UAE holding 3 Qatari ‘spies’ for questioning – Bahrain grills oppn leader after expelling US diplomat
DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates is holding suspected Qatari intelligence agents for questioning on their activities in the UAE, an Emirati newspaper said yesterday, in a case that could further damage ties between the two Gulf Arab allies. Relations between the UAE and Qatar have deteriorated sharply in recent months over Doha’s support for Islamists, who are seen by the rest of the US-allied Gulf Arab oil exporters as a threat to their stability.
A Qatari newspaper reported earlier this week that UAE authorities had detained and subjected to torture three Qatari citizens who were on holiday in the Gulf state. On its front page the Arabic-language Al-Khaleej newspaper dismissed the assertion that those arrested were tourists, quoting unnamed sources as saying that authorities were holding “Qatari intelligence elements operating on UAE soil”. “They are currently undergoing questioning,” the privately owned newspaper, one of the oldest in the UAE, said, without giving further details. Qatari officials declined to comment on the report. UAE officials made no immediate comment.
In March, in the biggest public display to date of the rift between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from the country, accusing Doha of failing to abide by an accord not to interfere in each others’ internal affairs. Analysts said the dispute was over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement whose ideology challenges the principle of conservative dynastic rule long dominant in the Gulf.
Qatar made no direct comment on the earlier report that its citizens had been detained, but in an apparent allusion to the case, the Foreign Ministry said on its Twitter account earlier this week that the state “did not abandon its sons and was taking all measures through legal and diplomatic channels”. “What happened is just a reflection of the very tense relationship between Qatar and the UAE, and (one should) expect more things like this to happen in the near future,” an Arab diplomat in Doha told Reuters. “But what Qatar is trying to do now is contain the situation and resolve these problems quietly because it can’t afford the fuss and more negative repercussions.”
To the dismay of its Gulf Arab neighbours, Qatar supported Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government elected after the ousting of long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Doha provided financial and political assistance until the Islamist President Mohamed Mursi was ousted in an army coup last July. Saudi Arabia and the UAE also particularly resent Doha’s sheltering of prominent Islamist preacher Youssef al-Qaradawi, a critic of the two states’ rulers, and his regular air time on Qatar’s pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera and on Qatari state television.
In March, the UAE sentenced a Qatari physician to seven years in jail after he was convicted of supporting Islah, an Islamist group banned by authorities. Since their public spat in March, the four Gulf Arab states have agreed on steps to try to heal the rift, but so far neither Saudi Arabia, Bahrain nor the UAE have returned their ambassadors to Doha.
Separately, Bahrain interrogated its top opposition leader yesterday after expelling a senior US diplomat for meeting him, a remarkable slap at Washington from the ally that hosts the US Navy’s Middle East fleet. US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski left Bahrain late on Tuesday, the US embassy said, after the foreign ministry ordered him out because he had “intervened flagrantly” in the country’s internal affairs by “holding meetings with one party”. Washington said it was “deeply concerned” about Malinowski’s expulsion and was considering a response.
The dispute exposes the sensitivity of Washington’s relationship with one of its main regional allies. Bahrain hosts the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet responsible for all US sea power in the region, but has bristled at American criticism over its human rights record since suppressing a popular uprising in 2011. The Gulf island kingdom is ruled by a Sunni Muslim royal family, but the majority of its population are Shiites, whose political leaders have demanded democratic reforms. The authorities, backed by troops sent from Saudi Arabia, put down demonstrations during the “Arab Spring” revolts that swept the region three years ago, and low level violence is still common.
Malinowski attended a Ramadan evening meeting of opposition group Al-Wefaq on Sunday and met with its leader Ali Salman and an aide again at the US embassy on Monday. Salman was summoned by the Interior Ministry and interrogated at the Criminal Investigations Department yesterday morning. He told Reuters he was questioned for about half an hour. His lawyers were not allowed to be present but were permitted to observe from another room. “The subject of the interrogation was … about the content of the (embassy) meeting and what was discussed at it,” he told Reuters from Manama. “The answer was that it was a normal meeting and that they (Americans) heard our point of view of the political and human rights situation in Bahrain, based on the request of the US Assistant Secretary.”
He said he was asked whether Wefaq had made specific requests of the Americans and replied that they had not. Malinowski’s expulsion was “a message that shows that there is no real intention for dialogue in Bahrain. There is no real intention for reform in Bahrain”, Salman added. The Interior Ministry said Salman and the aide had been summoned for interrogation because they violated a law about “the rules of communication between political societies with foreign political organisations or parties”. It appears to have been the first time that the law, a new measure barring diplomatic meetings with politicians, had been applied.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Malinowski’s visit had been coordinated with the authorities in advance, and the Bahrain government was “well aware” visiting US officials typically meet different political groups. She said Bahrain had asked to have an official present at all Malinowski’s meetings, which she described as a violation of traditional protocol.
The tough response to Wefaq’s meeting with the Americans suggests some jostling by hardliners within the ruling Al-Khalifa family versus reformers, said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Inside the royal family, Crown Prince Salman and Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa are perceived as supporting reform, though Salman is countered by influential relatives in the military and security services who have pressed the king not to make any concessions to Shiites,” he wrote in online commentary.
The Bahrain government says it is committed to finding a political settlement with opposition groups. Justin Gengler, a Bahrain expert at Qatar University, said Bahraini authorities may have also been pushed to take a harder line by the worsening warfare between Sunnis and Shiites unfolding now in Iraq and Syria, which they fear could spread. “Given the state of Iraq and Syria right now, Bahrain could hardly have felt that the outside involvement of the US in what is another instance of sectarian political conflict was likely to have helped matters,” said Gengler.
An opposition source who was present at the Ramadan meeting attended by Malinowski said the mood there was “jubilant” and the talks “candid”. He also said the opposition saw the government’s heavy-handed response as a boon. “It seems the hardliners have mishandled the case given the reaction of the State Department. I think the opposition has won in this episode via rekindling international attention on events in Bahrain. This was a gift sent by God for the opposition.”