As Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt started their campaign to isolate Qatar on June 5, 2017, accusing it of aiding “terrorism” and being too close to Iran, the messaging used by the Arab quartet struck a familiar tone.
The blockade against Qatar, now nearing the one-year mark, is often referred to as Saudi-led, but the language used by the “Arab quartet” has been consistent with private statements attributed to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (also known as MBZ), as revealed in diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011.
A review of this trove – which included secret communications from the US embassy in Abu Dhabi between 2004 and 2010, recapping dozens of meetings with top UAE officials – suggests that the UAE has been a driving force behind the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood (the Brotherhood), and shows the UAE issued a series of stark warnings to US officials about Qatar and Al Jazeera well before the blockade began.
The cables include direct quotes from MBZ on topics he has not discussed in public, providing additional context to the changing political dynamics in the Gulf. The language attributed to him in the cables suggests the UAE’s motives for the blockade are not exclusively driven by security concerns involving Qatar, but also a desire to quash dissent at home.
To date, MBZ has not delivered a single public statement about the current Gulf crisis, leaving his brother, Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed (or ABZ) and other surrogates, to speak for the government.
After UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, suffered a stroke in 2014, MBZ became the de facto ruler of the UAE. Since then, his government has pursued a more assertive foreign policy, becoming one of the top five weapons importers in the world.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the small Gulf country is the second-largest customer for US weapons in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia, one reason why US Secretary of Defense James Mattis reportedly dubbed it “Little Sparta”.
The UAE has fewer than one million nationals but has become the new regional military power, sending forces to fight in Afghanistan and Yemen, allegedly carrying out bombing raids in Libya, building military bases in Somaliland and Eritrea, and, only recently, occupying Yemen’s Socotra Island off the Horn of Africa.
Under MBZ, the UAE has grown into a key US ally whose support would be pivotal in any military confrontation with Iran.
According to a cable from February 2009, the crown prince promised US officials that “when the Iranians fire their missiles, we will go after them and kill them”.
A ‘mortal enemy’
One of the oldest and most significant social and political movements in the Arab world, the Brotherhood believes Islamic principles should regulate aspects of public and personal life.
Their calls for political activism and electoral legitimacy have often been considered a threat by monarchies and semi-democracies in the region, especially since they have wielded power at the ballot box, according to Courtney Freer, author of Rentier Islamism: The Influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gulf Monarchies.
“[The cables] demonstrate the extent to which MBZ has conflated radical and violent Islamist groups with moderate political movements like the Muslim Brotherhood,” Freer told Al Jazeera.
In a leaked cable from February 2009, US diplomats said that MBZ saw “Iranian influence in the Brotherhood very clearly as both a way to agitate the Arab populace and render the traditional leaders of Arab society impotent”.
“Thank God for Hosni Mubarak,” he was quoted as saying in one of the cables from 2007, in which he also predicted that if an election were held in Egypt, the Brotherhood would win.
MBZ had previously told Frances Townsend, US homeland security adviser under George W Bush, that the same would happen in Dubai if elections were to take place – one of the reasons he rebuffed US calls to hold elections, saying it would happen closer to 2030, to focus on the next generation, according to several leaked cables.
Thank God for Hosni Mubarak
The UAE began targeting Brotherhood sympathisers in the early 1990s after MBZ took charge of the security services following his appointment as armed forces chief of staff in 1993.
Tensions grew in the years that followed as suspected members were transferred from the education sector to other roles in the public sector, excluded from public office, and had their charities closed.
In the years that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US – in which two Emirati citizens and 15 Saudi nationals were involved – MBZ and his brothers Hamdan and Hazza expressed concerns about the influence “extremists” had on UAE society. They dramatically expanded the roles of security services throughout the country.
The 9/11 Commission also found that most of the money that financed the attacks had gone through UAE banks and wire transfers.
The UAE quickly went after money laundering and illicit fundraising, increased security cooperation with the US, and cracked down on those it identified as “extremists”.
Quashing dissent at home
Their dragnet soon expanded to include non-violent social movements the government had targeted in the past, namely Al Islah (Reform), which was seen as a political and existential threat since it was ideologically linked to the Brotherhood.
During the Bush administration, MBZ often spoke about the supposed influence the Brotherhood had on the education system and the armed forces, the leaked cables show.
According to one cable from November 2004, US officials described how the crown prince said he had identified Brotherhood members in the military and put them through a form of reverse-brainwashing.
In another cable from April 2006, MBZ reportedly said that the challenge is finding a way to “take them (the Brotherhood) down in a way that they never come back”.
While discussing the need for Saudi Arabia to confront its “extremist” problem, MBZ laughed with US officials about his own house cleaning of “Muslim Brotherhood” influence, saying “we used a Hoover (vacuum)”, according to a leaked cable from July 2005.
US officials comment in at least two cables from 2004 on MBZ’s “generic” use of the organisation’s name as a catch-all for “extremist” groups in the region.
The differing perspectives on the role of the Brotherhood have become a major fault line in the region and one reason why it is a “mess”, according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, big enough, evidently, to be included along classic divisions between Israelis and Palestinians, Russia and the US, and Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Going after Qatar
After supporting the US invasion of Iraq, MBZ blamed Qatar-based Al Jazeera for having a negative influence on the Arab public, according to the leaked cables.
He also reportedly encouraged the US to bomb the network’s Doha headquarters, although this may have been an example of his signature dark humour.
In any case, he was quoted as saying that Al Jazeera underscores the problem he sometimes has with free media.
By 2009, MBZ was growing more suspicious of Al Jazeera and Qatar, offering strong words to Richard Olsen, the then-US ambassador to the UAE, and members of his delegation. He asked them to stop taking notes and to keep his remarks off the record.
According to a cable from February 2009, MBZ believed Qatar had betrayed the GCC by making diplomatic overtures to Iran and said Qatar was “part of the Muslim Brotherhood”, two key accusations levelled at Doha in the current Gulf dispute.
In the same cable, MBZ is said to have grouped Hamas and Hezbollah with Osama bin Laden as “transnational threats posing as national movements”.
According to the cables, MBZ also revealed that his problems with Al Jazeera were personal, saying he believed the network had a negative impact on his family.
“He said that his son is intelligent — a ‘straight A student’ — but recently had voiced some anti-Western opinions, which MBZ believe were a result of watching too much Al Jazeera,” a cable from April 2004 read.
MBZ was quoted as saying: “If [Al Jazeera] can affect the grandson of a moderate leader like Sheikh Zayed this way, imagine what it can do to the uneducated or the lower classes.”
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain issued a set of demands on June 22, 2017, including shutting down Al Jazeera, severing alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and limiting ties with Iran as a prerequisite to lifting the blockade.
Qatar rejected all the demands, denouncing them as attempts to infringe its sovereignty. It also has repeatedly rejected the allegation that it supports “terrorism” as “baseless”.
Kuwait – which has operated as a mediator in the conflict – warned last month that the crisis threatened to derail the work of numerous initiatives by the GCC.
A planned Gulf summit of countries in the US that was supposed to take place at the beginning of April has been postponed to September.
But as the year anniversary of the blockade approaches, there appears to be no end in sight.