Rendition, defection in the Gulf

Summary: The humanitarian impact of the Qatar blockade; a Saudi-Qatari prince is rendered from Kuwait to Saudi Arabia; a senior UAE prince defects to Doha via the Qatari embassy in London. Rumours of US-brokered talks in Switzerland to resolve the crisis.

Despite another attempt by the White House to resolve the situation last month, the dispute between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc continues. “The information in our hands today does not indicate any glimmer of hope for a solution now, as the matter does not happen suddenly,” Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said on Sunday.

Given the magnitude of the other crises in the Arab world, the Qatar crisis has never attracted the humanitarian concern it arguably deserves, but the longer it wears on the more individuals and families in the region suffer, especially those with dual Qatari nationality. An Amnesty International report in 2017 said “Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are toying with the lives of thousands of Gulf residents as part of their dispute with Qatar, splitting up families and destroying peoples’ livelihoods and education.”

One person who could be described as a victim of the dispute is Loujain Al Hathloul, the Saudi driving activist recently branded a Qatari agent. Another is Prince Nawaf Al Rasheed, a dual Saudi-Qatari national who was recently rendered to Saudi Arabia from Kuwait. Prince Nawaf was invited by a senior member of the Kuwait’s Al Shammar tribe to attend a lavish three day feast complete with poetry, sword-dancing and thousands of guests in Kuwait City on May 9. On his way home to Doha he was stopped from boarding his flight by Kuwaiti security services. Prince Nawaf’s mother is Qatari and he studied at Qatar University.

The next day, May 13, news broke first on Twitter that the prince had been rendered to Saudi Arabia. A statement followed from the National Human Right Committee in Qatar saying they had received an official complaint from the missing prince’s family in Qatar ”about his arbitrary arrest by the Saudi authorities without any formal charges being directed at him or legal justification made for his arrest”.

Prince Nawaf is not a member of any political organisation but he is a senior member of the House of Al Rasheed, historic enemies of Al Saud, and a leader of the Al Shammar tribe.  The Al-Rasheed ruled the Emirate of Jabal Shammar in the north of present-day Saudi Arabia until their defeat by Al Saud in 1921. Al Saud have since been accused of orchestrating the abduction and disappearance of several Al Rasheed royal family members including Prince Nawaf’s father, the famous Nabati poet Talal Al-Rasheed who was murdered in mysterious circumstances while on a hunting trip in Algeria in 2003.

Prince Nawaf’s rendition came as a shock to the prince’s supporters in Kuwait, particularly to the Kuwaiti Al Shammar whose reputation was sullied by the incident, leading to peaceful protests in Kuwait City. On May 13 some Kuwaiti parliamentarians held a press conference in which they condemned the prince’s extradition (although they conceded they did not know where he was) and declared what had happened to him to be both unlawful and unconstitutional. On 15 May the Kuwaiti MoI tweeted that Prince Nawaf had been handed back to Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday a UN human rights spokesman called for the Saudis to reveal what had happened to him. The Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights has accused the Kuwaiti government of breaking international law.

Arab Digest sources close to the Kuwaiti government have defended Kuwait and pointed the finger of blame at Qatar, which they say bears ultimate responsibility for Prince Nawaf’s rendition by failing to send the Qatari ambassador to rescue him from the airport while he was being detained, an option Kuwait says was repeatedly offered at the time. “This was a meal ordered in Riyadh and cooked in Doha” said one source close to the Kuwaiti government. “Kuwait was just the delivery boy.”

Writing in Middle East Eye Prof. Madawi Al Rasheed, who is also a cousin of Prince Nawaf, commented: The arrest of an innocent and unpoliticised young member of the Al-Rasheed family, whose name is associated with a bygone historical era, is a purging of history. The crown prince was perhaps afraid that Qatar would succeed in reinventing an alternative leadership and a new era of tribal claims and counter-claims.

Saudi Arabia itself wanted to promote an alternative Qatari leadership when it publicised Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al-Thani as a possible replacement for current Qatari ruler, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. This project reached a dead end.

Moreover, when the Qatari-Saudi conflict began in the summer of 2017, Murra and Qahtan tribal festivals – both have brethren on the Qatari side of the border – were held regularly to denounce Qatar’s emir. Saudi Arabia mobilised the tribal element in its conflict with Qatar, so it feared the Qataris would do the same because Nawaf was living there.

To cut this meddling in tribal affairs, Saudi Arabia simply kidnapped Nawaf. His whereabouts have been unknown since 12 May.

Qatar may have lost one Sheikh this month but it appears to have gained another one as Sheikh Rashid Al Sharqi, second son of H.H. Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, Ruler of Fujairah, defected from the UAE to Qatar via the Qatari embassy in London. Sheikh Rashid, born 1987, is the Chairman of the Fujairah Culture and Media Authority. He went to school in the UK and graduated with a PhD in economics from London Metropolitan University.

Sheikh Rashid with his father HH Sheikh Hamad and the UAE ambassador at his PhD graduation ceremony, London Metropolitan University, December 3rd 2013

Last month Sheikh Rashid travelled to London, telling friends he had some business to attend to. He checked into the 45 Park Lane luxury hotel where he stayed until May 17 when he suddenly disappeared. Since UAE government security protocol dictates that while staying abroad senior UAE officials have to maintain regular contact with the UAE ambassador, texting or calling him daily and if he is unavailable they must contact the head of security at the UAE embassy instead, when Sheikh Rashid abruptly broke off contact the UAE embassy in London contacted the Metropolitan police and alerted them that the Sheikh was missing. When police attended 45 Park Lane and gained access to the Sheikh’s suite they found it to be empty. He had already checked out.

UAE officials reportedly insisted that Met police treat the disappearance as a kidnapping, a theory quickly dropped after surveillance camera footage revealed that the Sheikh had left 45 Park Lane in the company of a Qatari prince, of his own volition, for reasons still unknown. From there he made his way to the Qatari embassy in Mayfair where he requested political asylum. He stayed there till Wednesday 23 May when a diplomatic car escorted him from the embassy to Heathrow and a Qatar Airways flight took him to Doha, landing late that night.

There has been no public comment on the case by the UAE, Qatari or UK authorities but a news report appeared in a Lebanese newspaper and was picked up on Al Jazeera.

As the son of the ruler of Fujairah Sheikh Rashid would have attended Supreme Council meetings and so could be a valuable asset to Qatar. But Sheikh Rashid, like Prince Nawaf, might also just be a pawn in a larger game, possibly in secret US-hosted talks between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that are rumoured to have been going on in Switzerland for the past few months. So far the UAE has reportedly refused to engage in direct talks with Qatar in Switzerland on the basis that first Qatar has to agree to drop support for certain Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas figures in the Gulf region. Qatar has not rejected these demands but is said to be seeking written assurance witnessed by US and Israeli officials that there will be no invasion and the Emir Tamim will not be overthrown.

Last year Qatar won favour in Riyadh by deporting Saudi human rights activist Mohammad al-Otaibi to his homeland when he tried to fly with his wife to Norway where he had been granted political asylum. The defection of such a high-ranking UAE Sheikh gives Doha another card to play.

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