Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Did Falconry Create Crisis in the Middle East?

The dust-up between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may have its origins in falconry gone awry. From the Financial Times:

In December 2015, Qatari falconry enthusiasts ended up on the wrong end of the hunt. The ill-fated Qatari hunting party of 26 was captured in southern Iraq and held hostage by an Iranian-backed Shia militia for 16 months. A deal to release them this year became one of the triggers that led to this week’s stand-off between Doha and its Arab neighbours.

Regional officials familiar with the deal say the ransom, which cost Doha up to $1 billion, stirred suspicions among Saudi Arabia and the UAE that Qatar was funding radical Islamist groups and their arch-rival, Iran. In one fell swoop, they say, Doha paid off blacklisted Iranian security officials, the regional Shia militias they support and a jihadi group in Syria accused by the west of being an al-Qaeda affiliate. The Qatari government said in a statement to the Financial Times that the ransom was much less, and was paid only to Baghdad to help secure the hostages’ release.

According to a person familiar with the group, the hunting party — nine of whom were from the al-Thani ruling family — knew they were taking a gamble. The trip was carefully co-ordinated with Iraq’s interior ministry, which is widely believed to be infiltrated by pro-Iran operatives.

As the kidnapping began, their Iraqi guards slipped away, according to one person in contact with the former hostages. Helicopters landed nearby, suggesting some Iranian or Iraqi complicity in the operation. According to this account, the hostages were held underground in Baghdad’s green zone, home to most foreign diplomatic missions (Iraqi militia leaders said the prisoners were held in Iran). The hostages received poor food and little medication, leaving them physically and mentally scarred, their teeth rotting on their return. “They don’t say much,” the person said. “They need psychological support.”

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