Why did Qatar suddenly become the new enemy?


One of the most surprising geopolitical developments occurred recently when the tiny kingdom of Qatar suddenly became viewed as a US enemy. We have to remember that Qatar is a monarchy like many of the countries in that region that the US is allied with and yet suddenly seven nations in the region have decided to withdraw their ambassadors and stop flights to and from that country, and the US is hailing the move. The list of nations that have done so consists of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and the Maldives, a set that includes some of the most reactionary and despotic nations in the world.

Donald Trump has joined with them and pointed his finger at Qatar for being supporters of terrorism, even though he has praised Qatar even as recently as on his trip to the Middle East. What is more puzzling, Qatar is the forward headquarters of the US Central Command and hosts a big US military base containing about 11,000 US troops and serves as the launch pad for its war in Syria. Not surprisingly, this sudden hostility and ostracizing has surprised the Qatari government.

Qatar’s brand new ambassador to Washington was already bewildered, along with much of the rest of his country, at dramatic moves by several Arab nations in the past 48 hours to cut diplomatic and trade ties with the tiny Gulf nation. The hate tweets by Donald Trump only made things worse.

“We were surprised,” said Ambassador Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani, perhaps the understatement of the year from the diplomat who is just a couple of months into his post here. “No one approached us directly and said, ‘Look, we have problems with this and this and this,'” he told The Daily Beast in his first on-the-record interview since the controversy broke.

But here’s the strange thing. Trump had hailed the Gulf nation in his landmark summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, calling Qatar “a crucial strategic partner,” and he met with Qatari leader Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani—and raised no complaints, the ambassador said.

The Pentagon appeared to be caught a little off guard by the diplomatic turmoil.

“Qatar is a host for our base, and they do a great job as a host and a counter-ISIS partner,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. He said the diplomatic deep freeze was having no impact on Al Udeid Air Base, where some 11,000 coalition forces are based and dozens of aircraft fly in and out on bombing runs against the so-called Islamic State. “We still have the coalition air operations center there, where the Russian hotline is located. U.S. planes are able to fly in and out,” he said.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to soften the US stance against Qatar only to be immediately undercut by Trump who said that Qatar was a funder of terrorism “at a very high level”. And Trump continues to trash Qatar to the consternation of his diplomats.

So what is happening with Qatar? It is true that they fund the news network al Jazeera that has often said unflattering things about some of the Arab states and does not reflexively follow the US propaganda line. But there has to be more to it than that for such a serious rift to occur. In an article titled What the hell is happening with Qatar?, Jen Kirby in an interview with Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, tries to make sense of these developments. Ulrichsen says that there has long been tension between Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain on the one hand and Qatar on the other because Qatar seemed to support the uprisings of the Arab spring that had Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist elements involved, and these despotic regimes hate the thought of popular uprisings. The Saudis in particular think that Trump gave them the green light during his visit to take this hard line against Qatar though with Trump who the hell knows whether this was conscious and deliberate on his part or just a casual unthinking aside.

One consequence of this, Ulrichsen says, is that rather than being cowed by the belligerence of their neighbors, Qatar has moved closer to Turkey, Iran, and Russia, with Kuwait trying to play a mediator role. Iran has airlifted food to Qatar to counter the embargo (since Qatar’s land borders are now with hostile nations) and Turkey is sending troops there.

I have to admit that I am puzzled by Trump’s hostile attitude towards Qatar that seems more irrational than usual. What the US hopes to gain by getting involved with yet another internecine conflict between countries supporting different factions of Islam, something that has proved to be disastrous so far, beats me.

Comments

  1. polishsalami says

    Trump is too dumb to work any of this out for himself, so he’s just going on what the Saudis are telling him.
    I think I can answer your question in one word: Iran.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    I have to admit that I am puzzled by Trump’s hostile attitude towards Qatar that seems more irrational than usual.

    Some day-to-day observers of the wee-handed tangerine tweet monkey report his apparent mental condition deteriorates daily.

    Others suggest the Saudi royals have played him like an oud to enlist him in their rivalry with Iran, with Qatar as a stepping-stone.

    The two theories dovetail rather disturbingly.

  3. says

    The biggest supporters of terrorism are the USA, and the worst terrorist exporters are in Langley, Virginia.

    I am guessing that some of this has to do with the American base there, which has supplanted Incirlik now that Turkey are not being a good satrapy any more.

    The Saudis are also pushing it over Iran, of course, but they’re pissed off because US foreign policy in Iraq and Syria has done nothing but strengthen Iran – so it’s kind of hard for them to complain about the US directly. This is a proxy move.

  4. johnson catman says

    The Saudis in particular think that Trump gave them the green light during his visit to take this hard line against Qatar though with Trump who the hell knows whether this was conscious and deliberate on his part or just a casual unthinking aside.

    Well, he did put his hand on that glowing orb.

  5. blf says

    What is going on has multiple causes, which perhaps can be summed up by biggerpenismanship by scared feudal absolute rulers (which hair furor seems to imagine he is).

    Qatar has an independent foreign policy. Saudi Arabia does not like that.

    Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are feudal absolute monarchies; in addition, Saudi Arabia’s ruler is fairly new. (I’ve previously said the UAE’s “leader” is also fairly new, but this was a misunderstanding on my part of what Professor Khouri wrote (see the link).) Both the Saudi & UAE rulers are terrified of the Arab Spring, which is very much everything they are not.

    Al Jazeera is a constant thorn in their side; indeed, one of the demands is Qatar close Al Jazeera. (Al Jazeera is HQed in, and financed by, Qatar.) Qatar’s foreign minister has told Saudi Arabia to get stuffed over that demand.

    Qatar works with Iran, which Saudi Arabia considers an arch-enemy.

    And Israel is lurking in the background here! “US legislation [HR 2712] threatening to sanction Qatar for its support of ‘Palestinian terror’ was sponsored by 10 lawmakers who received more than $1m over the last 18 months from lobbyists and groups linked to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.”

    A short synopsis of what’s really going on (from Plan to airlift 4,000 cows to isolated Qatar to maintain milk supplies):

    The ostensible reason for the blockade – that the Qataris have funded terror — is as easily applicable to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Instead, the real motivation appears to be punishment for Qatar’s independent foreign policy, which is underwritten by an expansive and canny global investment strategy from London to Tokyo. The county has hosted members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and pursued a conciliatory relationship with Iran, with which it shares a large gas field.

    I presume hair furor just got taken in by Saudi Arabia’s pathetic “terrorism sponsor” line. Or perhaps about as likely, Steve Bannon believes something that and, reinforced by the Saudis and maybe Israelis, instructed him…

  6. blf says

    (I just wrote a fairly long comment on this, which is currently stuck in moderation, probably due to too many links (only four, three of which are to comments here at FtB)! Below is the conclusion.)

    A short synopsis of what’s really going on (from Plan to airlift 4,000 cows to isolated Qatar to maintain milk supplies):

    The ostensible reason for the blockade – that the Qataris have funded terror — is as easily applicable to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Instead, the real motivation appears to be punishment for Qatar’s independent foreign policy, which is underwritten by an expansive and canny global investment strategy from London to Tokyo. The county has hosted members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and pursued a conciliatory relationship with Iran, with which it shares a large gas field.

    I presume hair furor just got taken in by Saudi Arabia’s pathetic “terrorism sponsor” line. Or perhaps about as likely, Steve Bannon believes something that and, reinforced by the Saudis and maybe Israelis [see moderated comment for details], instructed him…

  7. blf says

    me@5/6: Steve Bannon believes something that → Steve Bannon believes something like that…

  8. Tadas says

    The following is from Democracy Now! Hard to believe that some hackers publishing a fake news story would create such a strong reaction, but we are becoming more and more reactionary.

    “In Qatar, Al Jazeera said Thursday it was resisting a massive cyberattack that forced the satellite TV network to temporarily shut down its website. The cyberattack came two weeks after hackers published a fake news article on Qatar’s state news agency website which falsely cited Qatar’s leader making friendly statements about Iran—Saudi Arabia’s regional opponent. The fake news story inflamed tensions between Qatar and other Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and the United Arab Emirates—all of whom broke off relations with Qatar this week, accusing it of backing militant groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda.”

  9. blf says

    Al Jazerra’s original report on the “hack” of several weeks ago — allegedly the proximate cause (excuse) for the blockade — had this interesting tidbit: “a number of Arab news agencies pointed out the some of the emir’s remarks had already appeared on Qatar state broadcasting before they were disowned, raising questions whether they were genuine, but should not have been reported.”

    It’s certainly possible it was a hack (the FBI has blamed Russia) and the state broadcaster based its report on the allegedly-hacked site, but it also possible the emir really did “[criticise] Donald Trump, [describe] Iran as a force for stability in the region and [threaten] to withdraw ambassadors from a range of Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia.” On the other hand, that last bit, withdrawing ambassadors, does not sound plausible, suggesting it was indeed a hack.

  10. busterggi says

    Did Qatar give Trump a big shiny medal? No.

    Did the Saudis give Trump a big shiny medal? Yes.

    Its that simple.

  11. deepak shetty says

    I wonder how the Islamphobic part of Trump’s base is treating his new found closeness with Saudi Arabia.

  12. birgerjohansson says

    Saudi Arabia is run by an arrogant prince without much self-restraint.
    When he took over government, Saudi started to execute people at an increased pace.
    He launched a failed intervention in Yemen that killed -and is killing- tens of thousands of civilians.
    And now he is trying to bully a peaceful neighbouring nation because Quatar has not accepted its designated role as subservient satellite.
    He is a failed mega-failure just like his supporter Trump.

  13. KG says

    I have a hunch the al-Sauds want to annex Qatar, not just to shut down Al Jazeera, but for its huge gas reserves. The Saudi economy is under considerable pressure from the fall in oil prices, and its own decision to cut oil output in an attempt to ameliorate the global glut. I’ve read that Saudi doesn’t actually have the $300+ billion which its planned arms purchases from the USA would cost (contracts have apparently not yet been signed for most of it, contrary to the Trumpery put out at the time of the Imperial visit).

  14. Mano Singham says

    Tadas @#14,

    Maybe this is how Trump makes a deal: Threaten to make some country an enemy unless they buy weapons.

    Extortion – the Trump way!

  15. blf says

    (This is an slightly-edited cross-post from poopyhead’s Discuss: Political Madness All the Time.)

    Why did hair furor tweet support for Saudi Arabia et al’s blockade of Qatar? I — somewhat cynically — previously speculated (@5/6) “I presume hair furor just got taken in by Saudi Arabia’s pathetic ‘terrorism sponsor’ line. Or perhaps about as likely, Steve Bannon believes something like that and, reinforced by the Saudis and maybe Israelis, instructed him”.

    I overlooked the obvious, which the New York Times has just pointed out, Trump’s Business Ties in the Gulf Raise Questions About His Allegiances:

    President [sic] Trump has done business with royals from Saudi Arabia for at least 20 years […]. Mr Trump has earned millions of dollars from the United Arab Emirates for putting his name on a golf course, with a second soon to open.

    He has never entered the booming market in neighboring Qatar, however, despite years of trying.

    […]

    “Other countries in the Middle East see what is happening and may think, ‘We should be opening golf courses’ or ‘We should be buying rooms at the Trump International,’” said Brian Egan, a State Department legal adviser under the Obama administration. “Even if there is no nefarious intent on behalf of the president or the Trumps, for a president to be making money from business holdings in sensitive places around the world is likely to have an impact.”

    […]

    Mr Trump’s dealings with the Saudis extend back to at least 1995, when he sold the Plaza Hotel to a partnership formed by a Saudi prince and an investor from Singapore. The deal, for $325 million, enabled Mr Trump to escape a default on his loans. (The same prince had reportedly bought Mr Trump’s yacht for $18 million four years earlier.)

    The Saudis “buy apartments from me,” he said in August 2015 at a rally in Mobile, Ala. “They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

    […]

    In May [2017 (I presume)], the rulers of the kingdom agreed to invest $20 billion in a fund to invest in American infrastructure, billed as part of an initiative Mr Trump has championed. The $20 billion investment went to a fund set up by the money manager Blackstone, whose founder is close to Mr Trump, his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.

    […]

    [… T]he Trumps had less luck in Doha. Their only business with Qatar was leasing office space in Trump Tower, in Manhattan, to the national airway. The airline moved out before Mr Trump became president.

    […]

    Duh. Of course. Follow the money! Follow the money!! Follow the money!!!

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