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Opinion Editorials, June 2017
The British newspaper Times reported Saturday (June 17) that in a dramatic move Saudi Arabia and Israel are in talks to establish economic ties that perhaps explains why Saudi Arabia and its allies have imposed a sweeping blockade on Qatar, in an effort to force the Gulf state to drop its support for Hamas, who control Gaza.
The Times quoted Arab and American sources as saying that the links would start small: allowing Israeli businesses to operate in the Gulf, for example, and letting El Al, the Israeli airline, fly over Saudi airspace.
Sources close to Saudi Arabia, however, dismissed the idea of improved relations as wishful thinking on behalf of a White House keen to demonstrate immediate results from President Trump’s recent visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel, the paper said and added:
“The prospect has become a source of controversy in the White House. Jason Greenblatt, the president’s top envoy to the region, has taken a conventional approach to the peace process, trying to lure the Israelis and Palestinians back to talks, but he has clashed with Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law, who has become close to Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi deputy crown prince. They have discussed an “outside-in” approach, by which Gulf States would improve ties with Israel as a prelude to a peace agreement — and full recognition of Israel by Gulf and Arab states.”
The British daily pointed out that Israel and the Gulf States have been quietly building security ties, motivated by a mutual fear of Iran. “A Saudi delegation led by a retired general made a trip to Israel last year and senior Israeli officials are keen to expand the alliance. “I think it’s much better to co-operate on economic issues than the fight against terror,” said Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli defense minister. He praised efforts to isolate Qatar.”
Riyadh has demanded that Qatar cease support for Hamas and it expel several of the group’s leaders, including Salah al-Arouri.
Michael Binyon of The Times wrote there are huge risks in reviving the idea of an Israeli liaison in Saudi Arabia:
“Any concession to Israel without a move by the Jewish state would be seen by Muslims as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. It would further embolden Isis and other Islamist groups to denounce the House of Saud as illegitimate. And it would reinforce the perception on Arab streets that America was intent on dividing Arab governments.
“Small steps — allowing over flights or participating with Israel in regional economic gatherings — are easier. The diplomatic coup of the boycott of Israel being ended by a country claiming leadership of Sunni Muslims could easily backfire, and Saudi Arabia already feels challenged on almost all its frontiers.”
Turkish mediation efforts
Meanwhile, against the background of continued tensions between Qatar and the Saudi-led group of countries, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, held talks in Saudi Arabia with the king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, on Friday. "
The meeting was positive," AFP news agency reported, quoting diplomatic sources, but there were no specifics.
Cavusoglu travelled to Mecca, where Salman is based for the last days of Ramadan, after meeting his Kuwaiti counterpart on Thursday. Cavusoglu was in Doha on Wednesday where he called for dialogue after meeting Qatar's emir and foreign minister.
"Although the kingdom is a party in this crisis, we know that King Salman is a party in resolving it," Cavusoglu said earlier. "We want to hear the views of Saudi Arabia regarding possible solutions and will share with them our views in a transparent way ... We pay a great attention to our relations with them."
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, the emir of Kuwait, which has not cut ties with Qatar, has also been trying to mediate.
According to Al Jazeera, Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, has cancelled his scheduled trip to an Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in Mexico next week to stay in the United States and work on resolving the Qatar crisis.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Tamara Kharroub, a senior analyst and assistant executive director at the Arab Center in Washington, DC, said Tillerson's latest move is "a clear sign this is a priority and in the next week, we will see some serious efforts to mediate and resolve the conflict".
"Now we hear from Saudi Arabia of a list of grievances, rather than demands," she said. "That, I believe, is a signal that Saudi Arabia is not intending to escalate this crisis any further ... trying to lessen the issue from demands to grievances."
For a background, see:
Saudi-Qatari diplomatic crisis deepens: Qatar rejects any talks until blockade is lifted
By Abdus Sattar Ghazali
Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Monday (June 19) ruled out any talks to resolve the current Saudi-Qatari diplomatic crisis unless blockade is lifted.
"Qatar is under blockade, there is no negotiation. They have to lift the blockade to start negotiations," Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying. "Until now we didn't see any progress about lifting the blockade, which is the precondition for anything to move forward."
Sheikh Al Thani’s statement came as the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said in Paris Sunday that Qatar's diplomatic isolation could "last years."
Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and a number of other countries severed diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of supporting what they called "terrorism" and Iran. Qatar has strenuously rejected the accusations.
The actions Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt are taking against Qatar are a “publicity stunt” aimed solely at attacking its image and reputation, a senior Qatari official said in a statement Monday. Sheikh Saif Bin Ahmed Al-Thani, director of Qatar’s Government Communications Office, said: The blockading nations are using terrorism as a publicity stunt.
Tellingly, activists on social media are circulating a legal opinion (fatwa) by late Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz, in which the former Mufti of Saudi Arabia backed the Muslim Brotherhood. Bin Baz served as the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia from 1992 until his death in 1999.
Bin Baz issued his fatwa in his role as chairman of Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Iftaa in Saudi Arabia. In Fatwa 6250 he said: “The most righteous Islamic groups and the closest to the teachings of the Prophet are Ahl Al-Sunnah, including Ahl Al-Hadith, Jamaat Ansar Al-Sunna and the Muslim Brotherhood. In general, all of the Islamic groups can be right or wrong at times, so you need to collaborate with them when doing the right thing and avoid the errors they make. I advise all Muslims to cooperate in order to achieve righteousness and piety.”
Qatar must end its support for the Palestinian group Hamas (which rules Gaza) and the Muslim Brotherhood before ties with other Arab Gulf states could be restored, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister insisted on June 6.
Senior Iranian official visits Qatar
In other developments, the Iranian News Agency (IRNA) reported Monday that a senior Iranian official has visited Doha and met with Qatari officials to discuss the Arab blockade on the Gulf state.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qasimi, said Assistant Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs, Hussein Gabri Ansari, paid a short visit to Qatar where he met with Qatari officials and exchanged views on bilateral relations and international issues.
In an interview with IRNA , Qasimi stressed that Iran always seeks unity and solidarity among the Islamic world and helps establish the foundations of peace and security in the region, adding that this visit comes in continuation of previous consultations with Qatari officials.
Qatar Airways to run 300 daily trips through Iran
Director General of Fars Province Airports Reza Badiei- Fard said last week that Qatar Airways will run 300 additional flights through Iranian airspace daily.
Badeiei-Fard explained that Iran’s airspace was the only option for Qatar Airways flights since the embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt amid a deepening diplomatic row that saw the four countries cut off sea and air links and diplomatic relations with the Gulf state. Qatar has also re-routed its flights over Turkey and Oman.
The majority of flights from Qatar to North Africa and southern Europe used to pass through Saudi and Egyptian airspace but are now forced to pass through Iranian airspace first then onto Iraq, Jordan and North Africa.
Some 1000 Qatari flights have passed through Iranian airspace in the past 24 hours. Major travel disruptions across the region have been reported yet Badeiei-Fard has said there are no logistical problems with the extra flights thanks to extra structural reforms put in place.
Turkish troops arrived in Qatar
The Qatari defense ministry announced on Sunday the arrival of the first group of Turkish soldiers in the capital, Doha, to take part in joint military exercises. The forces conducted their first training at the Tariq bin Ziyad military base, the ministry said.
The defense ministry said the exercises had been long planned and were part of a mutual agreement aimed at strengthening the defense capabilities of both countries, as well as boosting efforts to combat armed groups and maintaining stability in the region.
Turkey's parliament on June 7 approved a draft bill allowing its troops to be deployed to a Turkish military base in Qatar, an apparent move to support the Gulf Arab country when it faces diplomatic and trade isolation from Saudi Arabia and few other states.
Turkish 0fficials said the legislation would allow troops to be deployed to a Turkish base in Qatar, amid reports Turkey is also set to offer food and emergency supplies to the country.
Turkey set up a military base in Qatar, its first such installation in the Middle East, as part of an agreement signed in 2014. In 2016 Ahmet Davutoglu, the then Turkish prime minister, visited the base where 150 troops have already been stationed, according to the Turkish daily Hurriyet.
In an interview with Reuters in late 2015, Ahmet Demirok, the then Turkish ambassador to Qatar said 3,000 ground troops would eventually be deployed at the base, planned to serve primarily as a venue for joint training exercises.
Eric S. Margolis
Eric S. Margolis, internationally syndicated columnist, believes that Trump, who recently visited Saudi Arabia, had orchestrated the boycott and isolation of Qatar to show its upstart rulers who was boss. Moreover, his pro-Israeli advisors devised the plan and Trump backed it publicly.
For Margolis the Saudi-Qatari diplomatic crisis was another example of a US leader, with only comic book knowledge of the region, mucking things up royally. The ‘terrorists’ Qatar is accused of supporting were the Muslim Brotherhood, a venerable, moderate movement dedicated to welfare and education. After the Muslim Brotherhood won a democratic election in Egypt, the Saudis and Israel colluded to overthrow it. The result was the US-backed ruthless military dictatorship of ‘Field Marshall’ al-Sisi, which has killed, jailed, and tortured thousands of opponents.
Trump apparently green-lighted the siege of Qatar because it owns the outspoken al-Jazeera TV network, the only really outspoken media group outside of Israel, which the prickly Egyptians and Saudis hate with a burning passion. Qatar’s ruler, Sheik Hamid al-Thani, has been the principal supporter of the besieged Palestinians in Gaza and their political arm, Hamas, which is branded “terrorists’ by the US and Israel, Margolis said adding:
“Qatar has long been friendly with the Afghan resistance movement Taliban, which is also branded ‘terrorists’ by its foes. By contrast, Qatar has been an important backer of Syria’s anti-Assad rebels – who are also supported by the US, Britain, France and Turkey.
“Qatar is home to one of the largest and most important US military bases in the Mideast, al-Udaid, where 10,000 US servicemen are stationed. US warplanes from Udaid fly missions against ISIS insurgents, into Afghanistan, and to Libya. Only the US base at Incerlik, Turkey, rivals al-Udaid. Udaid played a key role in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. France also runs air operations out of al-Udaid and a base in Abu Dhabi.”
About the Turkish base in Qatar, Margolis says: The other war-like actors in this tempest in a teapot will think twice before defying the Turks who have NATO’s second biggest army.
Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America.
Qatar signs $12 billion deal to buy 36 F-15 jets as US warships arrive in Qatar for military exercise
By Abdus Sattar Ghazali
In a paradoxical development in the current Saudi-Qatari dispute, Qatar and the United States Wednesday signed a deal to buy F-15 fighter jets for $12 billion while two US warships arrived in Qatar for joint exercise.
Tellingly, the $12 billion deal was signed despite Qatar being criticized by U.S. President Donald Trump for supporting “terrorism.”
The Bloomberg News quoted a Defense Department statement as saying that Qatari Defense Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah and his U.S. counterpart, Jim Mattis, completed the $12 billion agreement on Wednesday in Washington.
The sale “will give Qatar a state of the art capability and increase security cooperation and interoperability between the United States and Qatar,” the Defense Department said in a statement.
Defense Secretary Mattis and Qatari Minister of State for Defense Affairs Khalid al-Attiyah also discussed the current state of operations against the ISIS and the importance of de-escalating tensions so all partners in the gulf region can focus on next steps in meeting common goals, the Pentagon added.
According to Bloomberg News, the F-15 sale highlights the complex position the Trump administration finds itself in, forced to balance its focus on fighting terrorism against regional rivalries between key allies. Qatar hosts the regional headquarters for U.S. Central Command, which includes a state-of-the-art air base the U.S. depends on to target ‘Islamic State’.
“It is confusing, and the worst thing you want to do in a heated, delicate situation like this is to give mixed messages,” Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, was quoted as saying of the Pentagon announcement.
Qatar’s Defense Ministry said the deal would create 60,000 jobs in 42 U.S. states while reducing the burden on U.S. forces. The F-15 accord will lead to “closer strategic collaboration in our fight to counter violent extremism and promote peace and stability in our region and beyond,” the ministry said Wednesday in a statement.
U.S. Presence in Qatar
The Bloomberg News pointed out that, while Trump appeared to back Saudi Arabia and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a more neutral tone, the Defense Department underscored its relations with Qatar, saying the U.S. was grateful to the country for its support of the U.S. presence there.
“We encourage all our partners in the region to work towards common solutions that enable regional security,” Lieutenant Colonel Damien Pickart, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces Central Command, said in a statement when the crisis began.
Last year, after the State Department approved the jet sale, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency issued a report saying that the proposed sale “enhances the foreign policy and national security of the United State by helping to improve the security of a friendly country and strengthening our strategically important relationship.”
“Qatar is an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Persian Gulf region,” the agency said.
Two US Navy vessels
Meanwhile, the Qatari news agency reported Wednesday that two US Navy vessels arrived in Doha to take part in a joint military exercise with the Qatari Emiri Navy. The two warships arrived in Qatar just days after US President Donald Trump accused Qatar of being "a funder of terrorism at a very high level".
Qatar hosts the biggest US military base in the Middle East with more than 11,000 troops deployed or assigned to al-Udeid Air Base. More than 100 aircraft operate from there, according to Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera said it was unclear if the arrival of the two warships to Doha was planned before the Gulf rift or if it was a sign of support from the Pentagon.
The Pentagon last week renewed praise of Qatar for hosting the US airbase and for its "enduring commitment to regional security", Al Jazeera said adding:
The Pentagon reassurance differed from Trump's comments that applauded the decision seemed to take credit for the blockade on Qatar and the cutting of diplomatic ties.
Turkish FM urges dialogue in Gulf crisis
In another development, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held talks in Doha with with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Economy and Trade Minister Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani.
After the talks Cavusoglu told Anadolu, the Turkish news agency:
"The situation we have been going through in this [holy month of] Ramadan is a really undesired one. There is such a crisis between sister countries and there are some steps that directly affect people. We must absolutely overcome it. We need to overcome it through peace and dialogue,” Cavusoglu said, underlining that Turkey was contributing to the peace process.
Cavusoglu also said he would visit Kuwait later Wednesday and meet Saudi Arabian king Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud on Friday in Mecca.
Last week, five Arab countries -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Yemen -- cut off ties with Qatar, accusing Doha of what they called supporting terrorism.
Qatar, for its part, has denied the accusations, calling the moves to diplomatically isolate it “unjustified”.
Ankara has said that it stands with Qatar against sanctions and has urged Riyadh to take the lead in finding a solution to the crisis.
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