PARIS—Barely two weeks after Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, an experience that left him aglow with adulation from the ailing octogenarian king, the president’s royal buddies in Riyadh have launched an aggressive political and economic campaign against Qatar, denouncing it as a supporter of terrorism.
But there is, for Trump, a painful paradox here. Qatar also hosts the most important U.S. military installations in the Gulf, which are vital to operations against the so-called Islamic State and al Qaeda. According to the website of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Qatar “hosts more than 10,000 U.S. and Coalition service members at Al-Udeid Air Base.” It’s the home of CENTCOM’s Forward Headquarters, its air component, U.S. Air Forces Central Command and its Combined Air Operations Center.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters in Australia they believed the Arabs can settle their differences through dialogue, so everything's cool in the hot wars America's waging. "I do not expect that this will have any significant impact, if any impact at all, on the unified ... fight against terrorism in the region or globally," said Tillerson. And Mattis followed up: “In regards to the implications for the counter-ISIS fight, I am positive there will be no implications coming out of this dramatic situation at all.”
But that sounds like whistling in the desert.
Measures taken so far by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and the Saudi-backed government of Yemen stop short of war, but they are draconian.
The border with Saudi Arabia is closed and some 40 percent of Qatar’s food supply may be cut off; diplomatic relations are severed and diplomats given 48 hours to leave the Emirates. Saudi citizens have been called to return from Qatar in no less than two weeks, and Qatari citizens in Saudi Arabia are to be expelled in the same time frame. Airlines are suspending all flights to the Qatari capital, Doha, while airspace is closed to Qatar Airways.
All this could have a major impact on U.S. operations in the region, and it is not clear how far in advance the Trump administration was informed about the move, or if it was informed at all. Mattis and Tillerson, at the conference in Australia, appeared to have learned about the action just moments before they met the press.
But the timing, so soon after the Trump visit to Riyadh, certainly suggests that Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son and the driving force in the government, figured Trump would support his power play.
The stated reason for the rupture is Qatar’s supposed support for terrorists of both the Sunni al Qaeda/ISIS ilk and the Shiite Iran-backed variety.
In fact, little Qatar, which looks like a polyp on the eastern edge of the Arabian peninsula, has long been a nuisance that the Saudis wished they could excise. Historically they’ve seen the Qatari people as Wahhabis like themselves who somehow went astray, and their rulers as impudent upstarts.
The irritation intensified greatly after Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani overthrew his father in 1995 and began to build his own empire out of “blowing sand and natural gas, Allah and ambition,” as we wrote some years ago.
By the time he handed the reins of power to his son, Sheikh Tamim, in 2013, little Qatar’s per capita income was well over $100,000 a year, the highest on earth.
“The future of Qatar is soft power,” its former ambassador to Paris liked to say. The country used skilled diplomacy, along with all that money from the natural gas boom, to make itself a surprising new presence on the world stage—one that its rulers hoped would be too well known for the Saudis to smash or absorb.
It created the Al Jazeera international television network in the 1990s, which became hugely popular and powerful as it brought to the region for the first time hard hitting, largely independent news coverage in Arabic and with an Arab perspective. It drove the Saudis crazy—and infuriated the George W. Bush administration, as well, which branded it a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden.
The Qataris asserted their independence from Riyadh by developing good relations with all the other major players in the region, including with Iran, but also, commercially, with Israel. Members of the Qatari royal family became important patrons of education (Georgetown University and Texas A&M are two of several American institutions with branches there). Sheikha Mayassa, the young sister of the current ruler, quickly became one of the most powerful figures in the international art world. They bought up sports teams, including the Paris Saint-Germain soccer club; they purchased Harrod’s department store in London; and they used their money behind the scenes to facilitate hostage releases in the region. The list of largesse goes on and on.
But during the uprisings that swept through North Africa and the Middle East in 2011—the so-called Arab Spring—Qatar overplayed its hand, and the Saudi royals began to see it not just as an annoyance, but as a potential threat to their existence.
Qatar had always had close ties to the international Muslim Brotherhood, but its power had been largely circumscribed, or crushed, by the region’s dictators. Now they were in trouble, and the Brotherhood moved to exploit the situation, either directly or through affiliated groups—and with Qatar’s backing. Al Jazeera’s Arabic service started to look like little more than a propaganda organ for the Islamists, and by the time Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, elected the Brotherhood candidate as its president—again, heavily subsidized by Qatar—the Saudis started building a counteroffensive.
In 2013, the former Egyptian military attaché in Saudi Arabia, who had risen to be commander of Egypt’s armed forces, exploited popular discontent to depose President Mohammed Morsi and his Brotherhood-dominated government. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared the Islamist organization “terrorist,” and set out to crush it using every means at his disposal, from massacres to mass imprisonment. Qatar’s financial support for Egypt disappeared overnight, and instantly was replaced by Saudi money.
In Syria, the situation grew more complicated, and with devastating effects.
Traditionally, the most ruthless and well organized opponent of the Assad dynasty was the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood. Decimated by an infamous massacre in Hama in 1982, it had managed to rebuild itself abroad, in Europe as well as in Qatar. And when the Arab Spring came along, the Brotherhood moved to assert its leadership in Syria as it had in Egypt.
That presented a big problem for Saudi Arabia. Riyadh wanted Bashar Assad’s regime removed, because Assad is an ally and a client of the hated Iranian mullahs. But it did not want the Brotherhood, backed by Qatar, to come to power. The internecine intrigues that resulted were part of the reason the Syrian opposition found it virtually impossible to organize a political front, while on the battlefield Saudi Arabia and Qatar funded competing groups whose factions became hard to distinguish from al Qaeda and the competing Islamic State if, indeed, they could be distinguished at all.
Unrest in the little island nation of Bahrain in 2011 led to intervention by the Saudi National Guard, which simply drove across the causeway to impose order on a restive Shia population ruled by a Sunni monarch. It’s probably also worth noting that Bahrain and Qatar have been rival emirates since they competed for pearl fisheries in the days before oil and gas were discovered.
On Monday, the Saudi declaration announcing the measures against Qatar declared it had taken “this decisive decision” becauses of “grave violations” in secret and in public by the authorities in Doha, including “adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups,” among them “the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and al Qaeda.” The Saudis accused Qatar of meddling in Yemen, where the Saudis are at war, in Bahrain (possibly on behalf of Iran), and in Saudi Arabia itself.
Yet, as American diplomats, spies, and military leaders have understood for a long time, as slippery as the Qataris might be, they could also be useful even on the fractured Syrian battlefield. In his “posture statement” published just three months ago, CENTCOM chief Gen. Joseph Vogel wrote, “In Syria, given their relationships with a wide range of actors, including more moderate elements, the Qataris are well-positioned to play an influential role in facilitating a political resolution to the conflict.”
Vogel called Qatar “a key and critical partner in the region.” But whether and how the Trump administration will defend it from Saudi-led pressure is now an open question.
Oh, and one other thing: Qatar is due to host the world’s biggest sporting event, the World Cup, in 2022—unless the Saudis see that as a threat, too.