Gulf rivals accuse each other of N. Korean ties

Claims by supporters of Qatar, Saudi-led bloc are to sway US policy on Gulf crisis: Experts

WASHINGTON • In the ongoing diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf between Qatar and a rival Saudi-led bloc, an unusual role is being played by a country thousands of miles away: North Korea.

In recent days, both sides of the dispute have been accused of having an illicit economic relationship with the isolated nation - a touchy subject in Washington, given Pyongyang's advancing nuclear weapons programme and antagonism towards the United States.

Last week, reports detailing an alleged arms deal worth US$100 million (S$135.6 million) between North Korea and a company in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) resurfaced online. Then on Tuesday, UAE rival Qatar was accused of having a "dangerous" relationship with North Korea in an op-ed published in the Hill newspaper.

There is at least some truth in both allegations.

Details of the sale of North Korean weapons to an Emirati company were revealed in a 2015 leak of UAE government e-mails, first reported by the New York Times. The e-mails showed that Mr Yousef al-Otaiba, Emirati ambassador to Washington, was summoned to a meeting with the State Department because of the deal.

It is true, too, that Qatar is believed to be among a number of nations that use North Korean migrant workers. There are an estimated 3,000 in the country, many working to build facilities for the 2022 World Cup.

But both reports also fit into an ongoing propaganda war in the Gulf. The UAE link to North Korea resurfaced, thanks to the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs - a think-tank run by Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmed - and it was promoted by a number of Qatar-leaning publications. Meanwhile, the Hill op-ed was written by Mr Salman Al-Ansari of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, a Saudi lobbying group.

With the Trump administration seemingly split on how to deal with the crisis, extensive efforts are being made to influence the opinion of American lawmakers and the public. "I think that a key objective of the media campaign, for all parties, is to win over hearts and minds in the Beltway echo chamber, which is why we are seeing the proliferation of stories guaranteed to resonate strongest among decision-makers," said Dr Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the US-based Baker Institute for Public Policy, pointing to a recent documentary about alleged Qatari links to terrorist group Al-Qaeda.

A BID FOR SUPPORT

I think that a key objective of the media campaign, for all parties, is to win over hearts and minds in the Beltway echo chamber, which is why we are seeing the proliferation of stories guaranteed to resonate strongest among decision-makers.

DR KRISTIAN ULRICHSEN, a Gulf expert at US-based Baker Institute for Public Policy, pointing to a recent documentary about alleged Qatari links to terrorist group Al-Qaeda.

Right now, North Korea is an especially emotive issue. Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that US officials expect Pyongyang to be able to build a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as early as next year - a possibility that some consider a threat to mainland United States.

And the link between the conflict in the Gulf and North Korean weapons is not totally arbitrary, experts said. "These articles need to be placed within the context of the information war, but, at the same time, this point regarding DPRK (North Korea) is extremely serious," said Dr Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser with Gulf State Analytics.

The Trump administration has pushed countries to restrict their economic relationship with North Korea in line with sanctions. While particular attention has been paid to China, North Korea's most significant trading partner, lower-profile relationships have also been targeted. In a recent announcement of sanctions on Sudan, the State Department explicitly mentioned North Korea and suggested that the African nation was not fully committed to implementing United Nations sanctions on the country - an apparent reference to the defence trade agreements made between Khartoum and Pyongyang.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2017, with the headline 'Gulf rivals accuse each other of N. Korean ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe