Trump dives into Qatar feud, but will America follow him?

It is hard to imagine that when the Saudis and Emiratis embarked on their ferocious confrontation with Qatar they would have done so without believing they had Donald Trump's support. Their quarrel with Qatar was far from new but Trump's stance at the "Muslim summit" in Riyadh last month appeared to give them a green light for action.

To quote a recent article in the Emirati newspaper, The National, "the momentum of the Riyadh-Washington relationship meant that if there was a time to attempt to change Qatar’s behaviour, it was now".

Whether that's what Trump intended is another matter. Possibly it was just Trump being his usual clumsy self. He had, after all, shaken hands with Qatar's emir at the summit, declared him to be a friend, described their relationship as "extremely good" and expressed the hope of selling him "lots of beautiful military equipment".

Two days after the Riyadh summit, a fake news item planted on the website of Qatar's government news agency – apparently by hacking – provided the spark for an unprecedented wave of attacks on Qatar in Saudi and Emirati media which has now escalated into an economic blockade and a severing of diplomatic relations.

Yesterday Trump posted three tweets which appeared to back the Saudi/Emirati action:

During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!

So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding...

...extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!

This, however, is a contentious position, even among American Republicans. There are plenty who want no truck with Saudi Arabia, especially in the light of the 9/11 attacks where 15 of the hijackers were Saudi citizens. Others fear Qatar-bashing could make things worse rather than better.

News of Trump's tweets reportedly "stunned" the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker.  

“Our position generally as a nation has been that these things ebb and flow and they come up from time to time, but we work with all of the countries,” Corker told reporters. “Some of our Arab friends have different sensibilities relative to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and others, and it’s created some dissension, and it’s been my policy that we work ... with everybody in the region in a way that’s constructive.” 

Cooler heads than Trump recognise that Middle Eastern politics is rarely black and white. Writing for Defense News, Joe Gould cites a Congressional Research Service report:

"US concerns regarding alleged material support for terrorist groups by some Qataris have been balanced over time by Qatar’s counterterrorism efforts and its broader, long-term commitment to host and support US military forces active in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the CENTCOM area."

In sharp contrast to Trump, secretary of state Rex Tillerson has been calling for de-escalation of the Gulf feud and offering to mediate. “We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences, and we – if there’s any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the GCC remain unified,” Tillerson said on Monday.

Meanwhile, defense secretary James Mattis said he expected the quarrel to blow over: "I am positive there will be no implications coming out of this dramatic situation at all." 

A Pentagon statement added:

"The United States and the coalition are grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support of our [military] presence and their enduring commitment to regional security.

"We have no plans to change our posture in Qatar. We encourage all our partners in the region to reduce tensions and work towards common solutions that enable regional security." 

Pressure for the US to adopt a tough line towards Qatar has been coming from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think tank which mainly reflects neoconservative and Israeli views. Emails leaked last weekend showed that FDD had been liaising in its effort with the Emirati ambassador in Washington.

On the day the inflammatory fake story surfaced in Qatar, FDD had been attacking Qatar at an invitation-only conference in Washington which was reported to be "heavily attended by officials from the Trump administration". The keynote speaker at the conference was Robert Gates, a former CIA chief and former Secretary of Defense under President George W Bush, who suggested pulling US forces out of the Udeid airbase in Qatar.

That idea has not been welcomed by the US military. Udeid serves as headquarters for CENTCOM and houses the largest concentration of military personnel in the Middle East – about 10,000 personnel. US forces have been based there since 2003, having transferred there from the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia after the Saudi authorities became nervous about their presence.

Qatar has allowed the US to operate from Udeid without any apparent interference – even during the invasion of Iraq when al-Jazeera television, just a few miles away, was broadcasting criticism of the American action.

Earlier today a report from Bloomberg pointed towards Saudi Arabia's deputy crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed, as the key Arab figures behind the attack on Qatar.

It is already known that bin Zayed, on the day before the anti-Qatar conference in Washington, sent a message to keynote speaker Robert Gates urging him to give the Qataris "hell".

However, the draconian measures taken against Qatar look more like a brainwave of the impetuous and inexperienced bin Salam. It was bin Salman who thought a bombing campaign would swiftly bring the Houthis to their knees in Yemen and, more than two years later, is no nearer to achieving that goal. As with Yemen, it's not clear how the Saudis and Emiratis can extricate themselves without loss of face if Qatar doesn't buckle under.

Further reading

Why Qatar is in the naughty corner 
Raymond Barrett, New York Times, 6 June 2017

Qatar rift sets back Trump's 'Arab NATO' 
Joe Gould, Defense News, 6 June 2017 

The curious timing of the Qatar crisis 
Sigurd Neubauer, Al Monitor, 6 June 2017

Gas-rich Russia next to ponder impact of Qatari dust-up 
Daniel J Graeber, UPI, 6 June 2017

How Arab countries’ decision to break ties with Qatar complicates things for the US 
Borzou Daragahi, BuzzFeed, 5 June 2017

Foreign Relations chairman stunned by Trump's Qatar tweets 
Rebecca Kheel, The Hill, 6 June 2017

The Saudi Prince, the Sheikh and a Gulf Renegade 
Donna Abu-Nasr, Zainab Fattah, and Ahmed Feteha, Bloomberg, 7 June 2017

US suspects Russian hackers planted fake news behind Qatar crisis 
Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz, CNN, 7 June 2017

Trump logs on to Twitter to upend the diplomatic crisis in Qatar 
Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani, Think Progress, 6 June 2017

UAE bans expressions of sympathy toward Qatar: media 
Reuters, 7 June 2017

Why the Trump administration should reconsider Oman 
Sigurd Neubauer and Yoel Guzansky, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, 30 May 2017

Isolating Qatar reveals economic vulnerabilities of the GCC 
Karen E Young, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, 6 June 2017

Some items from Arab media:

The question now is how, not if, Qatar will change 
Hassan Hassan, The National, 6 June 2017

There are lies, damned lies and Qatari statements 
Faisal J Abbas, Arab News, 5 June2017

Did Qatari media side with Daesh by attacking MBC’s ‘Black Crows’? 
Ben Flanagan, Arab News, 6 June 2017

An old story from  2011 ...

Oman breaks up UAE ‘spy ring’ 
Simeon Kerr, Financial Times, 30 January 2011