Across The Middle East
By Robert Fisk
22 March, 2005
now they have struck in Qatar. Nice, friendly, liberal Doha, with its
massive US air base and its spiky, argumentative al-Jazeera television,
its modern shops and expatriate compounds and luxury hotels. Ever since
al-Qaida urged its supporters to strike around the maritime Arab
kingdoms of the Gulf, the princes and emirs have been waiting to find
out whos first. Saturdays suicide bomber - and the killing
of a Briton - gave them their answer.
The first indications
were that the killer was an Egyptian called Omar Ahmed Abdullah Ali,
for it was his car which exploded outside the Doha Players Theatre in
the suburb of Farek Kelab. But there was no doubt about the seriousness
of the original warning. "To the brothers of Qatar, Bahrain, Oman,
the Emirates and to all the lions of jihad in the countries neighbouring
Iraq, everyone of us has to attack what is available in his country
of soldiers, vehicles and air bases of the crusaders and the oil allocated
for them," it said.
The audiotape was
made by Saleh al-Aoofi, a Saudi follower of Osama bin Laden who is credited
as leading al-Qaidas operations in the Gulf.
air base is in Qatar. Bahrain is home base to the US fleet in the Gulf.
American and British warships are regularly alongside in the emirate
of Dubai. Oman has long been an ally of the US and Britain. And all
have substantial expatriate populations. In Dubai, they used to say,
it was difficult to find a citizen of the Emirates because of the vast
population of Britons, French, Russians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and
Indians. In the old days, you could ring the Omani defence ministry
and, like as not, the phone would be answered by a lady from Godalming.
So the Iraqi insurgency
is now, it seems, to embrace all these "safe" locations. The
last time Qatar witnessed violence was the car bomb which killed the
former Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev - for whose murder
two Russian agents are now languishing in jail. But the weekends
bombing was directed at a specifically Western target - albeit that
a theatre hardly qualifies as an air base.
So safe was Qatar
believed to be that the US imprisoned Saddam Hussein there. Indeed,
his first wife, Sajida, and her children live in the emirate at the
private invitation of Sheikh Mohamed bin Khalifa al-Thani. The Qatari
interior ministry stated that the Egyptian was solely responsible for
the explosion - which seems highly unlikely. It takes considerable sophistication
to rig a car bomb, and those who prepare the vehicles are too valuable
to their organisations to be sacrificed in an attack.
Sheikh Mohamed received the usual rash of phone calls from his opposite
numbers in Kuwait, Bahrain and the Emirates. Compared with recent attacks
in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Saturdays was small-scale.
population has long been friendly to foreigners even though these are
increasingly military. There is also a large CIA base in the emirate
and US special forces troops live in guarded compounds in residential
areas of Doha.
The real purpose
of the bombing, however, may have been economic. Al-Qaidas
assaults on Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were almost certainly intended to
raise the price of oil. Qatar exports gas. Iraqs oil exports have
been interrupted by hundreds of insurgent attacks on its pipelines.
The idea that "regime change" would bring new-found stability
to the countries of the Gulf - another of President George Bushs
excuses for the 2003 invasion - now appears to be a myth.
That this weekend
marks the second anniversary of the invasion may have been in the bombers
mind. Certainly it coincided with attacks inside Iraq, including a suicide
bombing in Mosul, the killing of another US soldier near Tikrit and
a roadside bomb near Basra. The crisis in Lebanon provoked by the former
premier Rafik Hariris murder has drawn attention away from Iraq
even as the insurgency grows in strength.
The reality is that
the Iraqi invasion now reverberates across the Middle East. Hariri was
the leading proponent of a Syrian military withdrawal - which the US
supports, primarily because it holds Damascus responsible for helping
Iraqi insurgents. Lebanese officials have even claimed privately that
Hariris friendship with the Iraqi interim prime minister, Iyad
Allawi - himself half-Lebanese - brought about his death, a suggestion
which neither the Americans nor the UN takes seriously.
Now the smaller
Arab nations of the Gulf await the next assault - which no amount of
expatriates and foreign soldiers can protect from al-Qaida.