QATAR BECOMES A POLITICAL FOOTBAL IN MIDDLE EAST GAME OF THRONES
Qatar, Iran’s key cheerleader in the Middle East, is facing a final countdown to financial and economic sanctions and travel bans that will jeopardise its future and the future of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The core of the dispute is Qatar’s alleged support for terrorist groups but, even more important, its close relationship with Iran, which is rightly seen as the main source of instability in the region.
On Tuesday 7th March at a press conference in the House of Commons I introduced an extensive study into the conduct of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) during the past three decades. The report established how the IRGC has been meddling in the affairs of no fewer than 14 Muslim countries in the Middle East, ranging from low-level spying and terrorist operations to full-scale military campaigns. Many of those countries have now vented their anger on Qatar.
The study prepared by the International Committee in search of Justice (ISJ) and the European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA), two Brussels-based NGOs, established that the IRGC is directly involved in Iran’s ongoing infiltration of four countries, namely Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. In all four, the IRGC has a direct and considerable military presence. In the summer of 2016, for example, there were almost 70,000 fighters in Iranian proxy forces on the ground in Syria, propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad and prolonging the civil war into its seventh year.
In Iraq, it is a prevailing irony that Iran has exploited the IRGC-led and funded campaign against Daesh as an opportunity to carry out a genocidal expulsion of Sunnis living in areas essential to the creation of a Shia Crescent from Tehran to Beirut. Ancient Iraqi Sunni cities like Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul have been laid to waste, with tens of thousands of Sunni men, women and children displaced or slaughtered.
Our report also outlined the Iranian regime’s backing for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, now engaged in a ferocious war against a Saudi-led Arab coalition attempting to restore the legitimate government. It also goes on to show how the IRGC funds the terrorist Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories and further exposes IRGC meddling in Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, to see that a range of countries across the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt, have lost patience with gas-rich Qatar, closing land, sea and air borders and demanding a series of changes. Qatar and Iran share ownership of the world’s largest gas field, the South Pars/North Dome Gas Condensate Field. Proceeds from their share of this vast resource have catapulted Qatar, with a population of only two and a half million, into the position of third richest country in the world, based on GDP per capita. Despite its wealth, Qatar must now realize its close relationship with Tehran is of grave concern among its Arab neighbours. It cannot have it both ways.
Tamin bin Hamad al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, was educated at Sherborne School in Dorset and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He took over from his father in June 2013 in a peaceful transfer of power. The Qatar royal family own great swathes of London, including Harrods and even a percentage of Heathrow; critics claim that profits from these and other international investments are routinely re-cycled into supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah and other terrorist organisations, all of whom regard Tehran as their Godfather of Islamic fundamentalism.
There is also deep concern in the region that al-Jazeera, the international TV network owned by the Qatar government and based in Doha, acts as a mouthpiece for extremists. Besides moderating al-Jazeera, the anti-Qatar coalition has demanded that Qatar stop providing support for terrorists and stop interfering in Egypt. They demand the immediate expulsion of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and other terrorists groups from Qatar and above all, the severing of close ties with Iran. The latter is perhaps the single element that would be key to resolving the dispute.
President Trump’s first-ever foreign visit after he entered the White house was to Riyadh in May. Addressing 55 leaders from Arab and Islamic nations around the Middle East, he reaffirmed the designation of Iran as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and called upon the countries represented at the summit to take action. Within days, perhaps emboldened by Trump’s visit, a coalition of countries announced that they were imposing a diplomatic and trade embargo against Qatar until it fell into line. With 40% of its food imported directly from Saudi Arabia, the closure of their only land border posed immediate problems for the small Gulf State. Nevertheless, despite having a major US air base in Qatar, President Trump has said he supports the punitive measures.
It is now up to Qatar and its beleaguered Emir al-Thani to decide whether they can face off the demands of their neighbours with only the backing of Turkey, Iran and its IRGC, or whether they will distance themselves from extremist groups and, more importantly, sever ties with Iran. Failure in the latter case will clearly be seen as a hostile act as far as the other Arab countries are concerned.
Qatar is set to play host to the FIFA World Cup in 2022. The likelihood of this international festival of football taking place in a quarantined country embroiled in an international political controversy, accused of harbouring terrorists and approving of Iran’s aggressive expansionism is, I would guess, highly unlikely.
A small country on the periphery of the Persian Gulf, it would be a grave mistake for Qatar to tie its future to Iran. The Iranian regime is unstable and liable to collapse in the near future and, even if the mullahs manage to cling to power for a little longer, experience shows that the Iranian regime is not loyal to its friends unless they become its puppets. This is a dangerous deadlock and Qatar should pull itself out while it still can.