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.  

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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.