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Arab Countries Meet In Cairo To Discuss Sanctions Against Qatar

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Four Arab countries that imposed a boycott against the state of Qatar met today to discuss sanctions against that very small, very rich and very internationally active country. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain accused Qatar of supporting terrorist groups. Qatar's foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, responded in London today. He accused the four powers of unfairly tarnishing Qatar's reputation.

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MOHAMMED BIN ABDULRAHMAN AL THANI: The allegation that Qatar supports terrorism was clearly designed to generate anti-Qatar sentiment in the West.

SIEGEL: President Trump has weighed in. He spoke with Egypt's president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, today, and he urged a resolution to the Qatar crisis. So where is all this headed, and how might it be resolved? We put those questions to Professor Mehran Kamrava, who teaches political science at the Georgetown University campus in Qatar. Kamrava doubts Qatar will accept the core demands being made of it and says it's unlikely the country will change course at all.

MEHRAN KAMRAVA: Qatar has carved out a niche for itself outside of the orbit of Saudi Arabia. And that niche has enabled Qatar to maintain open lines of communication with multiple and very different actors, not all of whom always talk to each other. So for example, Qatar had an Israeli trade office in Doha up until 2008 but also houses the leadership of Hamas. And this independent foreign policy seemed maverick to the Saudis, and the Saudis have never really appreciated this flair for independence on the part of the Qataris.

SIEGEL: Of course the argument of the four countries that have imposed the boycott is that among the groups that Qatar gives a home to and supports is the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptians regard as a terrorist organization, that they have supported groups fighting in Syria who are beyond the limits of what the U.S. and others regard as moderate Syrian forces and that among those taking advantage of the open space that is Qatar are some pretty dangerous radicals.

KAMRAVA: That's absolutely correct. And in that sense, Qatar is not innocent. But it isn't the only party that is guilty. The Saudis themselves have had groups that have been unsavory, and they've supported them in Syria. The Emirates have been supporting similar groups in Libya. And so I think it is slightly disingenuous to single Qatar out as a party that supports destabilizing groups.

SIEGEL: President Trump applauded the attempt to isolate Qatar. He said when he'd been in Saudi Arabia, he'd asked who was supporting extremism, and they'd all pointed to the Qataris. Do you think that if in his phone conversation with President Sissi when the White House says he spoke of the need to stop terrorist financing and to discredit extremist ideology but also to resolve the Qatar crisis, could he turn off the pressure that some say he helped to turn on?

KAMRAVA: Absolutely. I think the White House continues to be a major player in whatever outcome we will see to this crisis.

SIEGEL: Can you imagine as an outcome I suppose from the Qatari standpoint the worst possible option, which would be Saudi troops just coming across the border and saying, that's it for an independent Qatar; we're restoring order here?

KAMRAVA: What is interesting is that over the last couple of days, we have heard both the Qatari foreign minister and the Qatari defense minister talk about Qatar's military readiness to defend itself. And this ratcheting up of rhetoric does point to some ominous signs that perhaps behind the scenes, there are conversations or at least implicit threats of military action that we may not be aware of in the public domain. But I think as the crisis drags on, the likelihood of military action on the part of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in particular becomes less likely.

SIEGEL: Professor Mehran Kamrava of Georgetown University's Doha, Qatar, campus, thanks for talking with us today.

KAMRAVA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.