Redwood throws spanner in works of “special relationship”

Senior Tory MP attacks Barack Obama, says he is “less popular than Bush”, and that the president sho

David Cameron should not even seek a "special relationship" with Barack Obama, given the president's politics, a senior Tory MP has said as the Prime Minister prepares to fly to Washington to meet with the US leader.

John Redwood says that "I don't think Mr Cameron should expect or even seek a 'special' relationship with Mr Obama". He adds that Obama "belongs to the US school of thought which wants to ring one number to talk to 'Europe'. So let him talk to Baroness Ashton all he likes and see how he gets on."

Redwood hits out at a series of positions held by the president, and claims that "Mr Obama has lost much of his star dust in the USA. He is now a much more unpopular president than Mr Bush at a similar stage, and faces a difficult fight in the next Congress elections."

Below are the full comments, which appear on Redwood's blog today:

As someone who has in the past been an enthusiastic Atlanticist, valuing our relationship with the USA, I don't think Mr Cameron should expect or even seek a "special" relationship with Mr Obama. I want us to maintain our close ties with the USA. but think they are stronger at the moment people to people, business to business and with a wider range of US actors than the current beleagured administration.

Mr Obama has intensified the war in Afghanistan, and judges his allies by the extent of their commitment to this endeavour. All are found wanting, as his allies do not share his view of the conflict. They also suspect that he is looking for the exit himself. His decision to intensify the conflict and increase the number of US troops was born of his election campaign when his positioning required this statement on Afghanistan. Today it appears that he will need to show progress in bringing the troops home for a future election.

Mr Obama probably belongs to the US school of thought which wants to ring one number to talk to "Europe". So let him talk to Baroness Ashton all he likes and see how he gets on. She may be amassing an unwanted army of diplomats at our expense, but I am relieved to say she still does not command our troops.

Mr Obama has declared war on BP, and sought to represent this global company as some kind of British destructive force in the USA. The president is getting a reputation for being anti-business, and seems to like having a foreign business whipping boy. His interventions have not helped control the leak or deal with the disaster.

Mr Obama has been critical of the policy of controlling large and growing public-sector deficits. Just because the USA has so far got away with a high spend high borrowing strategy does not mean smaller countries are able to do, as Ireland, Greece, the Baltic states and others have discovered to their cost.

Mr Obama has lost much of his star dust in the USA. He is now a much more unpopular president than Mr Bush at a similar stage, and faces a difficult fight in the next Congress elections.

At some point the polls will tell Mr Obama he has to revisit his policies in several key areas. How much longer can he go on increasing spending? How far can he take the socialism in a largely free-enterprise country? When will he find a new approach to the Middle East? Is his relationship with China good enough to ensure they carry on buying US debt? Is he going to duck being the climate-change warrior he promised in the election?

Mr Cameron should speak up for British interests without fear or favour. He should tell the president privately that all the allies need to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. They should work on a way of ensuring the Afghan forces can take over more quickly. In wartime the US and UK trained many troops in a matter of weeks or months. The idea that it will take another four years to train enough Afghans to patrol their own country is a strange one. It is also unlikely that the west might be able to handle the politics of that difficult country and make a political breakthrough in the next couple of years, given the experience of trying over the last eight.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Getty
Show Hide image

Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.