Saudi Arabia and its allies’ list of far-reaching demands for Qatar–including cutting ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, reducing cooperation with Iran, and closing news channel Al Jazeera–is “absurd,” says CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Saudi Arabia and its partner Arab countries have released a list of demands in their campaign against the gulf state of Qatar. These demands include forcing Qatar to cut ties with the Muslim brotherhood, reduce cooperation with Iran, and close the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera. The Saudi led block gave Qatar a deadline of 10 days to comply. Medea Benjamin is co-founder of Code Pink, and author of the book Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. Medea, Welcome. MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me on, Aaron. AARON MATE: So when Saudi Arabia and its partners announced this blockade of Qatar a few weeks ago, they cited in part confronting Qatar for its support of extremist groups in the Middle East, but I think this list of 13 demands today lays it pretty bare what their real motive is. What’s your take? MEDEA BENJAMIN: These 13 demands are just absurd. It’s definitely not a rational list from which to negotiate. It’s basically saying to Qatar we want you to be a vessel of Saudi Arabia and do whatever Saudi Arabia demands. I can’t imagine that the Qatari government would take this list seriously, which means the crisis will continue. AARON MATE: Let’s get into what these demands are and what the priority might be here for Saudi and its partners. Asking Qatar to close Al Jazeera is shocking, but there’s a good reason why, given Al Jazeera’s role in the world in bringing people information about the policies of governments like Saudi Arabia. MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes. This started really during the Arab spring, when countries that were facing uprisings were trying to silence the voice of Al Jazeera because it was giving a message, it was giving a voice to the people who were uprising, and this was particularly true around Egypt. Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region have been trying to silence Al Jazeera, but Al Jazeera is the most watched news media in the entire Arab world. They don’t like that Al Jazeera has dissonant voices on there, they don’t like that Al Jazeera is not towing the Saudi line, and as the managing editor of Al Jazeera English said of this demand, “It would be like Germany saying to the UK, ‘We demand that you should down the BBC.’” It’s ridiculous. AARON MATE: Another big bone of contention for Saudi and its partners here is the Muslim brotherhood. Why are they so insistent that Qatar stop its cooperation with the Muslim brotherhood? And maybe if you can explain to people who might not know about that background, what’s important to know about it? MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, it’s hard to understand because we’re talking about Sunni’s. The Muslim brotherhood being Sunni, Qatar, Sunni, Saudi Arabia, Sunni, so it’s very confusing to people to understand how this rift is because it doesn’t fit into the usual Shia Sunni rift. The Muslim brotherhood is a group that has been organizing in power in some places. For example, in Egypt they were the ones that came to power after the overthrow of Mubarak. At the time that the Muslim brotherhood was then overthrown, Al Jazeera and Qatar gave support to the Muslim brotherhood from Egypt. The Saudis and others did not like the Muslim brotherhood because they had agreed, the Muslim brotherhood, that they did not support monarchies, and that they would get involved in the political process. For the Saudis, for example, this is terrible because it says to people that you can have an Islamic government that is voted and not one that is divine, hand over from the reign of the kingdom to the next person in charge, like they do in Saudi Arabia. So the idea of the Muslim brotherhood being involved in democratic process and taking over through elections is anathema to most of the Gulf states. AARON MATE: In terms of these Gulf states demands to Qatar when it comes to funding of militant groups in the region, on the one hand, the charge is true that Qatar does that. They were instrumental in the rebellion in Libya that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, and they play a big role in Syria today, sending support to Jihadist groups. The problem, though, is that of course Saudi Arabia and the UAE, especially, do this too. So on that front, is it just a matter of Saudi Arabia and the UAE wanting to control which Jihadist militant groups get the funding and get support, and they want to be able to control them from their own terrain? MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes, it’s absolutely ridiculous for Saudi Arabia to be accusing Qatar of the very thing that the Saudis do, and as you say, the Emirates as well. I think we have to also look at this in light of the issue of Iran because much of it comes down to that. The Saudis and the Emirates and the others do not like the fact that the countries have a decent relationship with Iran, and that is really an economic issue. They share an enormous offshore gas field that is extremely lucrative, and this is a business deal that certainly the Qatari government is not about to sever. As part of the business relationships, they have a decent political relationship. It’s not that they are particularly close to Iran, but they are not as the Saudis would like them to be, seeing Iran as the enemy. AARON MATE: So these tensions have been going on for a long time. Obviously, this was a calculated move, and it seems pretty clear that it couldn’t have happened without U.S. support. President Trump all but confirmed that when he came out and publicly bragged about giving this blockade campaign against Qatar the green light. So if it’s true that this has firm U.S. backing, at least from the Trump White House, although it’s unclear whether it’s also supported in the Pentagon and the State department, what do you think Qatar is going to do? Because they’re up against some powerful forces here. MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, I think we have to understand that the Trump administration is divided on this. Yes, it’s true that Donald Trump gave tremendous support to the Saudis when he was there and put out those tweets saying that this is a good thing, but on the other hand, at the same time, you had Tillerson saying that this was a bad thing and that the Saudis should come clean saying what were the exact demands, and they should be reasonable ones. I’m sure that Tillerson saw this list and said, “This is not reasonable.” And the other thing is the defense department. Qatar is an extremely important ally to the U.S. military, and in fact, the U.S. just sold $12 million worth of weapons. 36 F-15 fighter jets, but it’s also important to understand that there are 10,000 U.S. troops stationed in Qatar, that Qatar is the forward headquarters of Centcom, which is the U.S. military central command in the region. It’s the base from which the U.S. operates its air strikes against ISIS. So it seems on the one hand now, you have Trump supporting the Saudis, and you have Tillerson and the Pentagon that are in some way supporting Qatar. This is a divided administration, and each side feeling that they have leverage with the United States. AARON MATE: Do you think there was thought put into this decision by the Trump White House, by those inside the White House who are fine with isolating Qatar? I wonder if they reason that “Hey, no matter what, we have that base there. It’s not going anywhere, so we win no matter what.” MEDEA BENJAMIN: I don’t think the U.S. would particularly see this division as a positive thing if it keeps going. This is not good for the U.S. ties with all of the Gulf states, and those ties are economic, they’re military ties. I don’t think it’s particularly a win-win situation for the U.S. AARON MATE: But if it’s true that Qatari support for different groups has been a thorn in the side of the U.S. and its Gulf partners like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in terms of having friendly relations with Iran, having ties to Hamas and the Muslim brotherhood, and forging a more or less independent path, especially with something like Al Jazeera, there had to be a calculation by the wing of the White House that supports the blockade, that this is a great thing and they’re willing to suffer the consequences no matter what. MEDEA BENJAMIN: I don’t know that the U.S. knew the 13 demands that were going to be made, and of course, those demands, the Saudis are now saying is just laying the groundwork for negotiations. In a sense you’re right, Aaron. I think that if the Qatari’s are indeed going to have to give in on something, these are things that the U.S. would be happy about. The U.S. does not like that Qatar has served as a place for members for Hamas to meet. The certainly don’t like that Qatar has served, in some ways, as a support for members of the Muslim brotherhood. These are the kind of things that might be things that Qatar is willing to give into. They’re not going to give into other demands like closing Al Jazeera or like severing its military ties with Turkey, but I do think there are some things that it will have to give in on, and yes, the U.S. would be happy if that happened. In general, though, I think this can cause a lot more instability in the region, and who knows how long it’s going to go on. The last time there was a rift in 2014 and there was a recall of ambassadors, it took quite a long time for that to be resolved, and that was not nearly as divisive a rift as this one is now. AARON MATE: I’m wondering if you can comment on this list of demands today in the context of the news this week of the replacement of the crowned prince of Saudi Arabia with King Salman’s son, the son who has waged the war in Yemen, this disastrous war that’s killed so many Yemeni civilians. The man he replaced, I understand, was at least hesitant about the war in Yemen, and also possibly the blockade of Qatar. MEDEA BENJAMIN: I think this has the mark of the young crowned prince all over it. It is one of those brash moves, just like the move to invade Yemen was such a brash move, and look how that has evolved over two years of fighting with no end in sight. I think that the crowned prince thought that this was going to be another example of showing the strength of Saudi Arabia taking what is a tiny nation of Qatar, but an extremely wealthy one, and saying we will dictate to you the terms in which you will engage with the rest of the world, and particularly with the rest of the Gulf countries. And I don’t think it’s going to be an easy win, just like in the case of Yemen. I think this is going to drag on for quite a long time, and I do think, though, it is an example of the way the crowned prince has been acting, and it’s a very unfortunate one. AARON MATE: [inaudible 00:12:49] Medea, for people watching this from the U.S. and thinking, “Well, what does this have to do with us? This is an inter-regional dispute.” Can you talk about the significance of what this rift means, and the importance of seeing it resolve? MEDEA BENJAMIN: For the U.S. military, it’s very important because this is such a key base in the region. For the economic issues, there are all kinds of deals that all kinds of U.S. companies have with not only Qatar, but also with of course Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. So there is a lot of money at stake, and also I think it just plays into what is an extremely dangerous escalation of tensions with the Trump administration, Israel, and Saudi Arabia trying to encircle Iran, and this is one more example of trying to cut off ties that Iran has to other Gulf and Arab nations. So there’s many different reasons, both politically, economically, and militarily, why this crisis could affect us at home, and could just lead to much greater tensions in the region. AARON MATE: Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink and author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. Medea, thank you. MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thank you. AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.