Big trouble in little Qatar

10 June 2017

9:00 AM

10 June 2017

9:00 AM

 Washington DC

At 8:06 on Tuesday morning the Tweeter-in-Chief reached for his Android phone and told the world: ‘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!’ At 9:36 a.m. we heard from @realDonaldTrump again. ‘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!’

The US President was showing his support for an economic and political blockade announced by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the Emirates, who — as much as fighting ‘terrorism’ — all wish to cut Qatar down to (its very small) size. The tweets must have been galling for Qatar’s royal family to read. They host the biggest US military base in the Middle East, Al Udeid. Ten thousand American personnel are there, many of them prosecuting the air war against Isis in Syria and Iraq. If President Trump decides to bomb the Qataris for financing terrorism, the planes could fly in a tight circle from Al Udeid, drop their payload down the road, and be back in minutes.

That is an absurd scenario, but the fantasy highlights the contradiction in America’s policy towards Qatar (if Trump’s tweets can be said to represent US policy; sometimes they don’t, as the White House spokesman has implied). The blockade will certainly hurt Qatar. ‘Qatar is vulnerable to these shutdowns and the Saudis know it,’ said an American who worked in Doha as a senior adviser to the government. The country imported 98 per cent of its food, he said, much of it across the Saudi border. ‘It doesn’t matter how much money you have if you can’t — logistically — get food supplies to your people.’ There are already reports of panic-buying in Doha. Even if no one starves, empty supermarket shelves during Ramadan would be a humiliation for Qatar’s Al Thani ruling family, one inflicted by the Saudis.

The timing may be about more than Ramadan. The blockade was announced shortly after Trump returned triumphant from his trip to Riyadh. Did he give the go-ahead to the Saudis to take action against Qatar? If so, the reported $68 million laid out by the Saudis to host him was money well spent. Perhaps no such permission was needed, the House of Saud gaining enough latitude from signing a £85 billion deal to buy American arms. Regardless, Trump sought to align himself with the blockade of an important ally and even, in characteristic Trump style, to take credit for it.

The blockade represents the latest move in a regional chess game that has been going on for a long time. The countries enforcing it have increasingly resented little Qatar’s outsized clout. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are rivals for influence across the region; Qatar and the Emirates back different, opposing Libya factions; Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in their doomed fight against the generals who now run the country.

Still, Qatar, in striving for influence, may have brought this on itself. Doha was once described, by an Israeli ambassador to the UN, as ‘Club Med for terrorists’. The Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, can be found in the Four Seasons in Doha, while across town the Taleban have a very nice villa. Among Doha’s residents is Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nu’aymi, named by the US Treasury as a ‘terrorist financier’ for al Qaeda. Then there’s the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf al–Qaradawi, who has endorsed suicide bombing and condemned gays (though he is agnostic on whether homosexuals should be ‘burned’ or ‘thrown from a high place’).

Of course, Saudi clerics have similar views to those of al-Qaradawi. And America was happy to use Qatar to help arrange the prisoner swap with the Taleban that freed Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. The US government also acquiesced when Qatar employed its influence in Syria to free an American hostage, Theo Curtis, held by the Nusra Front, then the Syrian branch of al Qaeda; whether that influence was secured with money paid to Nusra in the past was never admitted by anyone involved. However, the most damning accusation levelled by Qatar’s enemies is of funding for Isis.

I saw no evidence of that over several years of reporting in Syria and Iraq. We were hosted in Syria by the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, which was Salafi, or fundamentalist, but which said it did not want to export jihad to the West. Their leader at the time, Hassan Aboud, gave me an interview in which he said that women need not wear the hijab and that a Muslim could abandon the faith as long as he did not try to persuade others to do the same. These remarks touched off a Twitter war with Isis, who denounced Aboud as an apostate. Ahrar al-Sham was funded by Qatar — as a counterweight to Isis. Qatar chose its side in Syria; it was not Isis.

A number of fundamentalist groups have received money from Saudi Arabia, or at least from individual Saudis. The Saudis outmanoeuvred the Al Thanis by persuading Trump to pin the ‘terrorist’ label on Qatar’s proxies alone. ‘Does Qatar allow money to go to some dodgy organisations? Absolutely,’ said ambassador Gerald Feierstein, who was the State Department’s senior official dealing with extremist groups. ‘Is Qatar the only party guilty of that? Absolutely not — they all are.’ As in Syria, and Iraq before it, the US shows every sign of getting drawn into a complex conflict with a simple understanding, and of ending up being exploited by one of the parties.

Kuwait is now seeking to mediate. It did so successfully the last time the UAE and Saudi Arabia broke off relations with Qatar, in 2014. ‘It is absolutely not in the US interest to have this crisis inside of the Gulf countries,’ said ambassador Feierstein, ‘or to be threatening Qatar. Granted it has its issues…but it also is a critical security partner for the United States.’

The crisis may have been set in motion when Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani, apparently made a speech praising Iran and criticising Donald Trump. The US media is now reporting that the FBI believes the speech was fabricated by Russian hackers and planted on Qatar’s state news agency website.

There are many ways this confrontation in the Gulf can end badly for Trump. One — unlikely — outcome is that the Americans are asked to leave Al Udeid; another, perhaps far more likely, is that Qatar ends up adding to the President’s troubles over Russia.

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