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Saudi Arabia is trying to make Qatar shutter Al Jazeera — and transform its foreign policy

Its demands of the isolated country could exacerbate the Gulf crisis.

The Saudi Arabian king, right, has shocked observers with his escalation against the emir of Qatar, left.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have sent Qatar a list of 13 demands that it must comply with in order for them to end the crippling economic and diplomatic blockade they’ve subjected the tiny Gulf country to for more than two weeks.

But the demands — which include shutting down its premier international media network, Al Jazeera, and curbing ties with Iran and Turkeyare so extreme that they could just end up exacerbating what’s already become one of the most acute diplomatic crises in the region in years.

Oh, and Qatar only has 10 days to comply or “the list becomes invalid.” It’s an ultimatum — submit to our demands, or continue to suffer.

Why countries are ganging up on Qatar

Early in June, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain abruptly severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and suspended all air, land, and sea travel to and from the country. Almost overnight, Qatar found itself totally cut off from the neighbors it relies on for a huge portion share of its trade and travel in and out of the country, triggering panic among Qataris over how long they could survive without access to basic things like food imports.

Riyadh’s stated reason for the drastic move was Qatar’s alleged funding of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. But few analysts actually bought that explanation.

Instead, most believed Saudi Arabia’s anger at Qatar had far more to do with Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate Islamist groups, its chummy relations with Saudi’s regional rivals Turkey and Iran, and its powerful and far-reaching media network Al Jazeera, which Saudi Arabia and the others see as a propaganda outlet for Islamist political movements that threaten their governments.

“The emphasis on terrorist financing in the beginning may have been to try and garner support from the US president — but these other issues are just as important as well as far as the history of the region are concerned,” Allen Fromherz, the director of the Middle East Studies Center at Georgia State University and a Qatar specialist, told me.

The list of demands that Saudi Arabia just sent to Qatar confirms that skepticism. Of the 13 demands, only two have anything to do with terrorism.

Here’s the list, in full:

  1. Curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close its diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade and commerce with Iran that complies with US and international sanctions will be permitted.
  2. Sever all ties to “terrorist organizations,” specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Formally declare those entities as terrorist groups.
  3. Shut down Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations.
  4. Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, and Middle East Eye.
  5. Immediately terminate the Turkish military presence in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside Qatar.
  6. Stop all means of funding for individuals, groups, or organizations that have been designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, the US, and other countries.
  7. Hand over “terrorist figures” and wanted individuals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain to their countries of origin. Freeze their assets, and provide any desired information about their residency, movements, and finances.
  8. End interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Stop granting citizenship to wanted nationals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain. Revoke Qatari citizenship for existing nationals where such citizenship violates those countries’ laws.
  9. Stop all contacts with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain. Hand over all files detailing Qatar’s prior contacts with and support for those opposition groups.
  10. Pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies in recent years. The sum will be determined in coordination with Qatar.
  11. Consent to monthly audits for the first year after agreeing to the demands, then once per quarter during the second year. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.
  12. Align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially, and economically, as well as on economic matters, in line with an agreement reached with Saudi Arabia in 2014.
  13. Agree to all the demands within 10 days of it being submitted to Qatar, or the list becomes invalid.

As you can see, there’s a whole lot of stuff in there that has nothing to do with terrorism — and has everything to do with stomping out Qatar’s regional aspirations and forcing it to fall in line with Saudi Arabia’s preferred policies.

So will Qatar actually comply with the demands?

Qatar has a long history of both conceding to Saudi Arabia’s regional hegemony and bucking it.

The most recent precedent is an episode in 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in anger over similar issues. That time, Qatar made some concessions, including curbing some of its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and cooperating more closely with Gulf states on security, and diplomatic ties were restored.

But today’s crisis is far worse than the one in 2014: The demands are much more sweeping, and the diplomatic and economic isolation is much more dire.

“If history was our only guide, we could guess Doha will make some changes in order to move beyond the conflict,” Lori Plotkin Boghardt, an Arab Gulf specialist and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me. But, she says, “Qatar has been digging in its heels. It's seen over the past week that it has some pockets of high-level support in Washington.”

That high-level support is mainly coming from the US State Department and the Department of Defense, who have been calling for calm in the region and softer measures against Qatar, which is a US ally and the host of one of the biggest and most strategically valuable American military bases in the Middle East.

But President Trump, on the other hand, has seemed at odds with his own administration, repeatedly and publicly expressing his support for Saudi’s belligerence against Qatar. “The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” Trump said during a press conference earlier this month.

On Monday, before the list of demands was released, Qatari Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said that Saudi Arabia and its allies would have to lift the isolation measures against Qatar before negotiations could begin.

Qatar fundamentally rejects the rationale for the isolation campaign. On Thursday, the day before the demands were released, Qatar’s ambassador to the US wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post painting Saudi as desperate to quash Qatar’s progressive foreign policy vision. “Behind the smokescreen, we believe that the blockading nations are seeking to isolate and punish Qatar for our independence and to retaliate against us for supporting the true aspirations of people against tyrants and dictators,” Meshal bin Hamad al-Thani wrote.

It’s anyone’s guess whether Qatar will continue to push back at Saudi Arabia’s demands or eventually capitulate, at least in some form. But right now, it’s pretty clear that the Qataris are not looking to the US as a reliable partner in navigating this crisis.

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