DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – An exiled Qatari ruling family member once promoted by Saudi Arabia amid its ongoing dispute with Doha appeared in an online video Sunday claiming he’s being held against his will in the United Arab Emirates, an allegation denied by Abu Dhabi.
The video of Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al Thani, a little-known ruling family member until the boycott of Qatar by four Arab nations, offered new fuel to the monthslong stalemated crisis. It immediately recalled the bizarre, now-reversed resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri while on a trip Riyadh, a Nov. 4 decision that was widely perceived as Saudi-orchestrated at the time.
The UAE’s state-run WAM news agency later said Sheikh Abdullah had freely left the country “at his request.”
The video, immediately aired by Doha-based news network Al-Jazeera, shows Sheikh Abdullah saying he was invited to Abu Dhabi as a guest of “Sheikh Mohammed.” Sheikh Abdullah appears to refer to Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who enjoys strong ties to Saudi Arabia’s rulers.
“I am a guest of Sheikh Mohammed but it is not hosting now, it is now an imprisonment,” Sheikh Abdullah says. “They told me not to leave and I am afraid something will happen to me and they blame Qatar.”
He adds: “I just wanted to let you know that Qatar is innocent in this and I am being hosted by Sheikh Mohammed and anything that happens to me after this is under his responsibility.”
The UAE, one of four countries boycotting Qatar, denied the claim. Authorities pointed to a series of tweets by Ali Rashid al-Nuaimi, who heads Abu Dhabi’s Hedayah counter-extremism centre. Al-Nuaimi said that Sheikh Abdullah had asked to move to the Emirates for his “safety.”
“A trusted source confirmed to me that Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al Thani is free to leave the UAE for any destination he chooses and he can leave whenever he likes,” al-Nuaimi wrote on Twitter, without elaborating.
The report on the WAM news agency said Sheikh Abdullah was “free in his movements” while in the UAE.
“He expressed his desire to leave the country where all procedures were facilitated without any interference,” WAM said. It did not say where the sheikh went.
Doha promised to “closely” observe the situation, though it acknowledges it is limited by the boycott, Qatar Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Lolwa al-Khater said.
“We have observed in the past similar behaviour by the blockading nations where rights of individuals and officials alike are violated in total contravention of international norms, conventions and laws with no clear purpose or valid reasoning,” she said in a statement.
Sheikh Abdullah’s grandfather, father and brother were rulers of Qatar until a palace coup ousted his branch of the ruling family in 1972. His last position in government was as head of the equestrian and camel racing federation decades ago.
Since the crisis, Sheikh Abdullah has held high-profile visits with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Those meetings came as Riydah allowed Qataris pilgrims over the border in August for hajj, a pilgrimage required of every able-bodied Muslim once in their lives.
Saudis then began suggesting Sheikh Abdullah should rule Qatar as an emir in exile, while Saudi-funded television networks provided him coverage. A quickly created Twitter account in his name amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. However, the last tweet on the account came in October and Sheikh Abdullah has not been publicly seen for some time.
Sheikh Abdullah is one of several Qataris exiles to emerge amid the diplomatic crisis, which began June 5 with Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cutting off Doha’s land, sea and air routes over its alleged support of extremists and close ties to Iran. Qatar has long denied funding extremists and recently restored full diplomatic relations with Iran, with whom it shares a massive offshore natural gas field that made the country and its 250,000-odd citizens extremely wealthy.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have cultivated even-closer ties in recent years. Emirati troops are deeply involved in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Sheikh Mohammed of Abu Dhabi is believed to have a close relationship with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The two countries announced plans of forming a tighter relationship in December, helping torpedo an already troubled meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The U.S., which has some 10,000 troops stationed at Qatar’s sprawling al-Udeid Air Base as part of its campaign against the Islamic State group and the war in Afghanistan, has sought to end the crisis. Its military has halted some regional exercises to put pressure on the GCC, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to resolve the crisis. However, President Donald Trump in the meantime made comments seemingly supporting the Arab nations’ efforts at isolating Qatar, complicating those efforts.
A Trump-prompted call in September between Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and the Saudi crown prince that offered a chance at negotiations also broke down in mutual recriminations.
Associated Press writer Fay Abuelgasim contributed to this report.
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