The Qatar diplomatic crisis could disrupt Trump’s vision for the Middle East

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This makes things a bit more messy.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, shakes hands with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, May 8, 2017, at the State Department in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and the UN-backed government of Yemen all announced that they would cut ties with Qatar within hours of each other on Monday, breaking a long alliance between the Gulf Arab states. The crisis could seriously disrupt Trump’s foreign policy vision for the Middle East, in which a unified Gulf Arab front counters extremist threats in the region as well as a growing Iranian influence.

The five countries all suspended diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar over its relations with Iran, as well as its alleged support for militant organizations in the region.

Qatari diplomats in Saudi Arabia have 48 hours to leave the country, and Qatari citizens have just 14 days — even though the countries aren’t at war. Saudi citizens are no longer allowed to visit, live in, or travel through Qatar. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also closed their air space and sea traffic to Qatar, and many airlines will suspend flights to Qatar starting Tuesday, including Air Arabia, Etihad, Emirates, EgyptAir, and FlyDubai. Qatar Airways is also suspending all flights to Saudi Arabia starting Tuesday, until further notice.

There have been many points of contention between Qatar and other Gulf states in the last few years. As BuzzFeed’s Borzou Daragahi reported:

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain have opposed Qatar’s relatively cordial ties with Iran, with which it shares the world’s biggest gas field; its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories; its backing of Islamist militias in Libya; and its hosting of popular Arabic-language news media, including Al Jazeera and the website and newspaper Al-Araby al-Jadeed.

But that all came to a boil two weeks ago, when Qatar’s state-run news agency Qatar News Agency (QNA) reported that Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim gave remarks that were critical of the recent hostility towards Iran, said that U.S. President Donald Trump would not stay in power for very long, and defended Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. QNA TV News reported the story later in the day as well. Qatar later said QNA’s website had been “hacked by an unknown entity” and that the entire story was fake.

Still, the story led to a media furor in the region, and state-linked media continued to report the comments. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt all blocked access to Al Jazeera and other media organizations based in Qatar.

“State-linked Saudi media launched an aggressive campaign accusing Qatar of supporting terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State, destabilizing the region and stabbing its allies in the back,” reported the Associated Press. “Some Gulf news coverage seemed to support regime change in Qatar as well, and accused its emir of holding a secret meeting with Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani.”

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged all the countries “to sit down together and address these differences.”

“And if there is any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the GCC remain unified.” Tillerson added that he did not think the severed relations “will have any significant impact, if any impact at all, on the unified fight against terrorism in the region or globally.”

But despite Tillerson’s confidence that all will turn out well, the news seriously complicates Trump’s previous vision for the Middle East: namely one in which a united Gulf Arab (and Sunni) front would counter Iran’s growing influence in the region. Trump has previously called for the creation of an “Arab NATO” to do exactly that; in a speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia last month, Trump made that vision even clearer.

In discussing the threat of extremism in the Middle East, Trump singled out Iran as being “responsible for so much instability in the region” and accused its government of giving terrorists “safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment.” He then called on all countries to isolate Iran.

“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve,” Trump said. He again made similar hostile remarks towards Iran when he visited Israel the next day.

It is this vision for the Middle East that may have spurred the Gulf countries to take action against Qatar. They may have seen Trump’s rhetoric towards Iran, his cabinet full of Iran hawks, and his silence on human rights abuses in the Gulf — in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the last week in particular —as a green light to push forward with their agenda.

James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said that the news on Monday wasn’t all Trump’s fault. Relations between Qatar and other Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have become increasingly tense over the last few years — key differences have emerged over issues like political Islam, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, among others — but Trump’s foreign policy approach in the Middle East emboldened those countries to take action.

“To simply tie to this to Trump’s speech to Saudi Arabia is oversimplifying things, but I do think his visit has emboldened [Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates],” Dorsey told ThinkProgress. “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are more assertive as a result of Obama’s perceived withdrawal from the Middle East. Now, in Trump, they have an ally in the Middle East who shares their dislike of Iran.”

The irony is that Monday’s news could throw a wrench in Trump’s plans for a unified front against Iran. “Numerous Saudi and UAE attempts to rally the Muslim world against Iran over the years have faltered,” noted Daragahi. “Researchers and diplomats say the attempt to bludgeon Qatar into aligning its policies with the rest of the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council could just as easily push it closer into the strategic orbit of Iran, Turkey, or Russia. The move could also alienate Kuwait and Oman, two other oil-rich members of the GCC, whose Iran policies don’t sync with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

Dorsey, who has previously written that Qatar is in a Catch-22 in choosing whether to confront “a concerted Saudi and UAE effort to force it to align itself with the policies of a majority of the GCC,” said that what happens next depends on a variety of factors, like the construction costs of the World Cup; whether Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other countries choose to withdraw their money from Qatari banks; and even possible food price hikes in Qatar. Qatar imports most of its food, and the news on Monday has already sent many in the country into panic. Two sources Reuters spoke to said that thousands of trucks with food supplies were stuck at the Saudi-Qatar border.

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It’s hard for the United States to simply cut ties with Qatar, given that it hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East. The Al Udeid Air Base serves as a base for U.S. military flights to over 20 countries, including Iraq and Syria, and a potential rift in U.S.-Qatar relations could affect the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda in the region. Dana Shell Smith, the U.S. ambassador in Qatar, said on Twitter on Monday that Qatar was an important ally in countering terrorist financing.

But already, forces in Washington have been arguing that the military base is at risk. In a seminar at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies last week, former and current U.S. officials argued that Qatar supports militant groups in the region and that there was no guarantee that it would continue to host U.S. troops at the Al Udeid Air Base in the future. “If their behavior doesn’t change, we in Congress would absolutely be looking at other options including moving out of Al-Udeid base,” warned Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA).


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