Qatari leadership to yield to Arab pressure to drop support for Islamist extremism or face military
By Firas Abi Ali, Senior Principal Analyst, Middle East & North Africa, IHS Markit
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain severed relations with Qatar on 5 June 2017. Measures taken by these countries against Qatar include banning Qatari-flagged flights and shipping as well as travel to and from Qatar, banning Qatari citizens from transiting their countries, expelling all Qatari citizens and, with the exception of Egypt, requesting all citizens in Qatar leave the country. The four countries unanimously cited as justification Qatari ideological and/or financial support for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State and al-Qaeda; all accused Qatar of trying to destabilise their respective governments.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are all trying to defeat domestic or regional insurgent groups that rely on Qatar-based clerics' Islamist ideology, media support and/or financing. Moreover, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are both engaged in fighting a regional conflict with Iran and likely calculate that on-going Qatari support for Islamist groupings would undermine this effort. They are also beginning a religious reform process that would be under threat if attacked by Qatar-based radical clerics. As such, they are now demanding a more extensive re-orientation of the Qatari government’s policies than was the case when they previously temporarily suspended relations with Qatar in 2014, for its then support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The objective is to prevent a future u-turn in Qatari policy that would undermine the emerging Saudi-Emirati military and political alliance. The emerging anti-Qatar coalition is unlikely to back down without some change in Qatari government’s orientation and policies, including the expulsion of Qatar-based Hamas and Taliban leaders and wanted Egyptian clerics. The changes demanded, however, would be hard for Qatar's leadership to execute. Qatar is likely to initially attempt to create the illusion of complying without fully doing so, but this will likely trigger a more stern response.
The pressure on Qatar aligns well with US attempts to confront political Islam. Qatar is likely to be used to make an example that deters Lebanese, Palestinian and other regional actors from supporting Sunni or Shia political Islam as the US and its Arab partners intensify pressure against Iran and Sunni Islamists. Further escalation against Qatar is likely.
In the three to six month outlook, Qatar will likely agree to the demands of its neighbours, leading Arab states to halt their escalation. Qatar has already expelled Hamas officials from its territory. It is likely to follow this step by expelling Taliban officials, some Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist clerics, and replace the management and editorial boards of al-Jazeera, and supporting the US-Saudi-Emirati initiative to bring about normalisation of relations with Israel. Individuals and Islamist opposition movements across the Gulf Cooperation Council resisting this trend will be subject to international sanctions, deported or gaoled.
Failure to comply would increase the likelihood of sanctions against Qatar, and, in extremis, military action by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with US acquiescence, against Qatar. This would likely aim to replace the emir, with a view to bring Qatar under the same level of Saudi influence as Bahrain. In this event, the Qatari armed forces would be unlikely to offer any effective resistance. A decision by key members of the al-Atiya and Al Thani families to abandon Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and side with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is far more likely than military escalation. Gulf media is already preparing the ground for a potential future coup by airing rumours on the subject.
Outlook and Implications
- US and Arab terrorism-related sanctions against Qatari individuals and businesses are likely
- Qatar will eventually have no choice but to accept a junior role in an emerging Saudi-UAE-US partnership
- If Qatari behaviour does not change, a coup against the emir would be more likely than US-authorised, Saudi-led military intervention