By James M. Dorsey
The UAE and Qatar focussed on different aspects of overall US policy to project themselves as key allies. 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 controversial, Qatar-based Islamic scholar, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and more militant Islamist forces. 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,” 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.”
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. “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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.”
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, 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. Camstoll signed a consulting agreement with Abu Dhabi’s state-owned Outlook Energy Investments LLC in December 2012, a week after it was incorporated in Santa Monica. Camstoll reported receiving $4.3 million in 2012 and $3.2 million 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.” 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.”
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. 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.
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”; a CNN special report asking ‘Is Qatar a haven for terror funding?’ 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,” 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.”
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, and other former Treasury officials who had been contact with Israel regarding their strategy to counter funding of Palestinian groups.
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.”
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.
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. 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. GNRD said it aimed to “to enhance and support both human rights and development by adopting new strategies and policies for real change.”
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.
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.” 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.
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. Norwegian investigators said that UAE diplomats had fought hard to prevent the case going to court.
Part 4 will appear on July 28
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.