There’s one key problem with the recent reports in the United States that claim Russian hackers were involved in planting a speech allegedly by Qatar’s ruler that sparked the crisis with neighboring Arab states: They misrepresent the situation in the region.
In the purported speech, whose authenticity is strenuously denied by Qatar, FBI officials and others, the emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani criticized the Trump administration, lambasted Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran policy, and said that Hamas was the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people (as opposed to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority).
Yet this speech was not the cause of Saudi Arabia’s dramatic severing of ties; it was just the excuse.
Nor was the Saudi move meant to curry favor with the Trump administration, as some have claimed. Quite the opposite. From the Saudi perspective, an unmissable opportunity had come along to scratch a very old itch.
Riyadh’s loathing for Doha is well known and longstanding. Despite their geographic proximity, or perhaps because of it, the two countries’ enmity is enormous.
Qatar’s flirting with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s greatest nemesis, its closeness to the Muslim Brotherhood, and of course, its founding of the Al-Jazeera satellite news channel in 1996, all turned Qatar into one of the most hated of Arab states among its fellow Sunni Arab regimes, especially in Riyadh and Cairo. Al-Jazeera transformed in the 2000s into a key tool for advancing the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas at the expense of the Egyptian, Saudi and Palestinian governments.
Because of this protracted antagonism, any attempt to reduce the crisis between Qatar and six other Arab states to a mere scuffle over certain comments that may or may not have been said by Doha’s emir misses the significance of Riyadh’s move: It marks a bid to permanently change Qatar’s policies.
The Saudi regime’s conditions for reconciliation with Doha, presented on Tuesday by Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, are not trivial; they include ending Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
It’s hard to imagine Qatar making haste to meet such a demand. Qatar sees itself as the main patron of both movements and is widely seen in the region as their most enthusiastic backer. In recent days, Qatari authorities expelled eight Hamas activists, but these were members of Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. The other side of Hamas, its politicians and top echelon of leaders, remains safely ensconced in Doha and continues to enjoy all the creature comforts the peninsula kingdom has to offer. The same goes for men of faith affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Hamas’s top officials now find themselves unexpectedly caught in the eye of the storm. On Saturday, Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Ruhi Mushtaha, Tawfik Abu Naim and Marwan Issa left the Gaza Strip for meetings in Egypt, and they were supposed to continue from there to Qatar and Lebanon. One imagines these men are going through difficult days as they struggle to come to terms with the possibility that their most significant backer, as closely identified with its sponsorship of their movement as with its support for Barcelona Football Club, is liable to sever that lifeline because of the Saudi-Egyptian pressure.
This uncertainty leaves Hamas weaker and probably more susceptible to pressure. The next time Egyptian authorities negotiate with Hamas over the opening of the Rafah crossing or the easing of some other restriction as part of their blockade with Israel of the Gaza Strip, they are likely to find a more pliable partner in the talks than in the past.
Gaza is now in worse shape than ever before, and is likely to keep deteriorating economically in the near term due to economic steps being taken against the Hamas government by the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, including ending the PA’s funding of Gaza’s electric bill and mandatory early retirements and pay cuts for PA employees in the Strip.
Yet for all that, if Hamas feels its back is to a wall, or that it is liable to lose its hold on Gaza because of either the Qatari-Saudi crisis or the PA’s economic actions, it may be tempted to reshuffle the deck by resorting to its favorite tactic – firing rockets into Israel.