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Analysis

The Assault on Fortress Qatar

Why Saudi Arabia’s attempts to topple the emir of Qatar will fail

Tuesday 11 September 2018, by Ali BAKEER

Feeling no pressure or urgency to end the crisis with Doha, Saudi Arabia and their allied Emiratis have revived a traditional tribal power play in the Gulf by promoting a little known member of Qatar’s royal family as an alternative to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar.

From the very beginning of the blockade, media outlets from the anti-Qatar quartet have called explicitly for a coup in Doha. Attempts to encourage an internal dispute within the ruling family have not stopped.

In order for such a move to work, the Saudi-led bloc had to rely on primitive tribal tactics — hoping that this would create cracks in Qatar’s internal cohesion — thus generating enough problems inside Doha to facilitate the idea of a soft coup against the emir of Qatar.

Don Saoud and Fort Qatar
(Click to enlarge)

The tribal card

Big and powerful tribes, such as al-Hawajer and al-Murrah, can be found on both sides of the border in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. At the very beginning of the crisis, King Salman of Saudi Arabia ordered the leaders of these tribes to be paid monthly bonuses of around $1800 to $2600 each.

One reason for this was to prepare the ground for his decision to substitute Mohammad bin Nayef (MBN) with his son, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), at the top of the power chain in Riyadh. However, there was also another reason that was directly connected to Qatar.

Last June, MBS took photos with the heads of these tribes in Saudi Arabia and reportedly forced them to issue condemnations of Qatar and its emir. In at least one staged case, Saudi Arabia leaked a video on social media of a meeting between MBS and the al-Murra tribal leaders. This move was intended to send a clear threat to Doha — the al-Murra tribe was a major supporter of the 1996 failed coup against Hamad al-Thani, the then-emir of Qatar and the father of the current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Until 2005, many of the al-Murra tribe members residing in Qatar had dual Qatari-Saudi citizenship. This all changed when Doha stripped a number of them of their citizenship because of their role in the failed coup attempt. Saudi officials still hope that provoking them again might just work.

Incitement to a coup

Along with this move, media outlets in Saudi Arabia have focused on urging cousins of the current Qatari emir to claim what they call their “right to power”. This right is presumed because their father ruled Qatar during independence.

Riyadh, a very well known newspaper in Saudi Arabia openly said “the coup — in Doha — is not far away”. Al-Hayat, the most prominent Arab newspaper funded and controlled by Saudi Arabia, actually invented a non-existent individual in Qatar’s ruling family and named him “Saud bin Naser al-Thani”. The newspaper featured the fake news on its first page and started to promote him as a prominent opposition figure.

The UAE also had its share in this malicious incitement. Khalaf al-Habtoor, Dubai’s famous businessman dubbed “the spoiled son of MBZ”, openly called on the Qatari royal family to leave the country, urging anyone loyal to UAE and Saudi Arabia to step in to fill the power vacuum.

The game is still on

On August 16, MBS hosted Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali al-Thani in Jeddah, took photos with him and presented him as if he was on an official mission. After that, King Salman received him again in Tangier, Morocco. Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali is the son of the late Emir Ali bin Abdullah al-Thani, ruler of Qatar from 1949 to 1960, and the brother of Ahmed bin Ali al-Thani, ruler from 1960 to 1972. Despite the fact that Sheikh Abdullah is a member of the royal family, he is not a Qatari official. He lived in Saudi Arabia for a long time, and he owns properties there.

Mohammad bin Salman (right) with Abdullah bin Ali Al-Thani

Soon after King Salman and MBS met Abdullah bin Ali, media outlets in the anti-Qatar quartet started to support him. Despite avid denials from UAE and Saudi officials, the rhetoric of regime-change started again.

For many observers, this play was obsolete — as it was always obvious that the goal of the Saudi officials was to empower Abdullah bin Ali in order to undermine the Qatari leadership in Doha.

Too little too late

Historic experience of power transition in Qatar shows that no coup can be “successful” if the ruling emir is inside the country.

On 22 February 1972 for example, only a few months after the independence of Qatar, the late Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, grandfather of the current emir, deposed the then ruler, Ahmad bin Ali al-Thani, brother of Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali. Despite the fact that Khalifa had an internal and external endorsement, he only succeeded in his move when Ahmad bin Ali was on a hunting trip in Iran.

Khalifa was then deposed in June 1995 by his son, Hamad al-Thani, while on a trip abroad. The failed counter-coup against Hamad came a year later. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt were accused of standing behind it in an attempt to reinstall Sheikh Khalifa in power.

Almost 21 years have passed since the failed coup attempt. The Saudi-led bloc is obviously trying to stage another one, yet it is doomed to fail for many reasons.

The lack of a surprise element means that the Qataris are already aware of the malicious intent by both Saudi Arabia and UAE towards their leadership. Qatar’s political system, security apparatus and society are all on high alert amid these efforts to undermine the legitimacy of their leadership.

Regardless, Riyadh’s sudden pushing of Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali al-Thani into the spotlight to speak on behalf of Qatari citizens, and presenting him as if on an official mission, only drives Qataris to consider him a Saudi client or puppet.

Furthermore, Saudi and UAE officials have gone too far in flattering Abdullah bin Ali in a way that discredits him — there is now no way he can get any kind of internal support whatsoever. ■

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