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7 June 2017

The Qatar row shows Donald Trump’s unpredictable influence endures

Even as the US president's unpopularity grows, he has the ability to up the ante of any flashpoint around the world.

By Stephen Bush

What’s happened in Qatar, and what’s Donald Trump’s role in the affair?

The governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, the UAE and Yemen have severed diplomatic ties with the resource-rich nation, and in addition have suspended air, sea and land transport to Qatar. As the country is dependent on food imports that come through its neighbours, the move puts the city-state under considerable pressure.

Their reason? The other Gulf monarchies have long accused Doha of funding and hosting terrorist groups. As David Roberts explains here, this isn’t the first time that Qatar’s bigger neighbours have attempted to put the pinch on the city-state.

Here’s where the West in general and the United States in particular comes in. The US tends to avoid taking a side in intra-Gulf disputes as Washington has strategic ties with most of them – and in most cases, the US also turns a blind eye to their record of financing extremist groups. In the case of Qatar: the city-state hosts two major American outposts, one of which is the command centre for US operations against the self-described Islamic State.

That’s why the initial reactions from American officials was to call for talks rather than to take a side. Rex Tillerson even went so far as to offer to act as an honest broker. But that’s been upended by a tweet from Donald Trump, claiming credit for the move and saying that perhaps this may be “the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

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That the move came so soon after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia does suggest that Riyadh felt they were in the clear launch this move against the Qataris. Qatar’s economic dependence on the open borders of its neighbours means that the row is likely to end only one way. But it could severely weaken Western efforts against IS.

But Trump’s unexpected intervention has a life well beyond that one conflict or that one part of the world. It’s a reminder that even as Trump’s unpopularity grows at home and his administration looks increasingly crisis-stricken, he has the ability to up the ante of any flashpoint around the world – for however long his presidency may last.