Behind the blockade of Qatar is a seismic shift in Arab-Israeli relations

For much of the Arab world, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are officially the number one enemy – not Israel

June 06, 2017 11:42

For Israel, things just keep getting better in the Middle East.

First there was US President Trump's decision on a visit to the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, last month to galvanise an alliance between the Jewish state and Sunni Arab countries.

The goal: to contain a boldly ascendant Iran.

In contrast to his predecessor, Mr Trump has castigated the Iranian regime as the chief instigator of instability and terrorism, while expressing his contempt for the ill-thought-out nuclear deal championed by Barack Obama.

This came on the back of an unprecedented barrage of cruise missiles by the US against a Syrian military base, in response to an alleged chemical attack on his own civilians by the key Iran and Hezbollah ally Bashar Al-Assad.

And now Saudi Arabia is spearheading a move by a number of other Sunni Arab regimes – most significantly Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arabia Emirates – to impose what amounts to a Medieval-style air, sea and land blockade against Qatar, a the tiny but fabulously wealthy Persian Gulf state.

Paradoxically, while Qatar enjoys warm ties with Israel, it is the only remaining Hamas supporter in the Arab world.

Moreover, it also bankrolls the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is an offshoot) throughout the region. And to the fury of its fellow Sunni Gulf monarchies especially, Qatar is reluctant to sever historic ties with the Shia mullahs in Tehran.

Indeed, the catalyst for this unprecedented geopolitical earthquake were comments attributed to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, made just days after Mr Trump left the region.

In remarks reported by the official Qatari news agency and broadcast on state television – which the Emir later claimed were wholly fabricated and the result of a sophisticated hacking – he insisted Iran should be respected as an important power broker in the region.

True or not, this crucially came on the back of reports that Qatar had paid tens of millions of dollars to Iran to secure the release of a number of Qatar royals kidnapped by Tehran-backed Shia militia while on a hunting trip in Iraq.

Clearly, Saudi Arabia – still revelling in the glory of Mr Trump's extravagant visit and more alarmed than ever about the threat posed by a potentially nuclear-armed Iran – has lost patience with its upstart neighbour.

Come what may, Riyadh is determined to get the Qataris to fall in behind a foreign policy agenda that marginalises both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Already, the Saudi strategy is getting results, with Qatar expelling a number of senior Hamas figures.

And we should expect more dramatic concessions on Qatar's part regarding Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in the very near future, as the Gulf state reels from the catastrophic economic and diplomatic fallout that is resulting from the blockade.

However, in the midst of this turmoil, perhaps most astonishing is what is not being talked about.

Namely, comments also attributed to the Emir in the disputed speech about how Qatar enjoys 'good' relations with Israel. In the past, that would have been enough to provoke the ire of its Sunni neighbours.

But not, it seems, any longer.

Here, then, is proof of an extraordinary shift in priorities in the Arab world over the past few years: away from singling out Israel as the enemy in favour of focusing on Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood as existential threats to peace and stability in the region.

In a sign of the accelerating thaw, a Saudi commentator featured on an Israeli news channel this week to talk about the Qatar crisis - a first for the Jewish state.

On the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, might it not be too wildly optimistic to imagine that, in another half century, this week may come to be seen as having marked the moment when Israel at last started on to the path towards full diplomatic, political and cultural ties with the Arab world?

John R Bradley is the author of four books on the Middle East

June 06, 2017 11:42

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