Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. Bill Clinton has passed judgement on the Republic field of candidates, offering praise for Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman and even Michele Bachmann. On Romney, Clinton said:

Romney's a much better candidate than he was last time, because he's not apologizing for signing the health care bill. He's got another creative way of saying we oughta repeal Obamacare, but that's prob'ly the price of gettin' the nomination.

On Huntsman, the former president said:

"Huntsman hasn't said what he's for yet, but I just kinda like him. [laughter] He looks authentic -- he looks like a real guy. [laughter] I mean, a real human being. I like his family, I like his kind of iconoclastic way. And he was a pretty good governor. And he wasn't a right-wing ideologue.

Clinton also offered surprising praise for Bachmann, and argued that her main strengths are her backstory and the support she gets from the right of the party:

Bachmann's been a better candidate than I thought she'd be, and I don't agree with her on nearly anything. But she's got a very compelling personal story, and she gotta lot of juice, and she turns [on] a lot of those anti-government crowd.

2. A Twitter feed belonging to Fox News announced the assassination of Barack Obama after being hacked by members of the hacking collective Anonymous. The hackers sent out tweets that said: "BREAKING NEWS: President @BarackObama assassinated, 2 gunshot wounds have proved too much. It's a sad 4th for #america. #obamadead RIP". (Just to be clear, he's not dead.)

3. Happy 4th of July! The US is 235 today. To celebrate its birthday, the US is teetering on the edge of default, but there is some good news. The US debt impasse moved forward an inch, when a number of prominent Republicans agreed to the principle of some "revenue raisers" (or tax increases, as they used to be called). John Cornyn, a Senator for Texas, and John McCain, a Senator for Arizona, both revealed that they would happy to see some tax perks removed in order to increase government revenues. Congress has until 2 August to decide whether or not it will increase the US's debt ceiling. If the ceiling is not increase, the US will default. This is bad news if you or your company are reliant on any of the 80m bills the US government pays every month.

4. The Obama administration has made a push for greater fuel efficiency, arguing that US cars made in 2025 should be able to do 56.2 miles to the gallon. The auto industry, however, is less keen on these stringent targets. Obama had previously pushed through targets of 35.5 miles to the gallon as a condition of an industry-wide bailout. As car makers have recovered, their willingness to listen to government diktat has reduced.

5. Herman Cain has joined Newt Gingrich and become the latest Republican candidate to face a spate of resignations from his campaign team in the crucial first caucus state of Iowa. Cain's team is putting an optimistic spin on the walk outs, claiming that it is not a "Newt Gingrich situation" (charming). Cain spokeswoman Ellen Carmichael said: "We look forward to staffing up, and not just there. We're in a great financial position to continue to expand." Y'see, staff walkouts aren't a blow, they're an opportunity. I suppose you have to be an optimist by nature on Cain's campaign.

 

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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.