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Qatar Coup Plot May Thwart U.S. War Plans
24 October 2002
A foiled coup plot in Qatar raises questions about the ability of the government in Doha to survive, and with that, about U.S. access to the massive al-Udeid air base. If Qatar is forced to rethink and limit its cooperation with the U.S. military, then it could remove a key component of Washington's war plan for Iraq.
Stratfor sources, including Qatari diplomats and Russian military intelligence officials, confirm that authorities in Qatar foiled a coup plot this month after one of the conspirators betrayed the group for money.
Arabicnews.com on Oct. 16 cited rumors out of Cairo and the Gulf States that the Qatari government had arrested "scores" of high-ranking army officers on the evening of Oct. 12, after the plot was exposed. The report also claimed that U.S. troops were involved in the crackdown, establishing roadblocks and, in plain clothes, participating in the arrest of suspects. The arrests reportedly targeted Pakistani and Yemeni soldiers in the Qatari army, about half of which is comprised of foreign nationals.
So far, Stratfor has been unable to verify Arabicnews allegations that some of the plotters were directly linked to al Qaeda, but our sources agree that their goal was to change Qatar's foreign policy -- which now allows U.S. troops use of bases in Qatar -- in favor of an unspecified "pan-Arab and Islamic cause."
Though sources in Washington refused to give details, they confirm that "something" happened in Doha. From what Stratfor could determine, officials in Washington apparently hoped to keep a lid on the story and are upset that it is breaking.
The reports remain sketchy, raising more questions than answers.
First and foremost, how serious was the coup plot? There is no clear answer yet, nor any indication of whether the regime in Doha is secure now. U.S. actions suggest that, while this plot may have been adequately suppressed, the regime still is under internal pressure due to its close cooperation with Washington. Qatar's Muslim clerics reportedly are speaking out against the government privately and in Friday prayers. This could fuel a broader opposition and future moves against the government. The plotters also reportedly came from within the military and royal family, suggesting that the threats are both significant and difficult to root out.
A second major question is to what degree, if any, Saudi Arabia was involved in the plot. Egyptian daily al-Joumhoreyah reports that members of Qatar's ruling al-Thani family were among those arrested. Some family members reportedly issued a recent statement expressing their opposition to the regime's pro-U.S. policies. Qatar's ruler, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifah al-Thani, deposed his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, and Riyadh allegedly helped the deposed monarch attempt a counter-coup. Saudi officials maintain good relations with the deposed Qatari leader, but those with the current sheikh are deteriorating.
The Saudi government has been incensed not only by Doha's liberal social reforms, but also by its close cooperation with the United States. After officials in Riyadh said they would refuse Washington use of their air bases for an attack on Iraq, the U.S. military relocated supplies and equipment from Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia to al-Udeid air base in Qatar. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar came to a boil at the end of September, when Riyadh recalled its ambassador from Doha.
Finally, what does word of the foiled coup plot do to U.S. plans in the region? Can Washington count on Qatar as a base for military operations against Iraq? And if not, can war plans proceed at all? Speaking in Kuwait on Oct. 15, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasem Bin Jaber al-Thani said his country opposes any U.S.-led war against Iraq -- but that Doha had not yet decided whether it would permit Washington to use its bases for such an attack.
Meanwhile, the United States will postpone military exercises scheduled for November in Qatar, according to a U.S. Embassy announcement. The weeklong exercise was to involve 600 members of U.S. Central Command headquarters and was designed to study the ability to establish that headquarters in Qatar in an emergency. Though officially due to a delay in the transport of equipment for the exercise, the postponement could be the first result of the foiled coup plot. It also could be a serious setback for Washington's war plans.
A significant change in timing for any attack on Iraq could have major economic repercussions. The current war risk premium on oil prices -- which recently has added an extra $5 to $8 to each barrel -- will decline steadily if oil traders believe that impediments to a war are substantial and long-lasting. Stock exchanges in the Middle East also could get a boost -- but defense contractors and other military suppliers stand to lose if action is delayed or cancelled. The pain could be particularly acute for producers of consumables like munitions, food, medicine, fuel and logistical support.
Stratfor's sources in Washington admit the administration is, in essence, riding bucking broncos in its efforts to piece together an attack plan for Iraq -- the plan is just not coming together. Key bases for the operation keep coming into question. Saudi Arabia staunchly refuses to allow the use of its bases for a war. Turkey is expressing concern over the post-war status of Iraq's Kurds and arguing against a war. U.S. Marines were fired upon in Kuwait, a country formerly believed to be a reliable and secure ally. And now Qatar, a bastion of U.S. war plans, has faced a coup plot.
If Qatar joins Saudi Arabia in refusing Washington the use of its bases, and Kuwait remains under threat of a pro-al Qaeda fifth column, then the entire southern front of a U.S. war plan will crumble. Jordan's resistance to the war will stiffen if Doha sides with Riyadh, taking its bases out of consideration. And even if it grudgingly accedes to the war plan, Turkey simply does not have the bases and logistics networks to host 100 percent of the war effort, and a north-only option is out of the question.
Unless and until the Qatari government regains confidence in its security, a U.S. war on Iraq may be delayed indefinitely.