If Qatar steps in with a heavy aid effort in Lebanon, the conspiracy theory machines are bound to go into overdrive.
Born amid the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is the world’s most powerful non-state actor. In May 2000, Hezbollah defeated Israel militarily, an achievement which Arab armies have only dreamt of since 1948.
Nonetheless, Hezbollah is controversial in the Middle East. There is hatred for the Shia organisation on the part of numerous Arab regimes which have joined forces with the United States and Israel against it.
Indeed, in 2016 the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) officially designated Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.
For years, most Arab Gulf states have been moving closer to Israel. Earlier this month, the UAE formalised diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv and Bahrain is expected to do so soon too. This trend has been a result of many issues in the region which leave Israel and most GCC members sharing threat perceptions.
To be sure, Hezbollah’s position in the Middle East is one of these multiple factors bringing some Arab Gulf monarchies closer to Israel.
Hezbollah in the Gulf
It is not merely Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon that unsettles GCC states. The Iranian-backed organization’s offshoots in other countries, including Iraq and some Arab Gulf sheikdoms, have always worried GCC governments.
In fact, shortly after the group’s formation in Lebanon during the 1980s, rulers of Arab Gulf monarchies have accused Hezbollah-affiliated factions of carrying out acts of terrorism in the Arabian Peninsula. Today, many of these accusations continue.
Bahrain is an example of a GCC member with internal socioeconomic and sectarian problems which have opened up the country to alleged interference from Hezbollah.
Manama first designated Hezbollah a “terrorist organisation” to “protect Bahrain’s security and stability from Hezbollah’s threats,” according to Bahraini MP Adil al Asoumi.
Bahraini officials were quick to blame Hezbollah for the unrest that shook the archipelago kingdom in 2011. Officials in Manama are not alone in making these claims. According to the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, Hezbollah has been training Bahraini Shia militants to carry out terrorist attacks within the country.
In Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, where the majority of the kingdom’s Shia citizens reside, there is also a history of Hezbollah-affiliated groups carrying out operations.
Although Shia militancy in this part of Saudi Arabia appears to have drastically cooled down in recent years due to a host of factors, the activities of certain Shia groups in the 1980s framed Saudi government narratives about the perceived Hezbollah threat to the oil-rich country.
The Gulf’s Qatar rift
Since the siege of Qatar began in mid-2017, the blockading states have pushed a narrative about Doha sponsoring Hezbollah. The Qatar News Agency (QNA) hack of May 2017 attempted to make Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim appear sympathetic to Hezbollah.
Soon after Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE severed diplomatic and economic ties with Doha, media outlets in these Arab countries published articles which accused Qatar of backing the Iranian-backed organisation.
Eleven days after the blockade began, Manuel Almeida wrote an article for Arab News which accused Doha of supporting the Lebanese organisation.
Two months later, a piece by Salman Aldosary for Asharq Al-Awsat, which was about the Iranian-Qatari “alliance”, stated that Doha was cooperating with Hezbollah. During this time there were scores of other accusations levied against Qatar which rested on this narrative that Doha’s regional foreign policy was pro-Iran/pro-Hezbollah.
These claims did not begin in 2017. Years before the blockade, Emirati and Saudi outlets started pushing this narrative. For example, in February 2014, just one month before the first GCC crisis, Al Arabiya published a piece making similar allegations. “Following the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, Qatar had an opinion different from all Arab countries. It supported the parties of political Islam rather than the March 14 coalition. This led Qatar to side with the Syrian-Iranian axis in Lebanon and the region.”
In the aftermath of the Beirut blast on August 4, scores of neo-conservative commentators in the West and media outlets in the blockading states began publishing loads of stories and putting out tweets to reinforce this message about Qatar being a state sponsor of Hezbollah, whom the Party of God’s enemies have attempted to fully blame for the deadly explosion.
Dr Marc Owen Jones, an expert on social media in the Gulf, explained that shortly after the blast “Qatar funds Hezbollah” became the top trend on Twitter in Lebanon. He attributed this solely to “key Saudi influencers”, maintaining that “social media sovereignty does not exist” in Lebanon.
On August 12, the US State Department released a statement about how US Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ambassador Nathan A. Sales went to Doha “to thank [Qatar] for its commitment to combating global terrorism and its dedication to a robust partnership with the United States on counterterrorism and security.” Yet Al Arabiya reported that visit differently, claiming instead that Washington “sent a team to Qatar to investigate a recent Fox News report alleging Doha is funding Lebanese Hezbollah militia.”
Since May/June 2017, a war of narratives, fake news, and social media campaigns have all been hallmarks of the Gulf crisis. This array of media reports about Doha’s alleged sponsorship of Hezbollah must be interpreted within this context.
In truth, Qatar has engaged Hezbollah and other players in Lebanon’s complex political arena in ways that are “multi-vector” as Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University, explained.
Doha hosted all major Lebanese parties including Hezbollah in 2008 for the Doha Agreement that many credited with averting a second Lebanese civil war.
Two years earlier, Qatar played a role in helping southern Lebanon recover from the 2006 conflict with Israel, which required Doha to engage with Hezbollah and other groups affiliated with it.
Nonetheless, such engagement does not mean that Qatar’s Lebanon foreign policy has been ‘pro-Hezbollah’ or ‘pro-Shia’. In fact, at earlier stages in the Syrian crisis, Qatar’s government was sponsoring Sunni militias that were at war with Hezbollah and other pro-Assad Shia militias.
Regardless, the Arab regimes which seek to harm Qatar’s image in Washington and other western capitals will continue to allege that Qatar is guilty of ‘doublespeak’.
In the case of Hezbollah, this means that Qatar has supposedly been willing to counter the Iranian-backed organisation in some cases such as in the Syrian conflict while simultaneously allying itself with the group in other instances.
The Gulf and Lebanon’s uncertain future
Perhaps the major concern for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain is that Qatar, amid a sensitive period of time in Beirut, will be capable of presenting itself to Lebanon as a benevolent Gulf state which does not pursue sectarian agendas in the Mediterranean country.
Already Qatar and some other GCC members have sent aid to Lebanon in the aftermath of this month’s catastrophic explosion to help with humanitarian relief.
Yet there is good reason to expect some Arab monarchies in the Gulf to avoid providing more substantial aid to Lebanon. This is because Hezbollah possesses so much power and influence in Lebanon, which has been especially true for the past three years. Some GCC states would see their aid going to Lebanon as merely empowering their enemies Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran.
The fact of the matter is that the Lebanese will require help from outside their country as they cope with the damage caused by the explosion, as well as major financial, political, social and health challenges while some experts argue that Lebanon is quickly becoming a “failed state”.
Perhaps Qatar, which has truly broken away from the ‘Riyadh consensus’ on regional affairs in the post-2017 period could approach Lebanon independently from its fellow GCC members and give Beirut massive aid at this time.
If that scenario unfolds, there is every reason to bet that the conspiracy theory that Qatar is a Hezbollah ally will continue to be spread as part of a conspiracy to isolate Doha. This is all part of an agenda aimed at convincing the Trump administration that Qatar has taken Iran’s side in the Middle East.
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