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Qatar's Gulf spat is quietly becoming Donald Trump's biggest foreign policy headache

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are expelling Qatari citizens and cancelling flights.  

Long-simmering tensions between gas-rich Qatar and its Arab Gulf neighbours have boiled over. The news of a Gulf-on-Gulf clash may seem trivial compared to the other conflicts in the Middle East, but in fact this presents the Trump administration with its biggest foreign policy crisis to date. 

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) each announced that they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, a dusty peninsula a little larger than Jamaica that abuts Saudi Arabia and shares a maritime border with the UAE. Qatari residents of the three Gulf states have been told their visas will be cancelled, and have been ordered to leave within 14 days. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi also announced that they would refuse Qatar access to their airspace, land borders and territorial waters. Saudi and Emirati airlines announced the cancellation of all flights in and out of Doha shortly afterwards. Qatar depends on imports for around 90 per cent of its food, with a large proportion of trade delivered overland through Saudi Arabia. Reports emerged on Monday of Qatari residents stockpiling food. 

This latest diplomatic spat marks a huge escalation between Doha, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, but the tensions are longstanding. In 2014, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew their diplomats from Qatar, citing the country’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Diplomatic relations were restored after nine months, with the rise of Isis and fears of a US pivot towards Iran taking precedence over internal Gulf Co-operation Council squabbles. But the underlying tensions were never properly addressed.

The latest spat began in late May, when a news report on the website of the state-run Qatar News Agency carried details of a speech purportedly given by the Qatari Emir Tamim, in which he praised Hamas, described Iran as a force for regional stabilisation, and lauded Qatar’s “good” relations with Israel. The Qatari government subsequently announced that the website had been hacked. It described the article as “fake news”. But it was too late. State-run outlets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE ran a series of articles citing the piece,while the governments of the two countries abruptly barred access to the Arabic and English services of Al Jazeera. A war of words ensued between Saudi, UAE, and Qatari-backed media outfits. 

The current escalation comes just two weeks after the US President Donald Trump made Saudi Arabia the first stop on his inaugural trip abroad. It also presents his administration with its first major foreign policy headache.   

The Trump administration’s decision to prioritise the Kingdom was widely seen as a conciliatory measure. The Gulf-US relationship came under severe strain during the presidency of Barack Obama, who pushed for a deal over Iran’s nuclear programme and was quoted describing the Gulf states “free riders". Obama created a perception in the Gulf of a US pivot away from its traditional allies towards Tehran.

Trump, who used the same trip to lecture European leaders, was fulsome in his praise of the Kingdom. He dropped the anti-Saudi rhetoric that had peppered his speeches and interviews on the campaign trail. The shift in attitude has been attributed to the warm relationship between the UAE ambassador, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, senior political adviser and informal “Secretary of Everything” - not to mention the allure of the injection of hundreds of billions of Saudi dollars into the US economy. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have become increasingly aligned, meanwhile, since the installation of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in Saudi Arabia. It is his son, Mohammed, who drives most policy in the Kingdom. Prince Mohammed is said to enjoy a close relationship with Mohammed bin Zayed, the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the UAE. 

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi clearly feel that they have sufficient leverage in Washington to go on the offensive against Qatar. They may be doing so in the hope that the Trump administration, not known for its nuanced foreign policy thinking, picks a side in the fight. Their end goal remains unclear, but there is muttering in the region that the best-case scenario for the Saudi-Emirati axis is regime change, with a more agreeable (and perhaps malleable) member of the ruling family brought in. 

While Trump may be tempted to ditch Qatar – which has faced repeated accusations of links to extremist groups across the region – his closest advisers are likely remind him of the depth of strategic US interests in Qatar. (The irony will not be lost on keen observers of terror financing networks in Washington that Saudi Arabia – often implicated in these networks – is pointing fingers elsewhere.)

Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have longstanding ties to Qatar. Tillerson is the former CEO of ExxonMobil, the biggest investor in lucrative Qatar’s gas sector. Mattis is the former commander of US Central Command, which has run its biggest regional airbase from Al Udeid in Qatar, which houses around 10,000 US troops and is crucial to the US presence in Iraq, since 2003. They are likely to recognize the importance of deescalating the conflict. But how they can do so remains unclear, with so many egos and interests at play.

Peter Salisbury is a senior research fellow with Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. Peter has worked as a journalist and analyst focused on political economy issues in the MENA region since 2008. 

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How to end the Gulf stand off? The West should tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy

Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon on the unfolding crisis in the Gulf. 

Only one group stands to benefit from a continuation of the crisis in Gulf: The Quartet, as they are now being called. Last week, The United Arab Emirates foreign minister tweeted that Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbours are heading for a "long estrangement". We should take him at his word.

The European political establishment has been quick to dismiss the boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt as naïve, and a strategic mistake. The received wisdom now is that they have acted impulsively, and that any payoff will be inescapably pyrrhic. I’m not so sure.

Another view: Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's foreign minister, was in the region over the weekend to see if he could relay some of his boss’s diplomatic momentum. He has offered to help mediate with Kuwait, clearly in the belief that this is the perfect opportunity to elevate France back to the top table. But if President Emmanuel Macron thinks this one will be as straightforward as a Donald Trump handshake, he should know that European charm doesn’t function as well in the 45 degree desert heat (even if some people call him the Sun King).

Western mediation has so far proceeded on the assumption that both sides privately know they will suffer if this conflict drags on. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson judged that a Qatari commitment to further counter-terrorism measures might provide sufficient justification for a noble reversal. But he perhaps underestimates the seriousness of the challenge being made to Qatar. This is not some poorly-judged attempt to steal a quick diplomatic win over an inferior neighbour.

Qatar’s foreign policy is of direct and existential concern to the other governments in the Gulf. They will not let Qatar off the hook. And even more than that, why should they? Qatar has enormous diplomatic and commercial clout for its size, but that would evaporate in an instant if companies and governments were forced to choose between Doha and the Quartet, whose combined GDP is almost ten times that of their former ally. Iran, Turkey and Russia might stay on side. But Qatar would lose the US and Europe, where most of its soft power has been developed. Qatar’s success has been dependent on its ability to play both sides. If it loses that privilege, as it would in the event of an interminable cold war in the Gulf, then the curtains could come down.

Which is why, if they wanted to badly enough, Le Drian and Tillerson could end this conflict tomorrow. Qatar’s foreign policy has been concerning for the past decade. It has backed virtually every losing side in the Arab world, and caused a significant amount of destruction in the process. In Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, Qatar has turned a blind eye to the funding of Islamic revolutionaries with the financial muscle to topple incumbent regimes. Its motives are clear; influence over the emergent republics, as it had in Egypt for a year under Mohamed Morsi. But as we review the success of this policy from the perspective of 2017, it seems clear that all that has been achieved is a combination of civil unrest and civil war. The experiment has failed.

Moreover, the Coalition is not going to lift sanctions until Doha suspends its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. When Western leaders survey the Gulf and consider who they should support, they observe two things: firstly, that the foreign policy of the Quartet is much more aligned with their own (it doesn’t seem likely to me that any European or American company would prefer to see a revolution in Dubai instead of a continuation of the present arrangement), and secondly, that Qatar would fold immediately if they applied any significant pressure. The Al Thani ruling family has bet its fortune and power on trans-Atlantic support; it is simply not credible that they would turn to the West’s enemies in the event that an ultimatum was issued. Doha might even welcome an excuse to pause its costly and ineffective programmes. Even if that involves some short term embarrassment. It is hardly going to lose support at home, with the highest GDP per capita in the world.

It would be necessary to make sure that the Coalition understands that it will have to pay a price for decisive Western intervention. The world will be a more dangerous place if our allies get the impression they can freely bully any smaller rival, knowing that the West will always come down on their side. That is however no great hurdle to action; it might even be a positive thing if we can at the same time negotiate greater contributions to counter-terrorism or refugee funding.

Unfortunately the reason why none of this is likely to happen is partly that the West has lost a lot of confidence in its ability to resolve issues in the Middle East since 2003, and partly because it fears for its interests in Doha and the handsome Qatari contributions in Western capitals. This cautious assessment is wrong and will be more harmful to Qatar and the aforementioned interests. The Quartet has no incentive to relent, it can’t afford to and will profit from commercial uncertainty in Doha the longer this drags on. If the West really wants this to end now, it must tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy or face sanctions from a more threatening ally.

Geoffrey Hoon was the UK defence secretary from 1999 to 2005.