Every family has at least one member who drives the others crazy. In the fractious world of Arab autocrats, that family member is Qatar.
So it was not altogether surprising when a group of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates teamed up this week to demand that the tiny, gas-rich sheikhdom stop being friendly with Iran and quit funding and promoting Islamist groups — irritants in a region where such threats to the ruling order have been often been tolerated, but never accepted.
The sudden move — half a dozen countries cut diplomatic ties to Qatar on Monday, and Saudi Arabia shut off Qatar’s only land border — sent Doha residents scrambling to grocery stores to stock up on food, and forced Qatar Airways to route commercial flights around its hostile Arab neighbors. But it also demonstrated the new U.S. president’s improvisational approach to foreign policy, risking a diplomatic crisis with an ally that hosts al Udeid, the largest U.S. base in the Middle East, with little apparent discussion of the potential consequences.
At first, the White House said it was working to calm the tensions, which had briefly sent oil prices spiking on Monday. And Defense Secretary James Mattis, who led Central Command for a brief period under Obama, stressed that he didn’t expect the diplomatic spat to affect operations at al Udeid. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also sounded a note of caution, calling on Qatar and Saudi Arabia “to sit down together and address these differences.”
That was all before Tuesday morning, when President Trump blew it all up. “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” Trump tweeted. “Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” He kept going. “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
It was a stunning embrace of the worldview of Saudi Arabia, which views Qatar as a vassal state and, despite its own history with extremist groups and ideologies, despises Qatari leaders for siding with politically threatening Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. Trump’s tweets came as a seasoned Saudi envoy, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, was meeting with the emir of Kuwait to try to resolve the crisis. They also came on the same day U.S.-backed forces in Syria kicked off their long-awaited siege of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State — a campaign supported by U.S. planes flying from Qatar.
There’s no indication that Trump’s tweetstorm was the result of a deliberative process, and it certainly caught Qatar by surprise. As recently as last week, Qatari officials were holding polite meetings at the State Department, and the White House had pointed to Qatar’s willingness to sign an agreement committing to crack down on terrorist financing as evidence that Trump’s recent trip to Riyadh was successful, according to the Weekly Standard.
Saudi Arabia may have interpreted Trump’s Riyadh trip as a green light, says Stephen Seche, a former U.S. diplomat who is now executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “It was like, OK, Saudi Arabia, you’re my point guy now,” said Seche. “I think the visit was kind of a trigger.”
Still, what immediately prompted Saudi Arabia to take such drastic steps against its neighbor is a bit of a mystery. After all, Qatar has been “a challenging bunch for a long, long time,” as a former U.S. counterterrorism official told me. Gulf rulers have singled out Qatar for years, complaining of its indulgence of Islamist groups like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and worse, as well as the hostile coverage and free-wheeling debate of Al Jazeera, its state-owned satellite news channel. In 2014, Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf states withdrew their ambassadors in fury out of frustration with Qatar’s hosting of Islamist opposition figures, but eventually returned them after 10 months when Doha promised to make concessions.
American officials have complained, too. In March 2014, senior Treasury official David Cohen chastised Qatar in unusually frank terms, ripping the country’s “permissive terrorist financing environment” and accusing its government of allowing major al Qaeda fundraisers to operate with impunity. More recently, U.S. officials have said that Qatar’s approach to terrorist financing is improving. On Monday, the U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Dana Shell Smith tweeted a link to an embassy statement hailing the country’s “recent positive efforts to counter terrorist financing.” “Seems a good time to RT this one,” she added.
So why now? The ostensible jumping-off point for the anti-Qatar campaign was the comments attributed to the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who was quoted praising Hamas and Iran in remarks to military graduates. But Qatar says the speech never happened and that its state news agency was hacked, and has invited the FBI to investigate the matter. Saudi and Emirati news outlets ignored the denials, and have aired story after story denouncing the emir’s supposed comments in what looks like an orchestrated and well-planned media campaign.
One recent flashpoint, at least according to a report in the Financial Times, is Gulf countries’ outrage that Qatar paid a $1 billion ransom to rescue members of a royal hunting party that had been kidnapped in Iraq. Officials in the region told the FT that in so doing,“Qatar paid off two of the most frequently blacklisted forces of the Middle East in one fell swoop: an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria and Iranian security officials.”
But that was in April; the real reason may be that Saudi and Emirati leaders saw a window of opportunity to teach Qatar a lesson. “It is just the right time,” one person close to one of the region’s ruling families told me, noting Saudi Arabia’s growing assertiveness under deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and the increasing stability of Egypt under military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “There is little tolerance for internal dissent and neighbourly spoilers.”
“I think what we’re witnessing is a growing list of disbelief in the countries for some time, and they’ve bubbled up to take action in order to have those differences addressed,” Tillerson said Monday, showing some sympathy for the Saudi/Emirati position.
The other factor is clearly Trump, whose advisers take a dim view of the Islamist groups that Qatar has been accused of coddling and financing for years. During the president’s recent meeting in Saudi Arabia with Sheikh Tamim, Trump was publicly effusive in his praise of Qatar. “We’ve been friends for a long time,” he said during a pool spray, “and our relationship is extremely good.” But privately, I’m told, he complained about Qatar’s support for Hamas. It’s not clear how Sheikh Tamim responded, but one person familiar with the conversation said it was not nearly as friendly as Trump’s other encounters with Gulf leaders. Another person briefed on the meeting said the Qataris were puzzled by the exchange, and asked if there were anything specific they could do to be more helpful.
One subplot in this drama is happening here in Washington, D.C., where the dynamic and plugged-in UAE ambassador, Yousef al-Otaiba, has for years been waging a campaign of his own against Qatar, bending the ears of lawmakers, think-tankers and foreign policy writers about Doha’s alleged bad behavior. Over the weekend, several news outlets published hacked emails from Otaiba’s Hotmail inbox, including critical comments he made about Trump. Suspicion immediately fell on Qatar as the obvious beneficiary of the hack.
It would seem that Qatar will have to give in to its angry neighbors eventually — the country has reoriented its entire domestic policy around getting ready to host the World Cup in 2022, and Saudi Arabia has the ability to strangle its economy. It’s not hard to imagine the Qataris agreeing to muzzle Al Jazeera and kick out a few Islamists, and things going back to a fragile normal for a few years.
“It might take time to solve but our hope is that mediation will cool things, and then a meeting of the leaders of GCC states will take place and they will find a way out which respect each other’s sovereignty and interests,” a former senior Qatari diplomat told me.
When I suggested this to a former U.S. official who worked extensively in the region and had expressed alarm about the crisis, he said, “Inshallah that is how it will work out.”
And by Tuesday afternoon, U.S. officials were in cleanup mode. Mattis called the Qatari defense minister, according to Reuters, presumably to make amends. At her very first briefing, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressed gratitude for Qatar’s “enduring commitment to regional security” and urged “all our partners to try to work together to reduce tensions.”
But Qatari leaders not without cards to play, and others I spoke with said they expected them to find a way to turn the situation to their advantage if the crisis drags on — especially following Trump’s intervention. After all, the United States remains deeply unpopular in the Middle East, and Qatar retains a powerful megaphone in Al Jazeera as well as underappreciated influence among Islamist groups all over the region.
“Are you kidding me?” one former official with deep experience in Doha told me when I asked how the crisis would play out. “They are going to turn this right back on the Saudis and Emiratis and make them regret their mistake.”