Lord Hain (Lab)
My Lords, the current stand-off against Qatar exposes fundamental and dangerous fault lines in the region which are a recipe for continued conflict from Syria to Yemen. The Qatar crisis also highlights the acute contradictions in British Middle East policy. These regional divisions have seriously complicated the attack on Islamic State/Daesh. For the past two years, military action against ISIL in Syria has enjoyed the participation of countries in the Middle East: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and, belatedly, Turkey, but whereas Saudis, Qataris and Kuwaitis have openly and generously funded radical Syrian Islamist groups, including indirectly, and perhaps inadvertently, ISIL, the Emirates have not. Abu Dhabi has been much more cautious: keen on a transition from Assad but commendably concerned that this does not open the door to jihadist fundamentalism. Meanwhile, Kurdish leaders have pointed the finger in particular at Turkey and Saudi Arabia, accusing the British Government, among others, of hypocrisy for supporting those countries while trying to get rid of ISIL. Qatar is never far from these criticisms either.
These divisions have intensified following the Saudi-led blockade imposed on Qatar in June, supported by Egypt, the Emirates and Bahrain, and noisily backed by President Trump, though not, it seems, the US State Department. These states resent Qatar for a variety of reasons: its independent foreign policy, its relationship with Iran, its sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, its hosting of the irreverent Al Jazeera television station and its sponsorship of jihadi groups. The latter is ironic because the Saudis have long exported their fundamentalist Salafi ideology promoted by jihadis.
The principle of free media and free speech inherent in the largely ex-BBC staffed English Al Jazeera television channel seems to be under attack in a region not noted for a free media, but there are legitimate complaints from Abu Dhabi and others about Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel. If one is to believe the accuracy of the reports of some of the translated content, there would appear to be little doubt that it has had, and still has, presenters and commentators who have permitted and, in some cases, have engaged in, commentary which can be described as hate speech: for example, the promotion of Sunni/Shia sectarianism and openly anti-Semitic views. Some extremist Islamists, such as al-Julani of Syria’s al-Nusra, have appeared on Al Jazeera Arabic. The channel has also interviewed Qaradawi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is banned from entry into the UK and who is on record as having spoken approvingly about what Hitler did to the Jews in the Second World War. Figures such as these have been allowed to put forward repugnant views without being challenged and, on occasion, have even been endorsed by Al Jazeera commentators.
Additionally, Qataris and others, who have been designated by the US and the UN and, in some cases, by other states, for involvement in the raising of funds for terrorist activities have been permitted by Qatar to continue to operate, prompting complaints by the US Department of the Treasury. To further complicate matters, Turkey has airlifted 1,000 troops to Qatar in an act of solidarity against the blockade, and President Erdogan has criticised Saudi Arabia, where the recent elevation of Mohammed bin Salman to Crown Prince and heir apparent appears to herald a more aggressive foreign policy.
Qatar of course hosts the largest US airbase in the Middle East, with 10,000 US troops. Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquid natural gas, LNG, and has an estimated $335 billion—£254 billion—strategically invested globally, with billions pumped into the UK and US economies. Certainly, Britain relies heavily on Qatari gas and Saudi oil, as well as lucrative sales of military equipment to them. Meanwhile, across the region, Iranians, as Shiites, sponsor Hezbollah and other militias; Saudis and Qataris, as Sunnis, sponsor al-Qaeda and other jihadists including ISIL, helping unleash a monster aimed at them.
It seems to me that two minimum conditions are necessary to bring Qatar back into the fold and stabilise the region. First, Britain has to adopt a more even-handed stance between Riyadh and Tehran. Historically we have had close relations with the Saudis for obvious reasons: oil purchases and defence equipment sales. That has meant Britain aligning, as the US has, with Saudi opposition to Iran. Both countries have poor human rights records, although Iran at least practises democracy. Both have their malign proxies in the region: Iran has Hezbollah; the Saudis have jihadis. The open war in Yemen between the Saudi-led coalition and Iranian-linked Houthi rebels is disastrous for Yemenis.
Since 2011, an intra-Sunni battle for regional influence has driven this instability, with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates lined up against Qatar and Turkey. At the same time, the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional dominance has been worryingly escalated. After the Arab spring uprisings, Sunni states vied with each other for influence by supporting rival Islamist groups, with the Muslim Brotherhood being promoted by Qatar and Turkey, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE viewing it as a real threat.
In Egypt, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh actively supported the military coup that deposed the Qatari and Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi; in Libya, the two blocs backed opposing parties in the civil war; and in Syria, Qatar supported al-Qaeda-linked networks where Salafist Islamists were backed by Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile in Bahrain in 2011, the Saudis, fearing increased Iranian influence, intervened in 2011 to stop a Shia-led human rights uprising.
In many ways, the situation in Qatar is now serving to re-entrench these battle lines. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s main problem with Qatar relates to Doha’s support for Sunni groups that compete against the former’s regional proxies, not just what they criticise as Al Jazeera Arabic’s encouragement of agitation. Qatar shares with Iran a gas and oil shelf across the Arabian Gulf and so has an immediate economic interest in better relations with Iran, but then there are similar economic links between the Emirates and Iran. Yet Qatar has supported action against Iranian militias in Syria and Yemen, with some of its soldiers wounded in Yemen fighting for the Saudi-led forces.
Perversely, President Trump’s bumbling bellicosity in the region could actually strengthen Iran’s position, just as the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen increases Iranian influence there. Unless the US and Europe are prepared to embrace regional ownership of the region’s conflicts and to put the onus on its states, above all the Saudis and Iranians, to find a common solution together, there seems to be no prospect of establishing peace and stability in the Middle East. Despite the benefits of getting rid of Saddam, Iraq is a salutary case study of how western intervention can go disastrously wrong.
The Qatar crisis and President Trump’s confrontational stance toward Iran are intensifying regional divisions, in turn threatening peace in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Meanwhile, Tehran has entered a US-military declared no-go zone in Syria and blamed Riyadh for an ISIL attack on Tehran.
Iranian and Qatari malevolence in the region is matched by the Saudis and the Turks. Therefore, the West will not achieve progress, stability and peace by continued partisan interventions and aggressive confrontations. Diplomacy, engagement and mutual respect should be the priority, not coercion, polarisation and bombast against Iran from Riyadh and Washington, to supine approval from London.
Instead, Britain should be making common cause with both Saudi Arabia and Iran to fight a common ISIL enemy and seeking to dissuade Turkey from its sectarian rule, encouraging a realignment of Middle East politics to overcome its bitter and violently corrosive fault lines, of which the Qatar crisis is merely the latest and worrying symptom.