The state of Qatar, a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Oman, using its ample financial resources to try to “punch above its weight” on regional and international affairs has intervened, directly and indirectly, in several regional conflicts, including in Syria and Libya. Qatar also has sought to establish itself as an indispensable interlocutor on a number of regional security issues, such as those involving the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas, the Taliban insurgent group in Afghanistan, and for several Syrian rebel groups, Lebanon, and Sudan.
Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Maldives, Mauritius, Mauritania, and Senegal have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing the Qatar of being a haven for terror financiers, while Jordan and Djibouti have downgraded relations. In a recent joint statement issued by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE stated; “We do not, have not, and will not support terrorist groups…” The Qatari government said in a statement today; “Our position on countering terrorism is stronger than many of the signatories of the joint statement – a fact that has been conveniently ignored by the authors.”
Under recent diplomatic pressure from the Trump State Department, while it has perhaps toned down its stance, Qatar’s efforts to promote what its officials assert are new models of Arab governance and relationships between Islam and the state have sometimes caused disputes with Qatar’s GCC allies. Current positions are the result of the voluntary relinquishing of power in 2013 by Qatar’s former Amir (ruler), Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, departed sharply from GCC patterns of governance in which leaders generally remain in power for life. Likewise, the new governance appears to present a continued semblance of tacit support for the efforts by regional subordinate and affiliated Muslim Brotherhood organizations, which Qatari leaders offer as a positive example of “political Islam,” continues to plague relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia and the UAE assert that the Muslim Brotherhood is a threat to regional and domestic security, as it certainly is, at a minimum by its influence the legitimacy offers by such support. Qatar has supported Brotherhood-linked groups in Egypt and which are involved in internal conflicts in Syria and Libya. At the same time, on Iran, Qatar has generally adopted a middle ground within the GCC by supporting efforts to limit and defend against Iran’s regional influence, but maintaining an open door for dialogue with Tehran.
With regard to all of the other GCC leaders, Qatar’s leaders view the United States as the guarantor of Gulf security. Qatar hosts approximately 11,000 U.S. forces at its military facilities, including those that house the forward regional headquarters for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM). These forces are participating in operations all over the region, including Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) against the Islamic State organization in Iraq and Syria, by also all military operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The United States and Qatar have had a formal Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) since 1992, which provides for the U.S. troop presence, consideration of U.S. arms sales to Qatar, U.S. military and security training, and other defense cooperation projects, programs and support efforts. In 2004, while serving as the Deputy Director for Intelligence, for USCENTCOM, we together with the Department of Defense and the State Department, negotiated a new and more expansive agreement. This agreement, which is renewed every ten-years was again renewed in 2014 through 2024.
Critically important to the ongoing defense cooperation agreement particularly since 2004, is that the U.S. stages operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan from al-Udeid Air Base, the base is also the forward headquarters of U.S. Air Force Central Command (AFCENT) and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing which lead and oversee and are the air war command for the U.S.-led fight against ISIS. Again roughly 11,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed at the base about 20 miles outside Doha, the capitol. Only Kuwait hosts a stronger U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Nevertheless, al-Udeid Air Base is vitally the most important being the largest U.S. air base in the region and one of the largest U.S. overseas air bases outside the U.S. supporting U.S. air operations across the region. While current operations from al-Udeid Air Base have not been interrupted or curtailed, the evolving situation is hindering our ability to plan for longer-term military operations,” according to the Pentagon. Also noting; “Qatar remains critical for coalition air operations in the fight against ISIS and around the region” – reference the Middle East.
Since the Trump Administration took office, there have been concerted efforts with regard to reestablishing U.S. regional policy across the Middle East, to that prior to the Obama administration. While President Trump on Friday characterized Qatar as “historically” a “founder of terrorism at a high level,” Secretary of State Tillerson noted the Qatari Emir has “made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorist elements from his country,” comments that were echoed by the U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Dana Smith, who tweeted “Qatar is a strong partner in combating terrorist financing.” But one question is – how much progress has been made.
At the same time, there appears to be an ongoing duel effort by the Emir to use and allow at his discretion, multiple avenues of support. For one, the Qatari government is helping the U.S. combat regional Islamist terrorist organizations, which include; al-Qaeda and ISIS throughout the Middle East. However, at the same time, radical Islamist organizations profess ideologies that are attractive to a number of wealthy Qataris who are associated with philanthropic groups back and support some forms of radical Islamic terrorism. As a result, there have been repeated accusations by international observers that wealthy Qataris have contributed funds and services to these groups. Members of the U.S. Congress generally have taken into account these groups along with other aspects of Qatar’s policies in consideration of U.S. arms sales to Qatar and the current defense cooperation agreement.
Some believe there is relevant evidence that suggest it is necessary to some degree of support via quid pro quo funds to Islamist groups as hush money to prevent and curtail both internal and external attacks by radical Islamist terrorist against the both U.S. military base and personnel as well as against the nation’s critical infrastructure. We have seen similar practices like this in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries were the wealthy royal family members of the kingdoms have paid bribery and or hush money to prevent terrorist attacks against their own critical infrastructure to include; oil wells and production and storage facilities and other sites. Essentially, many see it as extortion money against Iran and radical Islamist groups. In reality, it is a small amount of money to maintain its security and wealth, as the world’s largest liquid natural gas (LNG) exporter, yet at the same time a geographically vulnerable nation. There is another side to the situation that deals with the LNG and economic aspect which in addition makes this which I will discuss in Part Twowith a follow-up article later this week.
So what actually brought us to the current situation as it pertains to the political and diplomatic aspect as a whole? As previously pointed out, on Monday June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia and three of its biggest allies — Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain — all announced that they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, as well as suspending air, land, and sea travel to and from the country. The move came after Riyadh accused Qatar of backing radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS. Since that announcement, Libya, Yemen, and the Maldives have also joined the diplomatic boycott.
Again, as noted, Qatar is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and as a result of the recent diplomatic disengagement, it is going to feel the pain all the same because it relies heavily on its neighbors for trade and travel in and out of the region. The peninsular nation imports most of its food through its land border with Saudi Arabia, which is now closed. And as a result, trucks carrying food appear to be stranded on the Saudi Arabia side of the border. And in Doha, people are already reported to be stockpiling perishable goods. In addition, many ships carrying food to Doha first stop in the UAE’s biggest cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi; so it’s unclear what effect the new bans will have on their movements.
But again there is more to this story that makes it so complex. The current tensions between Qatar and its neighbors were further exacerbated last month after Qatar’s state-run news agency published an article in which the Qatar’s ruling Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was quoted praising Israel and Iran — Saudi Arabia’s biggest adversaries in the region (even though Saudi Arabia quietly supports Israel). Qatar swiftly disavowed the article as fake news manufactured by hackers, but Saudi Arabia and its GCC friends were unconvinced. Then Sheikh Tamim apparently made things even worse when several days later he called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on his reelection — a clear act of defiance against Saudi’s hawkish stance on Iran.
So now, this new rift in the Persian Gulf is in and of itself a big deal — it’s already being interpreted by some observers as the biggest diplomatic crisis in the region since the Gulf War in 1991. However, the consequences will ripple beyond the region’s internal politics and seriously perhaps imperil U.S. military operations in the region. As both myself and other military experts have noted, it is obvious that an U.S.-led campaign that includes aircraft from the countries severing ties with Qatar will be harder to wage if those countries refuse to allow their military representatives to even visit the American base there.
The big breakup highlights the vexing both the dual role Qatar has long played for the U.S. in its fight against radicalism and the multi-geopolitical role is plays in the Middle East. On one hand, the U.S. has had to come to grips with the dynamics Qatar’s position as a large source of support and funding for groups it considers to be terrorist organizations, like Hamas, or adversaries, like the Muslim Brotherhood, as previously laid-out. But on the other hand, it has also been willing to allow the Pentagon to operate bases in its territory, and an important role it had in serving as an intermediary between Washington and numerous Islamist groups and Arab/Muslim nations across the region. To take one high-profile example, USCENTCOM’s principle role of conducting operations across the region from combat, to reconnaissance, and to other vital military and intelligence missions into at least a dozen countries, have been launched out of Qatar.
That means successive U.S. administrations have been willing to work with Qatar out of a belief that the positives outweighed the clear negatives, including its unofficial support for militant activities in the region. And it’s in the U.S.’s interest for all the countries in the region to be on good enough terms to be able to join the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS. One of the reasons why the initial response by Tillerson was to call for calm and dialogue, noting; “… we certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences.” Following with; “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
As further evidence, as noted, U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Dana Shell Smith, also attempted tried to appeal for calm on Twitter by drawing attention to the U.S.’s past statements of support for Qatar’s work in combating terrorism and terrorism financing. And while some think, President Trump made everything more complicated when he rattled off some tweets that were at odds with U.S. diplomats’ statements the day before. He seemed to embrace Saudi’s decision, and suggest their actions were a result of his own recent rhetoric on counterterrorism, noting; “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off.” Referring to his visit to the country weeks ago, again noting; “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism,’ with all reference pointing to Qatar. Even though the U.S. in no way sought this to be a destabilizing situation, Trump seems to be encouraging Saudi to take the again radical Islamic terrorism. But also keep in mind that during that speech he made while in Saudi Arabia, the fact is, he was referring to and he actually said that “Qatar, which hosts the U.S. Central Command, is a crucial strategic partner,” in the region and the war on terrorism.
Nevertheless, tensions between Qatar and its neighbors have been brewing for some time, but Saudi Arabia’s move — which includes no explicit demands of Qatar — has still shocked observers. Which raises the question: What caused things to escalate to this point? One element of it is because of the controversy surrounding Sheikh Tamim, and his relationship with entities that Saudi Arabia abhors, like Iran. But another part of it can in fact be traced to Trump. His recent warmth toward the country, and his aggressive vilification of Iran, helped empower Saudi Arabia to finally act on its longstanding distrust of Qatar. So there is a kind of truth to Trump’s attempt to take credit for this event. But it must be made clear that this was an unintended consequence. Neither he nor anyone in the US government expected or wanted this to happen, and his response makes it clear that he doesn’t understand how siding against Qatar runs against US interests.
Trump has given Saudi Arabia the green light to be more aggressive
Further, the tensions began to flare late last month when Qatar’s state-run news agency ran a story in which Emir Tamim made remarks about Israel and Iran that incensed Saudi Arabia. He deemed Iran an “Islamic power” and characterized Qatar’s relations with Israel as “good.” Even though as noted albeit quietly and unassuming, Saudi Arabia supports Israel for its role of stability and a stabilizer in the region.
Nonetheless, to some degree, this unnerved a number of Saudi royal family members and leaders because it amounted to praise of Saudi Arabia’s two biggest enemies in the region. Qatar claims the article and the incendiary statements inserted into it were the result of a hack, but Saudi Arabia didn’t buy it. Both Saudi and the UAE blocked Qatari media, including its powerful international cable news service Al Jazeera, and slammed the country in their own state-run news organizations. That clash didn’t prevent Emir Tamim from making another gutsy move just a few days later. In a bid to demonstrate his independence from the Saudi line, he called Iran’s Rouhani to congratulate him for being reelected, even though he knew it would annoy Riyadh. During that call, Rouhani reportedly called for “more cooperation” in the region. That response did not help either.
Qatar has long been viewed by its neighbors as a rabble rouser in the region, and a bit of a loose cannon, not only politically and diplomatically, but economically as well because of its vast LNG wealth and power. Its government funds Al Jazeera, which is frequently critical of Saudi Arabia, and other of the GCC Persian Gulf states. And again, it also touts its hosting of USCENTCOM and its defense cooperation agreement.
Further, and much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia and the current Egyptian government, it supported the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Arab Spring encourage by the Obama administration. Back in 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain temporarily pulled their ambassadors out of Qatar because of its support for the group. So the most recent comments by the Emir allegedly made were just the latest of a number of offenses, in their eyes. Still, Saudi Arabia’s move is incredibly bold. Trump’s recent deference to the country, as well as toward Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, may have made it feel it had the license to do things it might not have pulled off during the Obama administration. But Trumps relationship with President al-Sisi has been much awaited, and for the better.
As it is also well known, Obama held some degree of ambivalence toward the Saudi Arabia, and didn’t give them totally free rein to do whatever they wished to. He angered them with his efforts at the Iran nuclear deal, which the Saudis saw as giving too much latitude to their foremost regional rival. And he upset the Saudis when he nixed a major arms deal with them before he left office, out of disapproval of the way they were handling their war in Yemen. The Saudis also felt humiliated by Obama’s failure to stop the passage of legislation designed to help families of the victims of 9/11 sue the Saudi government.
By contrast, Trump has spent both his campaign, and now his presidency so far railing against Iran and threatening to undo the nuclear deal; he also approved a $350 billion arms deal (over ten years) with Saudi Arabia and he used his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia to pat autocrats in the region on the back to include Qatar, and promise them he wasn’t there to “lecture” them on how to govern.
Moving forward the U.S. must look at and assess each nation both individually, and equally. Secondly, it means that the U.S. must ensure that each bilateral relationship must be managed and massaged to ensure neither is threatened, and at the same time, that directly there is no harm to Washington’s relationship with Qatar by potentially turning the conflict from a Qatari-Saudi one to a Qatari-U.S. one. If that happens, then there are huge questions over what would happen to the liberties the U.S. has with its military there, and how willing Qatar would be willing to play the role of broker with Islamist groups that the U.S. needs to engage with. And of course plenty of other partners of the U.S. in the Mid East will be watching how this plays.
In the meantime, Tillerson is working the effort and in a statement said; “We ask that there be no further escalation by the parties in the region. We call on Qatar to be responsive to the concerns of its neighbors. Tillerson also called on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to “ease the blockade” against Qatar. “There are humanitarian consequences to this blockade. We are seeing shortages of food, families are being forcibly separated, and children pulled out of school. We believe these are unintended consequences … but they can be addressed immediately,” he said.
Finally, the consequences of Qatar’s reaction and response and the GCC’s blockade is also impairing U.S. and other international business activities in the region, the brunt of which has created a hardship on the people of Qatar, and the people whose livelihoods depend on commerce with Qatar. It also appears that despite President Trump’s decision to put forth his continued hardline rhetoric and stance against terrorism, he went on to say; “So we had a decision to make: Do we take the easy road or do we finally take a hard but necessary action? We have to stop the funding of terrorism” it is having an impact.
Obviously there is already an impact — in an 11th hour realization that it must do something, Qatar has paid $2.5 million to a Washington, DC law firm to audit its efforts at stopping terrorism funding, a matter at the heart of the Gulf diplomatic crisis. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft personally will lead his Washington-based firm’s efforts “to evaluate, verify and as necessary, strengthen the client’s anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing” compliance. Qatar’s hiring Ashcroft, appears aimed at appeasing the Gulf GCC nations now trying to isolate Qatar. The sudden move shows Qatar “certainly dropped the ball” in recognizing that government opinion in Washington had swung away from it. This, despite much criticism aimed at President Trump for his calling out Qatar and its financial support for radical Islamic terrorist groups in the region. In the weeks and months ahead, we should be able to assess once again the impact of President Trump’s decision and the impact and outcome of maintaining his strong stance and sticking to his guns on hard issues.