,
[lxvii] Jacob Fischler, 9/11 Plaintiffs Demand Dubai Islamic Bank's Documents, Law360, 15 July 2015,  


Popular posts from this blog

Pakistan caught in the middle as China’s OBOR becomes Saudi-Iranian-Indian battleground

Israeli & Palestinian war crimes? Yes. Genocide? Maybe. A talk with Omer Bartov

Saudi religious diplomacy targets Jerusalem