What Qatar’s role in Yemen tells about the Gulf crisis
Soon after the eruption of the current crisis centered on Qatar, Kuwait set itself once again to play the role of mediator. Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid Al-Sabah was quoted by his country’s state news agency as affirming Qatar’s readiness to “understand the reality of the qualms and concerns of their brothers” of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
By now it should be evident to Doha what those concerns are, as they were conveyed during the previous diplomatic spat in 2014. They go beyond its support for the Muslim Brotherhood — whose longstanding links with violent extremism continue to be underestimated in the West — and all sorts of Islamist militants.
Take Yemen. Exactly 10 years ago, a cease-fire between the government and the Houthis ended what is known as the fourth Saada war, named after the governorate the Zaydi revivalist group calls home.
The high-profile peace-broker was none other than Qatar’s then-Emir Sheikh Hamad bin-Khalifa Al-Thani, who traveled to Yemen himself. Qatar’s cosy relationship with Iran, at the time already accused by Yemeni government officials of backing and radicalizing the Houthis and incentivizing their armed insurgency, played an important role in placing Doha in the mediator’s seat.
By mid-June 2007, the Qatari peace plan had taken shape. It included temporary exile in Doha for key Houthi leaders Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, Abdul Karim Al-Houthi and Abdullah Al-Ruzami, as well as a joint committee with representatives from Qatar, the Yemeni government and the Houthis.
Doha’s backing for Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Syria, all sorts of extremists in Libya, radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and even Lebanon’s Hezbollah is only part of the story.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
Yet the fighting in the north did not abate, and various Yemeni factions and government officials blamed the Doha Agreement for giving the insurgents equal standing to the government. The following year, when Qatar’s mediation appeared to bear fruit, the conflict resumed. Doha withdrew and failed to live up to its promises to invest in the areas most affected by the war.
Qatar’s foreign policy transformation under Sheikh Hamad was often described as a “friends with everyone approach,” before things started to unravel when some of its gambles in the era of the Arab uprisings did not pay off.
Less publicized was the existence of an implicit pact that would come to influence Qatar’s regional policy, arguably to a substantial degree. Fearful of the threat represented by Islamist activity at home, the government provided the Brotherhood and like-minded groups with a safe haven and its largesse, in exchange for a guarantee of non-interference in Qatar’s domestic scene.
Among the many radical Islamists finding solace in Doha were the Taliban, which opened an office while living luxuriously there; Egyptian preacher Yusuf Qaradawi, with his incendiary fatwas (religious edicts) sanctioning suicide bombings; and during the 1990s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of 9/11.
During the Arab uprisings, Qatar made a big bet that various Arab governments would be overthrown and replaced by Islamists, highly organized compared to other weak or non-existent political opposition. Perhaps in the minds of Qatar’s leadership was the 1979 Iranian revolution, which started as a people’s revolution and ended up dominated by the ayatollahs.
In Yemen, this approach was translated in a huge spike in Qatari support for Islah, the political faction dominated by the local branch of the Brotherhood, which features a radical Islamist faction with many overlaps with Al-Qaeda.
Already the most powerful opposition group in Yemen and now with Qatar’s political, financial and media backing, Islah played a dominant role in the uprisings against ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In a famed speech in April 2011, just a few months before signing a GCC-sponsored power-transfer deal, Saleh said: “We derive our legitimacy from the strength of our glorious Yemeni people, not from Qatar, whose initiative we reject.”
Qatar found itself in a close relationship with the leadership of the Houthi militias, while at the same time backing their nemeses Islah, as well as Al-Qaeda. When the present diplomatic crisis erupted, the Houthi leadership was quick to express its support for and solidarity with Qatar.
Saleh was often accused of turning a blind eye to Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while capitalizing on generous US funds for counterterrorism. But he once exposed an alleged Qatari request not to confront Al-Qaeda and let Doha mediate with the terrorist group instead.
Qatar’s role in Yemen, oblivious to the fragility of the state and the complexity of the local political and tribal landscape, is a good illustration of its regional policies’ reckless opportunism. But Qatari backing for Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Syria, all sorts of extremists in Libya, radical elements of the Brotherhood and even Lebanon’s Hezbollah is only part of the story.
It is also about deserving the trust of those who treat it as an ally and abandoning its hubristic regional policy, which seems devoid of concerns about long-term consequences. In a highly volatile Middle East, the world’s richest country per capita could surely play a more lucid and stabilizing role.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a consultant and political analyst focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.