On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed upon Qatar an air, land, and sea blockade. Qatar surprised its adversaries by quickly finding alternative sources for nearly all of its imports. Iran and Turkey sent planes filled with food and other emergency supplies. A Qatari businessman airlifted 4,000 cows from Australia, the United States, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Germany to prevent a disruption in Qatar’s milk supply. When Saudi Arabia banned Qatari planes from its airspace, Iran opened its skies to Qatar. Turkey sent 1,000 troops to Qatar to be stationed at a Qatari military base.
The blockade has stoked patriotic fervor in Qatar and turned the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Al Thani, into a national hero. Qataris enthusiastically support their Emir’s resistance to what they see as neighborhood bullies. As the Gulf crisis drags on, portraits of the Emir and messages of support for him are being plastered all over the Qatari capital. On June 13, FIFA fined the Qatar football team 50,000 Swiss francs for wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the Emir’s portrait, a symbol of defiance to the blockade.
For the United States, the spat among the Gulf States poses critical geopolitical challenges. In 2003, the Qataris offered Washington a gleaming new air base, Al Udeid, which is located on a stretch of desert forty kilometers southwest of Doha. Al Udeid is the largest military airbase outside the United States, and it serves as the logistics, command, and basing hub for US operations in the Middle East. Since 2014, American forces have planned and executed over 18,000 strikes from there. It is the only regional base capable of accommodating B-52s used in operations against ISIS. Al Udeid is also important for Israel’s security, as it would be the launching point for counterattacks against Iran, were Iran to attack Israel.
Muslims of the Sea
Qataris have long prided themselves as “Muslims of the sea” as opposed to “Muslims of the desert.” Whereas desert people build walls to keep people out, sea people build ports, where they welcome people of other cultures, races, and traditions. Since the nineteenth century, all sorts of dissidents, heretics, outlaws, and persecuted people have found shelter in Qatar.
In the nineteenth century, Qatar’s founder, Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, called Qatar the “Kaaba of the dispossessed.”
Today, Qataris wear with pride this legacy of receiving exiles and misfits, and this has made Doha one of the most eclectic cities on earth. In Doha, wealthy Americans and Europeans mingle with Syrian refugees, Sudanese commanders, and Libyan, Pakistani, and Palestinian Islamists.
According to foreign minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah, “We do not do enemies. . . . We talk to everyone. We cannot change geography—that is for sure—so whoever is in the vicinity of our geography has to be our close friend.”
Doha hosts 11,000 American soldiers and branch campuses of six American universities. It also hosts officials from Hamas and the Taliban. Since 1961, Doha has housed the notorious Muslim Brotherhood Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who justifies the lashing of homosexuals, the beating of wives, and the suicide bombing of Israeli civilians. Most infuriating to Qatar’s Arab neighbors is Doha’s welcoming of Arab Islamist dissidents, who broadcast their messages over the Qatar-owned broadcast network, Al Jazeera.
Qatar’s efforts at mediation and conflict resolution have gained it a reputation as a kind of Switzerland of the Persian Gulf, a zone of neutrality in a region torn by incessant strife. Americans have a history of calling on Doha to cut deals with groups that the State Department designates as terrorists. In 2011, Qataris brokered peace deals in Lebanon and in the Sudan. In 2014, Qatar negotiated the release of Peter Theo Curtis, an American journalist who had been kidnapped by the al-Nusra Front in Syria. In 2014, the United States released into Doha’s custody the Taliban Five in exchange for the Taliban’s release of Bowe Bergdahl. In 2015, Qatar offered a place for Hamas to negotiate with Tony Blair, Britain’s Mideast peace envoy. Doha is home to about 100 Taliban officials, and in 2013, 2015, and 2016, the United States initiated peace talks in Doha between the militants and the Afghan government.
Critics of Qatar say that its policies enable terrorists. Qatar cooperates with Hamas to support development efforts in Gaza, and Israelis have frequently accused Qatar of financing Hamas’s military wing. Michael Semple, a Taliban scholar at Queen’s University in Belfast, said that Taliban leaders in Qatar frequently travel through the Arabian peninsula to fundraise for their causes. In April of 2017, Qatar allegedly paid $1 billion to terrorist groups to release a party of twenty-six Qataris—including some royal family members—who were being held for ransom in Iraq. As in all Persian Gulf countries, non-government agents in Qatar have a long history of terrorist financing.
The Muslim Brotherhood
Qatar’s reputation for neutrality began to erode during the Arab Spring in 2011, when Al Jazeera enthusiastically supported a series of popular uprisings against unpopular autocrats across the Middle East and North Africa. As the Muslim Brotherhood assumed power in Egypt and Tunisia, Qatar charted policies at odds with those of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The other Gulf monarchies viewed the Brotherhood as a mortal enemy that could subvert their legitimacy. When General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the Saudi, Emirati, and Kuwaiti governments sent the Egyptian government $23 billion to keep the government operating during its tempestuous first eighteen months. By comparison, the United States sends Egypt $1.7 billion annually.
On the other hand, Qatar gave refuge to seven Brotherhood leaders who fled from Egypt. Al Jazeera housed these activists in a five-star hotel in Doha and granted them a platform to air their anti-coup grievances. In response, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in March 2014. The spat was resolved two months later, and Egyptian Brotherhood leaders left Doha in September 2014.
The current breach in Saudi-Qatari relations was precipitated on May 24, 2017, when the United Arab Emirates hacked the Qatar News Agency and planted false stories that Sheikh Al Thani had praised Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. These stories gave the Saudis an excuse to impose a blockade to punish their unruly neighbor.
The Incoherent American Response
The strife in the Gulf poses a dilemma for the State Department. Al Udeid Air Base is the nerve center for US military operations in the Middle East. It houses 11,000 soldiers and 100 operational aircraft. During the current crisis, the United States has been using Al Udeid to run its daily bombing missions in Afghanistan and Syria. On June 14, 2017, the US signed a weapons deal with Qatar worth $12 billion, and from June 14 to 16, the United States Navy conducted joint naval exercises with the Qataris in the Persian Gulf. The website of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, located at Al Udeid, reports, “Approximately every ten minutes, an aircraft is taking off or landing here—this is not just during the duty-day—it’s 24/7.”
Since the blockade began, the State Department has been trying to work quickly and quietly behind the scenes to extract concessions from Qatar and mediate Qatar’s dispute with the Saudis. “You know all four of these countries are really important to the US,” Secretary of State Tillerson said. “It’s the reason I . . . take a direct interest in it because we need this part of the world to be stable, and this particular conflict between these parties is obviously not helpful.”
Unfortunately, these efforts have been undermined by President Trump’s very public support of the blockade. On June 9, just hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for all sides to de-escalate the conflict, and for Arab nations to help end the blockade, President Trump called Qatar a “funder of terrorism at a very high level” and bragged that he had gotten the Saudis and Emiratis to take action against Qatar. President Trump’s comments have emboldened the Saudis to maintain the embargo despite the State Department’s increasingly desperate calls for restraint. When confronted with the discrepancy between Trump’s inflammatory tweets and his own quiet diplomacy, Tillerson said, “I am not involved in how the president constructs his tweets, when he tweets, why he tweets, and what he tweets.”
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum says, “On the one hand, we have the Secretary of State saying that we look forward to the crisis being resolved, and on the other hand we have the President saying that we are supporting the Saudis against Qatar. So, as is typical in the Trump era, we have a muddle of contradictions and nobody is quite sure what it means.”
Iran and Turkey appear to be the beneficiaries of the Saudi-Qatar feud, and this could potentially change the geopolitical map of the Middle East. In the wake of the Saudi-Qatar dispute, Turkey has pledged its support for Qatar by deploying 1,000 troops to a Qatari military base. Every day the boycott continues, Iran is strengthening its economic and diplomatic ties with Qatar.
“The Saudis and Emiratis have told us repeatedly that they want to weaken Iran, but they’ve actually [empowered Iran],” a senior Pentagon consultant told Mark Perry of The American Conservative. Rather than caving in to the Saudis, the Qataris have instead fled into the arms of Saudi Arabia’s adversaries. The result is a growing Turkish-Iranian foothold on the Arabian peninsula that is making the Persian Gulf an increasingly dangerous place.
What is needed to resolve this crisis is a face-saving way for all sides to settle the feud. The most creative thinking on this front is coming from US senators who are increasingly frustrated with the stalemate in the Gulf. On June 26, Robert Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Tillerson announcing that he was putting a hold on any future arms sales to the Persian Gulf until the GCC crisis is resolved. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Senator Ben Cardin, described Corker as “furious” with the blockade’s perpetrators and unhappy with the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the crisis. Cardin said that he shares Senator Corker’s concern that the current GCC dispute “distracts from our shared, most pressing security challenges.”
Corker and Cardin are proposing a bipartisan whole-government approach to reduce tensions in the Gulf. Unfortunately, Corker and Cardin will not succeed unless the Trump administration can forge and maintain bureaucratic consensus within the US government. This will require a tenacity, patience, consistent messaging, and moral seriousness that we have yet to see from our president.