North Africa, West Asia

Qatar: diplomats return but differences remain

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have ambassadors returning to Qatar after a nearly year-long absence, a boost for a Gulf state that could do with positive media coverage.

Alexander Sehmer
22 November 2014
West Bay Skyline in Doha, Qatar

West Bay Skyline in Doha, Qatar. Heidi Donat/wikimedia. Some rights reserved

Between shopping malls and the financing of terrorism

The narrative about Qatar has gone from being one of huge gas reserves, glittering shopping malls and a staggering GDP per capita figure (according to the World Bank currently at $93,352), to being one of corruption, labour concerns and accusations of funding terrorism.

One recent Reuters report even referred to foreign diplomats remarking on cars with Islamic State markings in Qatar’s West Bay area, where many foreign embassies are located. In fact those vehicles have not been independently verified – journalists based in Doha, contacted for this article, have been sceptical and were unable to confirm such sightings.

In the United Kingdom, The Telegraph newspaper has published a steady stream of stories on Qatar’s alleged role in financing terrorist groups. The Guardian has published fewer stories, but focused on labour rights concerns – the conditions of construction workers building the facilities for the 2022 World Cup, the hosting of which Qatar also faces questions over.

Neighbourhood policy in the Gulf

Against that backdrop, the political dispute between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours has been running at least since March when Saudi, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, accusing Qatar of undermining their security by continuing to support the Muslim Brotherhood and other aligned groups.

The return of the ambassadors – in which Kuwait appears to have played a mediating role – comes ahead of the 35th summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), due to be held in Doha between 9 and 10 December. When Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, delivered a public invitation on 11 November to GCC members to attend the summit, it was assumed by some observers that Qatar feared the meeting was about to be moved elsewhere. As a consequence, the announcement about the ambassadors was unexpected. Should it have been? Recent months have seen an alignment of sorts between the GCC members. Mostly that has been against the Islamic State, whose fighters have taken over parts of Iraq and Syria.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar. Chuck Hagel/wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar. Chuck Hagel/wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

United against IS, divided over the Muslim Brotherhood

The Gulf States are all, to a greater or lesser extent, taking part in United States-led air strikes on Islamic State fighters. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are involved in the air strikes in northern Syria, while Kuwait and Oman are playing less military roles.

But while this marks an improvement in relations that have been fractious for most of the year, there is still a way to go before the divisions between Qatar and the other GCC members are healed. Qatar has never properly withdrawn its support for its favoured Islamist groups, although it did make a show of turfing out some Brotherhood members in September, asking individuals such as Amr Darrag and Hamza Zobaa to leave the country. 

 Darrag and Zobaa were among the members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who fled to Doha when the Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in July, 2013. Darrag served as Morsi’s planning minister and Zobaa was a spokesman for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). But Qatar has long been sympathetic to the Brotherhood. The frequently outspoken Brotherhood cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has lived there for most of the last 40 years and is unlikely to be asked to leave.

Meanwhile, on 16 November, the United Arab Emirates released a list of designated terrorist organisations, which includes (alongside Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and Boko Haram) the Muslim Brotherhood in the Emirates and a number of Islamic charities in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Their inclusion is hardly surprising given the Emirate’s crackdown in recent years on Muslim Brotherhood members and domestic Islamist groups, but the list’s release a day ahead of announcing the return of the Emirate’s ambassador to Qatar indicates that reopening its embassy is in no way an acceptance of Qatar’s foreign policy outlook.

Remaining differences between the Emirates and Qatar 

While Qatar’s fall from grace this year is partly of its own making, it is also in part due to efforts by the United Arab Emirates, which has hired teams of lawyers and lobbyists both to burnish its own image abroad, and to brief against Qatar.

In the United States those efforts appear to have included hiring the Camstoll Group, a US consultancy with former government staff on its payroll. An article in The New York Times observed that a number of journalists who met the Camstoll Group went on to write unflattering portrayals of Qatar.

In September, Qatar’s arrest (and later release) of two human rights researchers from the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD) was widely reported, as were observations that GNRD had links to the United Arab Emirates. Despite the Emirates ambassador’s return to Qatar – along with that of his Saudi and Bahraini counterparts – the Gulf States appear to remain fundamentally at odds over the region’s political future.


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