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On Qatar and Mali 3, February 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar.
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An edited version of this article can be seen on RUSI.ORG

Claims that Qatar is supporting a range of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Sahel are not new. In June 2012 the French satirical magazine Canard Enchaine quoted French Military intelligence sources asserting that Qatar was financially supporting various groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The reports are vague but usually refer to financial support from Qatar, while some refer to Qatari planes landing at Gao disgorging arms and even Qatari Special Forces entering the fray.

None of these accusations ring true given the general thrust of Qatari foreign policy. Ironically, however, it is Qatar’s recent actions particularly in Libya that make these accusations seemingly plausible.

The Qatari contradiction

Qatar is one of only two Wahhabi states and it did name its new state mosque the Muhammad Ibn Abdul Al Wahhab mosque late last year. But Qatar is a box full of contradictions. Alcohol is easily available as is pork. Women can drive (nor has this been an issue) and Qatar has the most visible, outspoken and influential female consort in the history of the Arab world. Western education systems are at the heart of the state and there is not even an official mosque in the entire propose-built, multi-billion dollar ‘Education City’ campus housing six American Universities as well as University College London.

Externally Qatar’s policies can appear confused. Support of America by virtue of the two huge US bases in Qatar and significant (usually unwelcome) outreach to Israel in recent years is contrasted with seemingly amicable relations with Iran and support for Hamas and Hezbollah. More recently a record of enormous investment in London and Paris has been contrasted to escalating support of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and seemingly murky support of groups in the Sahel. Moreover, Qatar has been outspoken in its sub-state support of various groups in Mali’s regional neighbourhood in the last eighteen months.

A loose narrative has built suggesting that an ever increasingly confident Qatar is now beginning to support a range of ever more extreme Islamists across the region.

On the ground realities

Examining exactly what Qatar is doing in Mali is difficult. Qatar never enlightens anyone as to its foreign policy strategies or tactics and nor are there sufficient reliable sources of information in and around Mali.

The best one can say is that in addition to a lengthy history of interaction in the region the Qatar Red Crescent Society increased its capabilities in Mali in 2012 evaluating the state of the plight and the their potential response. This occasionally involved entering Mali from Niger to get to the critical city of Gao. According to an AFP article this in and of itself involved seeking safe passage from the MUJAO, an Al Qaeda offshoot.

The very fact that the two organisations came to this safe passage agreement may well be a root cause of much of the subsequent supposition, with many assuming the transit agreement to be a signal of deeper connections. Yet this is what the Red Cross/Crescent does; it sticks to its central tenet of neutrality in a conflict and deals with the realities on the ground making tactical deals to obtain access when it can.

There is no open source evidence available whatsoever that can back up assertions made by Sciences Po’s Sub-Saharan African expert Roland Marchal who suggests that Qatari Special Forces may have entered Northern Mali to train recruits of Ansar El Dine, which is part the Al Qaeda movement there. Indeed, aside from the Canard Enchaine assertion – which has even been partially retracted – there is nothing on which to base other assertions of Qatar financially supporting Al Qaeda affiliates in Mali other than supposition.

The narrative

The majority of the hyperbole about Qatar seems to stem from the adage that there’s no smoke without fire. It is unsurprising that the Mayor of Gao accuses the Qataris of supporting terrorism. From his perspective he is making a heartfelt plea for French intervention and he sees the Qatari Red Crescent Society gaining access to territory held by MUJAO. Doubtless he puts one – Qatar, the Wahhabi, rich Libyan-Islamist supporting Gulf State – and one – the Qatari Red Crescent gaining privileged access in MUJAO controlled territory – together and comes to the conclusion that ‘Qatar’ is supporting the terrorists.

Marchal too follows this logic. Qatar was active in Sudan and then in North Africa supporting various Islamists with financial support and Special Forces therefore – QED – Qatar is active in Mali doing the same thing.

While some of this is plain alarmism from those who know little about Qatar, some of it makes sense. The argument that Qatar saw how effective its support of various Islamist groups in Libya proved to be and thus sought to reuse such tactics in Mali is a logical proposition. One could also note that gaining support in an area rich in hydrocarbons and agriculture is also potentially a sensible and explanatory as a motivating factor.

The reality

Equally, however, there are many reasons as to why Qatar would be highly unlikely to be meddling with Al Qaeda groups in the Western Sahel. Despite Qatar’s reputation as a Wahhabi and Brotherhood-supporting country Qatar’s most important allies are America, the UK, and France. Qatar has a limited domestic capacity to defend itself and finds itself in a region that has seen three wars in three decades and where it is sandwiched between the two regional behemoths, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have somewhat antagonistic histories with Qatar. The Qatari leadership is under no illusion as to where its security reliance lies; resolutely in Western hands.

Countering this notion one could argue that its leadership feels it can do what it likes as its importance is so great to these key countries. But an equally key part of the Qatar project is deeply concerned with its global reputation. Through cultural events; educational investment; a variety of sporting events; world-class conference facilities and associated apparatus; and other soft power building initiatives, Qatar places a significant premium on making itself attractive internationally. To boost investment, economic diversification and Qatar’s reputation overall it wants to be known as ‘that place where England played Brazil at football’ and that ‘will host the 2022 World Cup’; it does not want to become ‘that place that supported Al Qaeda in North Africa.’  Supporting the Muslim Brotherhood – the group elected to power in several Arab states – is one thing, supporting Al Qaeda affiliates is another.

One must note that the narrative that has built up castigating Qatar suits the Algerian Government. The increasing break between Doha and Algiers with the latter bitterly resenting Qatar’s involvement funding Islamist groups in Libya and Al Jazeera fanning Islamist flames is no secret. Qatar hosting in exile Abbasi Madani, the co-founder of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Islamist party whose near election win in 1991 precipitated the cancellation of elections and Algeria’s bloody decade-long Civil War, doubtless irks the elite in Algiers too. Given the almost entire lack of actual evidence of the Qatari state nefariously supporting Al Qaeda associated groups in the Mali theatre and the way this notion fits with the Algerian Government’s desire to hit back at Qatar, it is unsurprising that at least one North African expert has suggested that ‘Algerian propaganda’ may well be playing a part.

Lastly it is worth pointing out that the small group of people who make decisions in Qatar relating to foreign affairs – the Emir, the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister/Foreign Minister – have shown no interest in the past decades of supporting hard line salafi elements such as Al Qaeda. It is entirely plausible that some Qatari money is finding its way to supporting nefarious elements in the Sahel and there may be Qatar-based charities that engage to such ends, but the odds of a member of the Qatari elite ‘ordering’ such a plan stretches credulity.

Overall, there appears to be no evidence for the more outlandish claims that Qatar is training or financing Al Qaeda-splinter groups. Not only would this idea contradict key tenets of Qatar’s foreign policy for decades now, but it is wholly unclear how useful it would be to befriend a group of extreme Sharia-devout Al Qaeda types in northern Mali. Even before they were being routed by the French, they were hardly a cohesive, structured organisation that could offer Qatar meaningful promises or guarantees.

Instead Qatar’s reputation as supporting certain, typically Brotherhood-orientated Islamist groups in North Africa and a melange of clichés about rich, Wahhabi, conflict-fuelling Gulfies seems to have coalesced, perhaps with some judicious prodding by Algeria, with a basic misinterpretation of the role and practice of the Red Crescent. The ‘Qatari policy’ that this theory asserts may chime with base fears and assumptions and fit snugly into existing narratives but in reality bears little resemblance to Qatar’s state foreign policy thus far.

Tunisia & the benefits of hindsight 9, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa.
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Published in April 2010, many people have come across this book on Tunisia unerringly failing to discern the way things would go. The Arabist has highlighted perhaps the worst paragraph, its final conclusion:

Authoritarianism in Tunisia could prove to be very durable, and not simply because the government represses opponents. A majority of Tunisians may determine that the benefits of the status quo outweigh the individual and collective costs that a transition would require them to pay. In fact, the country’s history and its current balance of political forces make this the safer bet over the medium term. It does seem clear, though, that political change in Tunisia will not come about through some dramatic event that suddenly replaces the existing order with a new one. The stability–reform dialectic

Not for one second do I write this to sneer at this author. I would imagine that his book is fairly well grounded in history and approximated the best that social scientific predictive powers could do (can you tell which side of the Soc Soc/US v UK debate I am on?). But things happen, some of which simply defy prediction.

Similarly, I find myself defending the likes of David Held. While I don’t know the in-depth bits and pieces of the case, I don’t find the notion that Saif was always a despot bursting to get out and Held was a fool for being fooled particularly persuasive. Yes, there were a number of pointers that Saif was not a nice piece of work (to say the least) and for this reason alone, perhaps Held ought not have interacted with him. This, however, is a different question.

Specifically on the notion that Saif was ‘always’ likely to become some blood-thirsty dictator or some such notion, I’m not sold. I don’t think that it takes much imagination to foresee – minus the Arab Spring (!) – Saif eventually taking over from his delusional, vicious father and leading Libya on something of a more normal path (note I don’t say that he’d be a paragon of virtue and democracy).


Blowback for Qatar 25, October 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar.
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At some stage the adulation and praise that Qatar received was always going to give way to some grumblings of one flavor or another.

Initially, Qatar was praised ad nauseum for their actions:

  • First Arab state (second overall after France) to recognise the TNC
  • Contributed 6 Mirage fighter jets to the NATO no fly zone mission
  • Leading proponent in the GCC and the Arab League of the no-fly zone
  • Sold free Libyan oil on behalf of the rebels
  • Shipped gasoline and other key items to the rebels
  • Shipped tonnes of weapons to the rebels
  • Trained the rebels in Libya and back in Doha
  • Economic aid

The first real signs of griping regarding Qatar’s role [from Libyans: I’m sure the Saudi’s were moaning about their ‘upstart’ neighbour long ago] was last week when Al Tarhouni, Libya’s Oil and Finance Minister pointedly remarked that

To any country, I repeat, please do not give any funds or weapons to any Libyan faction without the approval of the NTC.

This was a clear message to Qatar. Since the start of the conflict, Doha has been funneling arms, money and support to Libya via its contacts there. These included Bejhaj and the Al Salibi brothers. The militias associated with these groups became exceedingly well resourced and thus prospered.Yet now that the fighting is largely over and the TNC are trying to assert their authority and begin the long and slow process of returning Libya to some state of normality, the elite are obviously concerned about cash and weapons potentially still being funneled to one particular faction over another. It is reasonable that they want control over such matters

The second issue is one that has been latent for some months. Moussa Koussa left the UK for Qatar in April. It was becoming far too difficult for him to stay in the UK given his murderous past. Now in Qatar he has, I am sure, proved exceedingly useful to the Qataris and thus indirectly to the NATO alliance in working out who is who in Libya, what Gaddafi is was likely to be up to and where he was most lilely to flee to. Plus a host of other bits and pieces that only long time close confidant of Gaddafi could know. This was the price for his residency in Qatar. Yet now – on the ball as ever – the BBC doorstepped him after after miraculously ‘tracking him down’ to the Four Seasons in Doha (it’s not like it’s been written in numerous articles, or anything x x).

It is likely that there will be a sizable push to bring Koussa to some kind of justice, perhaps in Tripoli, perhaps in the Hague. This will put Qatar in a difficult position, as it will be difficult for Qatar to give up Koussa. Not only would such a notion go against deep-seated notions in this part of the world of hosting a guest (whomever that may be) but Qatar will not want to set a precedent of cow-towing to other powers to hand over someone with whom they have had dealings. Indeed, Qatar sees itself as something of a refuge for various international misfits ranging from one of Saddam Hussein’s wifes  to one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons.

Yet if Qatar does not hand over Koussa as demanded by ‘the Libyan people’ (such a demand is surely not far off) then it risks frittering away the credit that it has built up. Indeed, the TNC’s pointed remarks are already chipping away.

Overall, I don’t really think that Qatar is trying to push its Islamist allies (for that is who most of them are) because they are Islamist per se. I see Qatar’s support of Belhaj et al as mostly a factor of simple connections: they already had relations with Al Salibi and Bejhaj and thus they supported them. Certainly, Qatar is a proud, religious and conservative state and would want to support moderate Islamists, as they are doing, but it is hardly the case that they would refuse to support liberals or someone else. The fact is that if the West is expecting liberals and explicitly non-Islamist candidates to win offices after the Arab Spring, then there will be a lot of disappointed people in London and Washington.

Certainly, Qatar must take into account the TNC’s growing power and their wholly understandable and justified desire to control the weapons going in and out of their country. Yet I also detect a simple pang of jealousy as a motivating factor for the jibes against Qatar. No, I’m not trying to castigate those complaining about Qatar, just point out that it is logical for those without Qatari support to feel irked that someone else is getting truck loads of cash and arms. And if and when such people complain that they are not getting funded because Qatar are funding their own Islamists or some such notion, then I think they are being a bit cheeky and trying to pressure Qatar to stop using the wholly bust Western-created trope and specter of ‘Islamists gaining power’.

This is not to say that Qatar does not have some master plan to push one particular Islamist strand or whatever, just that I don’t know anything about such a plan and it sounds unlike the Qatar that I do know.

As for Koussa, Qatar’s best bet would either be to send him economy class to the Hague now, sticking up for justice and all that, or send him off to some tin-pot African country that wouldn’t care a jot about ICC demands. No, this is not an edifying conclusion, but this is high politics that we’re referring to, after all, not never-never land.



On Qatar in Libya 2, October 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar.
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I’ve been so horrendously busy of late that I’ve not even had time to publicize my latest article on Qatar in Foreign Affairs. Thus far it’s got a lot of good comments, so thanks to all. And a quick thanks to the editors too who made it even snappier.

Gaddafi forces capture 17 UK, French and Qatari ‘advisers’ 19, September 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar.
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Reuters is reporting that Gaddafi loyalists have captured 17 mercenaries, as they describe them. Most are French but there are also some from the UK, Qatar and an unspecified Asian country, the initial report notes.

These ‘mercenaries’ are in fact ‘technical experts and consultative officers’ aiding the rebels in their advance on the last pockets of Gaddafi’s troops.

If it is subsequently confirmed, this will mark a potentially significant boost for pro-Gaddafi forces and a commensurate setback for Libya’s new government and its allies, not to mention causing consternation for the UK, France and Qatar.

It could prove to be rather embarrassing and difficult for Qatar, should the reports prove to be correct. It would confirm what has been long suspected and reported on – that Qatar has boots on the ground. And a Qatari getting directly caught up in these troubles many thousands of miles away may contribute to concerns in Qatar as to the significant level of Qatari involvement in Libya.

If some accommodation can be reached, Gaddafi would surely demand a high price given his deranged mental state and his recent toppling from power. This or a rescue operation by UK or French special forces is surely the most likely (positive) outcome.

Least tasteful advert in history 16, June 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa.
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I’ve just stumbled upon this advert currently adorning the sides of buses in London. It’s from the Tunisian tourist authority and shows, as you can see, a semi naked woman getting a massage with the line next to it saying:

They say that in Tunisia, some people receive heavy-handed treatment

This is a revolting play on their recent struggles; directly and unequivocally playing on the brutality of their security forces.

I know they say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but this must come close. Epically poor taste.

Hat tip: Matthew Teller

On assumptions of truth 9, June 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, North Africa, Opinion.
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Earlier this evening I read an article in which Libya’s comical Ali-esque spokesperson refuted the claims that Gaddafi had given the order to use rape as a weapon of war and instead claimed that the rebels, as he refers to them, had even engaged in cannibalism.

Immediately I assumed that, as you can clearly see, the official spokesperson was lying about the rebels engaging in cannibalism. While I certainly have some skepticism about the notion of Gaddafi ordering some kind of systematic policy of rape to be used, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. And, from what little news I’ve seen about it and with their snippets of ‘proof’ (i.e. boxes of viagra apparently strewn around areas recently deserted by pro-Gaddafi forces) I would suppose that this story is mostly true.

Though, as I note, I have, essentially, bugger all proof of this. Essentially, I believe that Gaddafi (probably) used rape as a weapon of war even though it is based on no reasonable evidence. Why is this? Is it because I manifestly dislike Gaddafi and think that he’s either crazy or evil enough to concieve such a plan or because I read about it in a trusted news source? A bit of both I’d suppose.

Yet this thought perturbed me, somewhat, as I thought about it earlier. Particuarly in the light of the saga of the abduction of the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’. As you’ve probably read, a ‘prominent’ blogger – the eponymous gay girl – posted (or had someone post for her) that she had been abducted by Syrian security forces. Only later, a few days after the story broke and she became something of a cause celebre against the awful Assad regime, it transpires that it’s all something of a hoax. She was never abducted and it is not wholly clear if she is real, gay, a girl, a blogger, in Damascus, or what.

Here again, I suppose, I automatically assumed that this story was (probably) true, or at least a good representation of the facts. After all, it sounded just like what Assad’s security services would do, didn’t it? And this fundamental assumption was expertly played on by the author of the ‘gay girl’ saga.

So too to I think that the notion of Gaddafi promoting the use of rape as a weapon of war fits really rather perfectly into my characature of ‘exactly something’ that that evil despot would do. Too perfectly, perhaps? Certainly the reply of Gaddafi’s spokesperson went the only way it could: it ramped up the act to cannibalism, perhaps one of the few taboos worse (though I really don’t want to start that argument) than rape. Presumebly the logical conclusion to this game of one-upmanship’s is for Gaddafi to accuse the rebels of engaging in nechrophilia.

But this un-subtle, rather stupid response from Gaddafi’s people doesn’t concern me; it’s blatant and obvious.

To take another example: the Iranian elections of 2009. They were, I believe, stolen by Ahmadinejad with an absurd amount of votes in certain districts mysteriously not counting for who they were expected to. I have alluded to this opinion as ‘fact’ in a number of things that I have written recently. Yet I have also been reading various quotes, comments and articles from people that I trust plainly declaring that there is no hard evidence of the election being stolen. Were someone to ask me to provide my evidence then I’d root around google news, find a NYT article or two and provide that. However, I suspect that were I to delve deeper into their sources, I imagine that there would (perhaps) not be all that much solid, bonafide ‘proof’ that the election were stolen. Such proof is, I’d have thought, near impossible to obtain. Yet I still believe that the election was stolen. So am I right to say so?

I suppose the ‘opposite’ example is currently underway, so to speak, on the other side of the Gulf where it is an assumption that has become hardened fact for many (and I’d be tempted to say most) Arabs that Iran is significantly at fault for, for example, the recent troubles in Bahrain. There is – to my knowledge; and I do live and breath this topic – no evidence of significant Iranian involvement, so I dismiss it, just as an Iranian may be tempted to dismiss my assumptions about their 2009 election.

How much ought one rely on one’s assumptions and on previous analysis in lieu of evidence for understanding a given event?

The notion that one must ‘always’ have absolute proof before one makes up one’s mind is absurd: I’ve no evidence whatsoever that the moon landings took place (on the moon…) but believe that they did. Clearly we need to rely on other people’s trusted judgments a lot of the time.

I’ve got no conclusion to this wavy and meandering stream of consciousness. All I would say is that this rant makes me believe that while blogging is good and all, it doen’t come remotely close to the rigour of a good newspaper (this blog being the grand exception, of course). While you may think that that is something of an obvious statement, I’m not so sure it is.

The hype that the ##sigh## Twitter revolutions have garnered, the ‘cool’ twenty-first centuryness of the blog and the commensurate if not necessarily wholly correlated demise of the profitability of newspapers suggest to me that the worth of newspapers is, for any or none of the afore mentioned reasons, going down.

So…I dunno…go buy a newspaper or something, I guess.

KSA refusing overfly for Libyan rebels 8, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
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Reports indicate that the acting foreign minister of the Libyan rebels has cancelled a trip to Qatar after Saudi Arabia refused him permission to overfly the Kingdom.

Traveling with the acting foreign minister were three other members of the rebels National Transitional Council who were held at Cairo Airport for 20 hours (I think we can all relate to that pain) before finally being sent back to Libya.

It seems that Saudi Arabia’s intrinsic fear of change and anger towards that little upstart of a country – Qatar – continues to shine through. Mature stuff.

Hat tip:


On Qatar and Libya 13, April 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar.
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I’ve penned an article in Foreign Policy looking at Libya and Qatar. The tantalising strap line/little summary of the article is

Could tiny Qatar send ground forces to Libya?

And before anyone tries to sling me out of Qatar, can I point out that this is a mooting article; a thought piece. I’ve not been listening in at the windows of the Army HQ here. Honest.

Defending the LSE 5, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa.
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There is nothing more nauseating than self-righteous and overly earnest students. Even when I was an undergraduate the angst and self-importance that so many students imbued into their rants deeply annoyed me.

I got more than a whiff of this ‘holier than thou’ attitude in a commentary in  – quelle surprise – the Guardian lamenting how the grand traditions of the London School of Economics (LSE) are being trampled in some sorded quest for money.

Always and forever my main point of grist with these absurd commentaries is their utter lack of appreciation of, well, anything remotely concerned with reality. These people seem to live is some fairy-like world where the exigencies of finding funding to pay to run a University just magically come from some unspecified location.

The quasi-journalist in this little Guardianista rant lambasts the LSE for seeking money from Gaddafi. The way he writes the article implies that the LSE could have run perfectly happily forevermore but the evil, morally bankrupt and corrupt powers that be that have taken over this grand institution, have some kind of insatibale thirst for cash which they can only sate by consorting with idiots like Gaddafi.

Their implicit ‘money just grows on trees’ attitude annoys me terribly.

Had the LSE a choice then I am sure that they would probably not have dealt with Gaddafi. But they don’t. Moreover, let’s not forget that it is all too easy to take advantage of hindsight here. Yes, cleary Gaddafi has been a basket-case for decades. Of this there is no doubt. But can someone explain to me how interacting with him, educating him, his grotty children, other ministers and an assortment of leading Libyans about civil society or democracy can possibly be portreyed as a bad thing? Because this is surely how it is coming across; as if the LSE were selling him weapons or some other morally corrupt product.

I am just so bewildered by it all.

Of course, it it now clear that the basket-case has not lost his brutal touch and that many people misread his recent overtures to the West. C’est la vie. This in no way, shape or form, however, invalidates the LSE’s attempts to educate him otherwise. It is more than a noble cause to attempt. There is no shame in failure.