The stand-off between Qatar and the Saudi-led Arab bloc has entered its fifth month bringing to the surface some Qatari exile opposition figures. Despite heavily promoted in Quartet states, it seems that these little-known figures, appearing suddenly out of nowhere, can play no more than an episodic role in the politic arena and it is hard to believe that any can become a serious challenger to the throne.
However, despite their obscurity inside and outside Qatar, these so-called “leaders of Qatari opposition” have received broad media coverage in Saudi led quartet states.
Egyptian, Emirati and Saudi newspapers have been full of reports claiming that domestic opposition to Qatari Emir-Sheik Tamim was mounting. But, deeper analysis of this reports reveals that any possible threat for Qatari ruling elite, at least in theory, comes from its dissatisfied family members and not from the street.
Qatari opposition “leaders”
As soon as Qatari crisis emerged in June, Egyptian press reported that little known Sheikh Saud bin Nasser Al-Thani, member of the ruling family in Qatar, was preparing to form a political party based in London, in opposition to the ruling regime of Emir Tamim. This newly formed opposition party was to pursue a different course in its foreign policy, one more in line with Saudi and UAE demands, including freezing Qatar’s relations with Iran, ending Qatari support for Islamists in Libya and Egypt, and expelling Islamist leaders from the Gulf state. It was also reported that the ruling family’s dissidents, gathered around Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Geneva based uncle of the Qatari Emir, will create an opposition front against the current Qatari ruler.
Paris-based Sheikh Sultan bin Suhaim Al-Thani, the son of Qatar’s foreign minister from 1972 to 1985, Sheikh Suhaim bin Hamad Al-Thani, is also among those members of the ruling dynasty that oppose the policies of the Qatari Emir. Gulf media reported on October 16, that Qatari State security forces stormed his palace in Doha, confiscating documents and holdings of Sheikh Sultan bin Suhaim as well as his father’s archives. Before this incident, he heavily criticized Qatari leadership in his Sky News Arabia appearance in mid-September. “Because of mistakes made by the Qatari government”, he said, “I have all fears that the Qatari identity will be linked to terrorism,” while expressing its firm support to Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah Al Thani’s views to resolve the Qatari crisis.
Sheikh Abdullah bin al-Thani has emerged as the central figure of the opposition, according to Quartet media, and soon became a frequent guest in Saudi royal court. He might have gained a few political points after high-profile visits with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman due to his possible role in Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow Qatari pilgrims direct passage to the Saudi Arabia for the hajj in August. But this could have also been a tactical move of Saudis presenting little known Sheikh Abdullah, as someone who can solve the crisis. It is not surprising that soon afterward Saudis have been suggesting Sheikh Abdullah should rule Qatar as an emir in exile. Salman Al-Ansari, for example, the founder and president of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), a powerful lobbying group, openly called for regime change in Qatar. In his tweet, he called for Quartet states to support Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al Thani as the “only legitimate” leader of Qatar.
Finally, Khalid al-Hail, a Qatari exile who has proclaimed himself a leader of the country’s opposition, is the latest personae to emerge amid the Qatar crisis. Although he came into the media spotlight back in 2014 when he founded a little known “Youth Movement for the Rescue of Qatar”, this entrepreneur caught the attention after organising the controversial and semi-secret conference held on September 14th in London. “The Qatar, Global Security & Stability Conference” was supported by the founder of the British Monarchist Society and Foundation.
The London Conference and its impact
The debate on the conference focused on political Islam and terrorist groups, democracy, human rights and Al Jazeera/free press. The conference website has presented a publication called “Qatar Crisis: Exploring the possible outcomes of the Qatari leadership crisis.”
Possible outcomes presumed were that Qatar’s foreign relations will shift in a Saudi/Emirati direction, but without mentioning measures of democratic reforms inside Qatar. The document also openly advocated for a “bloodless coup” which would replace emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, either by dissatisfied members of his own family (with support from Qatar’s armed forces) or as a result of military intervention by “regional states.” All of these presumptions comply with Hail’s previous statements given to various Gulf media. But when asked to further explain the agenda of Qatari opposition and his views on foreign intervention against his own homeland and the role of neighbouring countries in supporting his movement, Mr al-Hail remains silent. The same goes for other participants at the conference, including Mr. Thomas Mace-Archer-Mills, the founder of British Monarchist Society and Foundation who supported this conference and Daniel Kawczynski , a Conservative pro-Saudi MP and the “Honourable Member for Saudi Arabia,” who also has not responded to our calls.
Members of the anti-Qatar Quartet have heavily promoted Qatari opposition and their ideas of political changes in the Qatar. But this is rather strange, as quartet states have an extremely poor record on any of the points discussed at the conference including democratic values, human rights or freedom of the press, making their concern over these issues in Qatar even more bizarre.
This is why Perry Cammack, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former senior staff member of former US Secretary of State John Kerry, thinks that “London opposition conference was an unusually ineffective PR stunt and irrelevant to Qatar’s future.”
Amna Al Thani, an AM Candidate from the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the Harvard University, is quite convinced that this event was conducted by a neighbouring country and very few Qataris participated at the conference “Did you see any Qatari at this event? London has thousands of Qataris living there as students or for other purposes and no one had attended. It has not really crossed Qataris radar even,” she noted.
Relevancy of Qatari opposition
The limited impact of the London conference brings a question how much influence these exiles from the newly formed “opposition” enjoy among Qataris and how much support if any they can expect from global key players?
According to Dr. Gerd Nonneman, Professor of International Relations & Gulf Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University’s campus in Qatar, none of these figures have any significant support in Qatar. And even if they represented some minor strands of grievance among some sections of the population or the Al Thani, whatever credibility or support they might have theoretically derived from that would have been completely destroyed by their association with the four boycotting countries.
Calling for foreign intervention against its own people has never been met with sympathies anywhere. Since the crisis began, there has been mass public support for Emir Sheikh Tamim all over Qatar. Amna Al Thani told us that the Qatari general public is “completely behind Sheikh Tamim as you saw from the happiness and sense of pride that occurred when he came back from New York after the UN general assembly meeting and his meeting with the US president.” In the last five months one could easily notice an avalanche of support messages via social media and in public life as Qataris as well as expats decorated their cars and boats with images of Qatari Emir -Tamim al-Thani.
Cammack, however, noted that public opinion in the Gulf is notoriously difficult to measure, and some of the public displays of affection for Sheikh Tamim were no doubt exaggerated for international consumption. But nevertheless, “the instinct to rally around the flag into the face of political interference is nearly universal. It is almost certain that the clumsy support by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the Qatari opposition will discredit it, rather than bolster it,” he told us.
Consequently, Amna Al-Thani believes that “if the blockade states are aiming to destabilize the country, it has certainly produced the complete opposite effect. “ So far there has been no evidence of a serious domestic challenger to the emir.
Therefore, Dr. Nonneman believes that Qatari exiles cannot get any serious support anywhere outside quartet states, as decision-makers elsewhere can see through these things and know they are no more than bit-players in the propaganda war of the Quartet. Even the international media have been very sceptical of the claimed roles and importance of these figures.
“Qatari opposition”- the failed Quartet project
The emergence of the exile opposition is without doubt closely linked with Saudi-UAE efforts to bring down the current Qatari leadership. It seems that the whole project of Qatari opposition has been inspired or at least heavily supported by the Quartet. According to Dr. Nonneman the “Qatari Opposition” tactic being adopted on occasion by Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi can only be understood as an attempt to cause friction, worry and questioning inside Qatar and the ruling family, in the hope that the tactic would lead in a more indirect way to destabilisation and hence might increase the Qatari leadership’s willingness to submit to the Quartet’s demands. The real impact of these efforts, according to Cammack, “is to further personalize the conflict, making it that much more difficult to resolve.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Nonneman points out that it is very hard to believe – although not completely impossible – that anyone in the leadership in the Quartet countries seriously thinks there was ever scope for regime change by using these tactics, but even the less ambitious idea betrays a real lack of understanding of current Qatari social and political dynamics. “That is why I think the explanation cannot be complete without pointing to flawed decision-making by a very small and closed circle in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, without the benefit of advice and intelligence from other voices and state institutions (including the intelligence professionals formerly overseen by Mohammed bin Nayef-deposed Saudi crown prince) where real insights on Qatari political dynamics might have been found”.