QATAR PONIES UP TO THE TROTH
Defense Secretary James Mattis and his Qatari counterpart, Defense Minister Khalid al-Attiyah signed a $12 billion arms deal yesterday in Washington, a move made particularly high-profile because of the ongoing blockade imposed on Qatar by its Gulf Arab neighbors.
The agreement is for the purchase of a number of F-15 fighter jets, a sale which the Pentagon says will ensure that Qatar has “state-of-the-art” defensive capabilities. Qatar is the richest nation on the planet in per-capital GDP, but a very small nation to be spending $12 billion on warplanes.
Over the past couple of decades, oil-rich Gulf Arab states have used some of their massive oil revenue to buy US warplanes as sort of prestige pieces to trot out during parades and the like. Tensions are rising between Qatar and the other nations, who have their own large fleets of US warplanes.
The Pentagon has retained close ties with Qatar throughout the regional dispute, reflecting the fact that Qatar hosts the largest US base in the region. In addition to the arms deal, the US Navy has sent two boats into Qatari waters today to join the nation’s fleet for military exercises.
All of this comes just a day after the Ambassador from the United Arab Emirates suggested the US should move their base out of Qatar to “pressure” them. That, it seems, is not under serious consideration from the Pentagon.
BAHRAIN JAILS QATAR SYMPATHIZERS
Following moves to further criminalize public dissent, the island nation of Bahrain has arrested at least two people today on charges of being “Qatar sympathizers,” based on public comments in which the two men were seen as opposed to the Saudi-led blockade on nearly Qatar.
One of the two men was identified as Issa Faraj Arhama al-Burshad, a human rights lawyer who filed a lawsuit attempting to challenge the blockade, accusing it of breaking up families in Bahrain by expelling Qatari citizens. The lawsuit will not happen, and Burshad has been thrown in jail for even trying to do so.
The other man was not publicly identified, but was only said to have been a social media user who was accused of making postings that “opposed the decision of the kingdom” to move against Qatar. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have both threatened to jail anyone expressing “sympathy” for Qatar.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein was critical of the moves against dissidents on the Qatar issue, saying it was a “clear violation of the right to freedom of expression or opinion.” That right, clearly, does not exist as a legal concept in either Bahrain or the UAE.
EL-SISI SAYS BLOCKADE TURKEY
Regional tensions continue to rise over the split with Qatar yesterday, as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi called on the other nations participating in the anti-Qatar blockade to agree to expand the siege to include NATO member nation Turkey.
Sisi is mad at Turkey primarily because Turkey’s President Erdogan has supported Qatar during the recent siege, and has criticized moves against Qatar as “un-Islamic,” saying the region should be committed to unity, and not divisiveness.
Sisi brought up the matter during an official visit by the King of Bahrain, one of the other nations participating in the siege. No other nations have yet commented on the possibility of bringing Turkey into the siege, but there are a lot of reasons it is unlikely.
Turkey is much larger than Qatar, and more influential. They are also one of the region’s largest exporters of food, and the loss of them as a trading partner would be potentially very problematic for nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with no obvious replacements.
Moreover, this would further solidify the ideological divide around which the Qatar split is truly based. Resentment against Qatari media’s support for pro-democracy Islamic movements, particularly opposed by Sisi, who in 2013 came to power in a coup removing an elected Islamist government, is a big part of the anti-Qatar push, but Turkey’s own ruling party is a conservative Islamic party, and has backed the Qataris as a result.
Moving against Turkey would be extremely risky in this regard, as while Sisi hopes it would oblige Turkey to abandon its support for Qatar, it would in all likelihood solidify it, and make it increasingly obvious that Qatar is not isolated.
TILLERSON: CAN'T LABEL MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD TERRORISTS
With a heavy portion of the Saudi-led push against Qatar related to the nation’s perceived support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and President Trump’s campaign talk of banning the Islamist movement coming in line with his eagerness to back hostility toward Qatar. It’s not an easy move to make, however.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday admitted that an attempt to label the Muslim Brotherhood, a largely non-violent political movement with some five million members, a “terrorist organization,” would be hugely “problematic” and risked complicating US policy around the region.
Tillerson noted that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are members of parliament in multiple nations, citing Turkey and Bahrain as specific examples, and adding that those political figures have renounced violence as a tactic, making moving against them as terrorists a pretty serious problem.
That’s broadly the case, even if most members of the Muslim Brotherhood aren’t politically connected, as the group has largely sought to establish itself as a democratic Islamist movement across the Middle East, and in the countries where political dissent hasn’t been formally criminalized, as in democratic Egypt before the 2013 military coup, they’ve been quite successful playing to religious conservative voters.
This isn’t a newfound problem with the move against the Brotherhood. Rather, the CIA was very publicly warning the Trump Administration about such a move back in February as well, warning that the movement as a whole has formally rejected violence and has set itself up as a moderate Islamist alternative to al-Qaeda and ISIS. They cautioned that declaring them terrorists too risked fueling extremism, and sending the message that Muslims in general are going to be labeled terrorists by the US irrespective of their actual position and actions.
The only reason this has been brought back up is that such a move would be favored by Saudi Arabia in the move against Qatar, but doing so has the exact same problems it always did, and many US officials remain very conscious of the backlash the move would provoke.