A longstanding war of words between Saudi Arabia and its oil and gas-rich neighbor Qatar has just exploded into open diplomatic warfare, threatening the US-led fight against ISIS and setting off a new wave of instability in the Gulf region.
Here’s what happened: On Monday, Saudi Arabia and three of its biggest allies — Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain — all announced that they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, as well as suspending air, land, and sea travel to and from the country. The move came after Riyadh accused Qatar of backing radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS. Since then, Libya, Yemen, and the Maldives have also joined the diplomatic boycott.
Qatar is one of the wealthiest countries on earth, but it’s going to feel the pain all the same because it relies heavily on its neighbors for trade and travel in and out of the region. The peninsular nation imports most of its food through its land border with Saudi, which is now closed. Al Jazeera, a Qatar government-owned news network, has reported that trucks carrying food appear to be stranded on the Saudi side of the border. And in Doha, the capital of Qatar, people are already “stockpiling perishable goods,” according to Jassim Mater Kunji, a producer for Al Jazeera English. Many ships carrying food to Doha first stop in the UAE’s biggest cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi; it’s unclear what effect the new bans will have on their movements.
Tensions between Qatar and its neighbors skyrocketed last month after Qatar’s state-run news agency published an article in which the Qatar’s ruling emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was quoted praising Israel and Iran — Saudi Arabia’s biggest adversaries in the region. Qatar swiftly disavowed the article as fake news manufactured by hackers, but Saudi and its friends were unconvinced. Then Sheikh Tamim made things even worse when a few days later he called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on his reelection — a clear act of defiance against Saudi’s hawkish stance on Iran.
But the consequences will ripple beyond the region’s internal politics and seriously imperil US military operations in the region. Qatar is home to the forward headquarters of the United States Central Command, which manages all military operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. And the air war command for the US-led fight against ISIS operates out of Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base. All in all, there are around 11,000 US military personnel in the country.
As the New York Times notes, it’s obvious that an American-led campaign that includes aircraft from the countries severing ties with Qatar will be harder to wage if those countries refuse to allow their military representatives to even visit the American base there.
Qatar is a complicated challenge for the US
The big breakup highlights the vexing dual role Qatar has long played for the US in its fight against radicalism in the Middle East. On one hand, the US knows Qatar is a large source of support and funding for groups it considers to be terrorist organizations, like Hamas, or adversaries, like the Muslim Brotherhood. But on the other hand, it has also been willing to allow the Pentagon to operate bases in its territory and to serve as an intermediary between Washington and Islamist groups across the region. To take one high-profile example, Qatar helped broker the deal with the Taliban that won the release of the imprisoned US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
That means successive US administrations have been willing to work with Qatar out of a belief that the positives outweighed the clear negatives, including its unofficial support for militant activities in the region. And it’s in the US’s interest for all the countries in the region to be on good enough terms to be able to join the US-led campaign against ISIS. That’s why the initial response by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was to call for calm and dialogue.
“We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences,” Tillerson said in Australia on Monday. “If there’s any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the [Gulf Cooperation Council] remain unified.” (The GCC is the club of Persian Gulf nations that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Qatar are a part of.)
But then along came the president to make everything more complicated. On Tuesday morning he rattled off some tweets that were at odds with US diplomats’ statements the day before. He seemed to embrace Saudi’s decision, and suggest their actions were a result of his own recent rhetoric on counterterrorism. “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he tweeted, referring to his visit to the country weeks ago. “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!”
In his desperation to take credit for Saudi’s move, to showcase it as an example of his ability to shape global events, he appears to be throwing Qatar under the bus. Even though the US in no way sought this destabilizing situation out, Trump seems to be encouraging Saudi. Keep in mind that during the speech he made in Saudi Arabia that he’s referring to, he actually said that “Qatar, which hosts the U.S. Central Command, is a crucial strategic partner." Not that crucial in Trump’s eyes anymore, it seems.
Tensions between Qatar and its neighbors have been brewing for some time, but Saudi Arabia’s move — which includes no explicit demands of Qatar — has still shocked observers. Which raises the question: What caused things to escalate to this point?
One element of it is because of the controversy surrounding Sheikh Tamim, and his relationship with entities that Saudi Arabia abhors, like Iran. But another part of it can in fact be traced to Trump. His recent warmth toward the country, and his aggressive vilification of Iran, helped empower Saudi Arabia to finally act on its longstanding distrust of Qatar. So there is a kind of truth to Trump’s attempt to take credit for this event. But it must be made clear that this was an unintended consequence. Neither he nor anyone in the US government expected or wanted this to happen, and his response makes it clear that he doesn’t understand how siding against Qatar runs against US interests.
Trump has given Saudi Arabia the green light to be more aggressive
The tensions began to flare late last month when Qatar’s state-run news agency ran a story in which Tamim made remarks about Israel and Iran that incensed Saudi Arabia. He deemed Iran an “Islamic power” and characterized Qatar’s relations with Israel as “good.”
This unnerved many Saudi leaders because it amounted to praise of Saudi Arabia’s two biggest enemies in the region. Qatar claims the article and the incendiary statements inserted into it were the result of a hack, but Saudi Arabia didn’t buy it. Both Saudi and the UAE blocked Qatari media, including its powerful international cable news service Al Jazeera, and slammed the country in their own state-run news organizations.
That clash didn’t prevent Tamim from making another gutsy move just a few days later. In a bid to demonstrate his independence from the Saudi line, he called Iran’s Rouhani to congratulate him for being reelected, even though he knew it would rankle Riyadh. During that call, Rouhani reportedly called for “more cooperation” in the region.
Qatar has long been viewed by its neighbors as a rabble rouser in the region and a bit of a loose cannon. Its government funds Al Jazeera, a lively media operation which is frequently critical of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. And much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia and the current Egyptian government, it supported the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Arab Spring. Back in 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain temporarily pulled their ambassadors out of Qatar because of its support for the group. So the most recent comments the emir allegedly made were just the latest of a number of offenses, in their eyes.
Still, Saudi Arabia’s move is incredibly bold. Trump’s recent deference to the country, as well as toward Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, may have made it feel it had the license to do things it might not have pulled off during the Obama administration.
Obama held some degree of ambivalence toward the Saudis, and didn’t give them totally free rein to do whatever they wished to. He angered them with his efforts at the Iran nuclear deal, which Saudi saw as giving too much latitude to their foremost regional rival. And he upset the Saudis when he nixed a major arms deal with them before he left office, out of disapproval of the way they were handling their war on Yemen. The Saudis also felt humiliated by Obama’s failure to stop the passage of legislation designed to help families of the victims of 9/11 sue the Saudi government.
By contrast, Trump has spent his presidency so far railing against Iran and threatening to undo the nuclear deal; he also approved a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi; and he used his first trip to Saudi Arabia to pat autocrats in the region on the back and promise them he wasn’t there to “lecture” them on how to govern. Given how antagonistic Saudi’s newfound confidence is, Trump could come to regret it.
And Trump’s reaction to all this could make things far worse. His Tuesday tweets, which imply that the Saudis acted at his behest, threatens to directly harm Washington’s relationship with Qatar by potentially turning the conflict from a Qatari-Saudi one to a Qatari-US one. If that happens, then there are huge questions over what would happen to the liberties the US has with its military there, and how willing Qatar would be willing to play the role of broker with Islamist groups that the US needs to engage with. And of course plenty of other partners of the US in the Mideast will then ask themselves: could we be the next ones thrown under the bus?