Federica Mogherini must push the Gulf states to clean up on terrorism and work towards an end to the standoff with Qatar, writes Stefano Stefanini.
Stefano Stefanini is former permanent representative of Italy to NATO and diplomatic advisor to former Italian President Napolitano.
This Sunday (23 July), Federica Mogherini will visit Kuwait “to support and accompany” its mediation in the Qatar dispute. She joins the diplomatic efforts at a crucial time. The quartet has just made an opening by dropping a number of its initial requests. It holds tight on two main principles: combating terrorism and political propaganda. For the EU to have an impact, the High Representative should be aware that those are the root issues to confront. Terrorism – and the murky network supporting it across the region – is the elephant in the room. No good words can brush it off.
The Muslim and Arab world needs to come clean about terrorism. There can be no exception. This why US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kicked off his diplomacy in Doha and immediately aimed for, and obtained, a bilateral counterterrorism memorandum.
The former Exxon-Mobil CEO may be a novice diplomat, but he knows that part of the world all too well. Deal making with movements and organisations that support and finance terrorism has long been Qatar’s Achilles heel. Tillerson wasted no time in addressing it.
If she wants the EU’s voice to be heard, Mogherini cannot put it aside. Qatar’s commitment to counter terrorism was, and is, an indispensable first step to solving the Gulf crisis. “It may take quite a while” to settle the dispute, Tillerson acknowledged, but he clearly pointed out the direction to take. The Four’s latest principles bear him out, though still short of the direct negotiations he recommended.
Washington’s return to an active mediating role was in fact welcomed by the Four as well as by Qatar. Both sides are pro-Western and American allies. Qatar hosts the largest American military base in the region. In May, President Trump’s visit to Riyadh laid the foundations of a long-term alliance between the US and an Arab coalition. Qatar’s place is to be part of it.
The standoff between Qatar and the quartet arises from long-standing, underlying differences. Although Doha now appears isolated and subject to a heavy-handed commercial and travel boycotts imposed by its neighbours, despite the controversy over the hacking it suffered’, this is not David versus Goliath. Only in size and population is Qatar a mini-State; in clout it is not. Huge natural resources and savvy PR outreach have allowed the Gulf Emirate to punch well above its weight.
In the current crisis, Doha has taken the high road by not expelling the foreign residents who are nationals of the Four and advocating dialogue, while the Four moved too quickly to sanctions. However Qatar is partly to blame for the awkward situation in which it finds itself.
In the last few years, especially in the context of the Arab spring, Qatar went beyond the free-lancing threshold its Arab partners could accept. It had always carried out a maverick foreign policy but not to the point of actively taking opposite sides as it did most visibly in Egypt, by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood against the current Al-Sisi government. Its orientation in on-going crises, such as Libya or Syria, is still at odds with its GCC partners.
Al Jazeera is Qatar’s jewel in the crown on the international scene. To shut it down would indeed be a “blow to media pluralism”, as the UN Rapporteur David Kaye said. Al Jazeera carries a respectable level of journalism – in English. It is also a powerful lever in shaping and swaying Arab public opinion – in Arabic. To the Four such influence is a matter of concern to the extent they feel that it is being used against them. What they really want is the Doha restrain Al Jazeera from political propaganda, especially if it plays in the hands of extremist movements and results in hostile narratives. It can be done without infringing on editorial freedom and keeping the network running.
The quartet has accused Qatar of supporting terrorism. It is a heavy charge that Doha vehemently denies. To deserve the presumption of innocence it must now back up words with deeds and live up to the commitments it undertook in the 2013 and 2014 agreements with its neighbours. It has given the right signal by signing the bilateral memorandum of understanding with the US. It should give the same assurances to its Arab partners. The EU should not shy away from pressing the point. In return the Four should be prepared to directly engage Doha at solving the remaining differences through talks rather than diktats.
Only diplomacy can break the stalemate between Qatar and the Four. Both sides have the means and resources to dig in. That would be unfortunate. The GCC needs unity and cohesion; another disruptive rift is the last thing the crisis-ridden region needs. Mogherini must recognise that the standoff is as harmful to both sides as it is beneficial to adversaries, be they states or terrorist organisations. The caliphate may be down, but Daesh is not out.
Qatar resists being singled out on terrorism. But it cannot stand back from confronting it. The record is opaque for many. Some are moving to put it straight. It is high time for all – including the EU – to bite the bullet.