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.