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Recent diametrically opposed responses to repression of Muslims by China, India and other Asian countries highlight deep differences among Gulf states that ripple across Asia.
The different responses were evident in Gulf reactions to India’s unilateral withdrawal of Kashmir’s autonomy and Qatar’s reversal of its support of China’s brutal clampdown on Turkic Muslims in its troubled, north-western province of Xinjiang.
The divergence says much about the almost decade-long fundamentally different approaches by Qatar and its main detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, towards an emerging more illiberal new world order in which minority rights are trampled upon.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia led a more than two-year-long economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar in a so far failed attempt to force the Gulf state to alter its policies. The feud and divergence reflect the Gulf states’ different efforts to manoeuvre an environment in which the United States has sent mixed signals about its commitment to Gulf security, and in which China and Russia are seeking to muscle into US dominance of the region.
In what was perhaps the most surprising indication of differences in the Gulf, Qatar appeared to reverse its tacit acquiescence in China’s clampdown, involving the incarceration in re-education camps of an estimated one million predominantly Turkic Uyghur Muslims. Qatar did so by withdrawing from a letter initially signed with dozens of other countries expressing support for China’s human-rights record in spite of the current situation in Xinjiang.
The withdrawal coincided with a US warning that kowtowing to China’s ‘desire to erode US military advantages’ in the Middle East by using its ‘economic leverage and coercion’ and ‘intellectual property theft and acquisition’ could undermine defence co-operation with the United States.
The Qatari move also came against the backdrop of the Gulf state, home to the largest US base in the region, being the only country in the Middle East to host an expansion rather than a reduction of US facilities and forces. Qatar is believed to have funded the expansion to the tune of US$1.8 billion.
The United States has withdrawn some of its forces from Syria and is negotiating, with the Taliban, a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan that seems to be lasting an eternity. Nevertheless, Qatar, an enlightened autocracy that has yet to implement at home what it preaches abroad, was unlikely to reap the full soft power benefits in liberal Western democracies for its withdrawal from the pro-Chinese letter.
It was unclear what prompted the Qatari change of heart that followed a recent incident at Doha’s Hamad International Airport that drove home the limits of China’s ability to flex its financial, economic and political muscles to control the fallout of its clampdown beyond its borders.
The limits were evident when Ablikim Yusuf, a 53-year old Uyghur Muslim seeking protection from potential Chinese persecution, landed at the airport. After initially intending to deport Mr Yusuf to Beijing at China’s request, Qatar reversed course.
But rather than granting Mr Yusuf asylum under its newly adopted asylum law (the Gulf’s first such law), Qatar gave him the time to seek refuge elsewhere. Even that was in sharp contrast to countries like Egypt and Turkey that have either deported Uyghurs or entertained the possibility of deporting Uyghurs.
As a result, Qatar’s U-turn on Chinese cooperation drove one more wedge into the Muslim world’s almost wall-to-wall refusal to criticise China for what amounts to the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history.
Turkey, Qatar’s ally in its dispute with Gulf states, as well as the Turkic republics of Central Asia, have been walking a tightrope, attempting to balance relations with China and domestic public criticism of Chinese policy in Xinjiang.
Related, Kazakhstan recently silenced a detained Kazakh rights activist of Uyghur descent by forcing him to plead guilty to a hate speech charge and abandon his activism and public criticism of China in exchange for securing his freedom.
The Qatari withdrawal complicates the Turkish and Central Asian balancing act and strengthens the position of the United States that is locked into multiple trade and other disputes with China. The withdrawal and the US criticism of Chinese policy in Xinjiang put Muslim states, increasingly selective about what Muslim causes they take up, in an awkward position.