Global HotSpots, Global Pairings

Saudi Arabia Vs. the World

Calls for Qatar boycott fuel fears in Muslim Asia.

Image by Przemek Pietrak


  • The Saudi-led campaign against Qatar has not received support from Muslim nations or the international community.
  • Except for Egypt, no major Arab or Muslim state has joined the boycott against Qatar.
  • Asian states are bracing for possible pressure to back a Saudi-UAE boycott of Qatar.
  • The UAE has long sought to muzzle Al Jazeera, which revolutionized the Arab media landscape since 1996.
  • Legitimate criticism of Qatar’s controversial labor regime is equally valid for that of Saudi Arabia.

For all their determination, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are struggling to rally credible Muslim and international support for their campaign against Qatar, the recalcitrant Gulf state.

Now, vulnerable Asian states are bracing for possible pressure to back a Saudi-UAE boycott of Qatar.

Countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, two of the most populous Muslim states, as well as India, home to the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population, fear that Saudi Arabia could threaten to expel millions of migrant workers and expatriates.

Saudi pawn games

Saudi Arabia has a history of using migrant workers as leverage. These workers’ remittances constitute the backbone of foreign currency liquidity of many supplier countries and whose Gulf jobs reduce pressure on domestic labor markets.

In the most dramatic instance, Saudi Arabia expelled some 700,000 Yemenis in 1990, in retaliation for Yemen’s refusal to wholeheartedly back the U.S.-Saudi led rollback of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

A similar number from a host of countries were forced to leave the kingdom in 2013 after Saudi Arabia tightened its labor law to ban foreign workers from running their own businesses and make them more dependent on the Saudi employer who initially facilitated their employment.

Target: Al Jazeera

UAE ambassador to Russia Omar Ghobash, in a clear and unabashedly frank indication that the boycott is about imposing policies and values rather than primarily about fighting political violence, defended the Saudi-UAE demand that Qatar shut down media like Al Jazeera.

Ghobash said that: “We do not claim to have press freedom. We do not promote the idea of press freedom. What we talk about is responsibility in speech.”

The UAE has long sought to muzzle Al Jazeera, which revolutionized the Arab media landscape since its inception in 1996 by breaking the mould of staid, heavily censored, government-controlled Arab broadcasting with more hard-hitting, freewheeling reporting, and giving air time to critical voices.

Al Jazeera has over the years attracted criticism from multiple Arab autocrats as well as others, including the Bush administration, which accused it of being an outlet for Al Qaeda.

A U.S. diplomatic cable, released by Wikileaks, quoted UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed as urging the United States in the walk up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq to force Qatar to reign in Al Jazeera.

Prince Mohammed allegedly went as far as asking a U.S. general to bomb Al Jazeera. It wasn’t clear if the UAE official was referring to the TV network’s headquarters in Doha or its offices in Baghdad.

A U.S. missile subsequently hit an electricity generator at Al Jazeera’s office in Baghdad, killing two members of its staff. The U.S. military said at the time that Al Jazeera “was not and never had been a target.”

Threats abound

Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi journalist with close ties to the government, echoed Mr. Ghorbash’s theme. Mr. Al-Rashed argued that the core of the conflict was Qatari support for opposition groups in the kingdom and other Arab countries and the fact that they were granted air time on Al Jazeera.

In an ominous warning, Mr. Al-Rashed suggested that Doha could experience its own Raba’a al-Adawiya Square, a reference to a Cairo square on which hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed in August 2013 by Egyptian security forces.

The demonstrators were holding a weeks-long sit in on the square to protest a Saudi and UAE-backed military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, and brought General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to power.

The coup was preceded by mass demonstrations against Mr. Morsi that, feeding on widespread criticism of his presidency, had been co-engineered by security forces with the backing of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Regime change in the offing?

Saudi and UAE media have in recent weeks run interviews with little known dissident members of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family as well as former military officers opposed to the policies of Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. This suggests that the Gulf states may support regime change in Qatar.

A Saudi lobbyist, Salman al-Ansari, head of the Washington-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), said Sheikh Tamim could meet with the same fate as Mr. Morsi.

The risk of increased pressure on Muslim nations as well as other trading partners of Saudi Arabia and the UAE stems in part from the fact that the Saudi-led campaign against Qatar has failed to generate a groundswell of support from Muslim nations and the international community.

Most Muslim countries remain on the side lines while the United States and members of the international community have called for a negotiated solution.

Chequebook diplomacy

Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s failure to garner widespread support raised questions about the return on investment of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s long-standing chequebook diplomacy.

Likewise, the kingdom’s massive financial support for Sunni-Muslim ultra-conservative educational, religious and cultural institutions and political groups across the globe that was designed to enhance soft power is apparently not paying off.

Except for Egypt, no major Arab or Muslim state has joined the boycott against Qatar.

UAE officials repeatedly warned in recent days that Qatar’s detractors would take additional punitive steps against the Gulf state if it failed to cave in to their demands.

Those steps could include not only pressure on states dependent on export of labor, but also measures against other countries that fail to grant support.

“One possibility would be to impose conditions on our own trading partners and say if you want to work with us then you have got to make a commercial choice,” Mr. Ghobash said.

It was not clear if the ambassador was also referring to the commercial interests of Muslim as well as non-Muslim powers that could include the United States, Europe and China.

More Saudi cynicism

In another bid to tighten the noose around Qatar’s neck, Saudi Arabia appeared to be attempting to persuade world soccer body FIFA to deprive the Gulf state of its 2022 World Cup hosting rights. SAPRAC, the Saudi lobby group, this week accused Qatar of simultaneously supporting sports and terrorism.

In a paper, SAPRAC reiterated the long-standing controversy about the Qatari World Cup, including questions about the integrity of its bid and criticism of its controversial labor regime.

In doing so, the kingdom seemed to be ignoring at its own peril the principle that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Legitimate criticism of Qatar’s controversial labor regime is equally valid for that of Saudi Arabia.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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