Just two weeks after President Donald Trump’s historic visit to Saudi Arabia, in which he called for Arab and Muslim unity to “drive out” extremists and terrorists, key Gulf Arab states and Egypt have severed diplomatic ties with the State of Qatar. On Tuesday, Trump used Twitter to praise the diplomatic break as a key success from his trip, strongly suggesting that the president supports the isolation of Qatar.
Despite Trump’s seeming approval, the move by Saudi Arabia and other states has sent shockwaves across the region, creating a sense of tension while fueling speculation that the Arab world is about to witness yet another escalating conflict.
In addition to cutting off diplomatic ties, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have closed their airspace and sea-lanes to Qatari vessels. They have expelled Qatari diplomats, and Saudi Arabia, which shares the only land border with Qatar, announced the closure of that land crossing — a gateway for the vast majority of food produce that enters Qatar. That closure has already created a sense of panic among Qataris and led to a run on grocery stores.
For the first time in their history, Gulf states have imposed a siege on one of their own.
What makes this particular diplomatic rift worrisome is the potential involvement of the United States. All of the countries at play are strategic U.S. allies. All of them are cornerstones to U.S. military and intelligence operations in the Arabian Gulf and beyond.
Qatar, the tiny emirate now being diplomatically frozen out of the region, is home to Al Udeid Airbase, home to about 10,000 American servicemen and a key strategic airbase for U.S. Central Command operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
What led to this existential crisis among the Arabian Gulf allies, known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)? How did it escalate so quickly? There are two parallel tracks to understand this timeline, one long-term and the other short.
Saudi, Egyptian and Emirati officials and residents say that at the core of their actions was the belief that for years, Qatar has been fueling the flames of radicalism and extremism, providing financial and moral support to groups long considered conservative, extremists or even terrorists by some. They believe Qatar is a force for destabilization in the region through meddling in the internal affairs of others.
They cite Qatar’s willingness to host exiled religious and political leaders from Egypt, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt has deemed the brotherhood a terrorist organization, and in 2013 its military forcibly removed the group’s president from power. Qatar has long housed the leadership of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel. And Qatar has allowed the Taliban, the violent and ultra-conservative Afghan group, to set up an office in Doha in an attempt to foster an Afghan reconciliation dialogue.
In addition, Qatar’s influence increased in stature over the years with the growth of its pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera, a channel that was once celebrated as the first independent news channel of its kind in a region where information was traditionally the sole property of the state and its agencies.
In the post-Arab-Spring world, the region became bitterly divided between the countries that rejected the premise of cataclysmic change and those that welcomed it. In a nutshell, Egypt, Saudi Arabi and the Emirates viewed the Arab Spring with skepticism. They saw the fall of strong men as a pathway for the rise of Islamist parties and leaders that would ultimately upend the region’s stability, potentially affecting their own countries.
Qatar saw this change as an eventual reality and tried to engage with the current of Islamist populism that rode to power in the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Paradoxically, in some Arab Spring countries, like Yemen and Syria, Qatar was generally in line with regional powers. It supported the opposition in Syria and also fought alongside Saudi and Emirati forces in Yemen.
For years, the struggle among the Arabian Gulf countries has centrally focused on the region’s stabilities and which players to back.
Qatari sources say their country’s foreign policy was derived from a belief that change in the region was inevitable. The government there believed the wave of populist revolts in the region could not be ignored or contained and can only be moderated if they were engaged. It paved the way for Qatari leaders to engage with Islamist parties that were deemed a threat by the Saudis, Egyptians and Emiratis.
More importantly, Qataris argued that by incorporating many of these political movements into the political fold they would be able to shape the outcome of their participation in regional affairs.
But how did this long-term perspective spill over so suddenly? This is where it gets intriguing.
It began on the night of May 24. The official Qatar News Agency began issuing statements attributed to the country’s ruler, the Emir of Qatar, in which he criticized Trump, praised Iran, embraced Hamas and expressed a willingness to work with Israel.
The statements seemed odd and out of step with regional developments. Nonetheless, they were quickly picked up by news organizations in neighboring countries, which in turn began covering the statements as facts while repudiating Qatar and its rulers.
Qatar’s news agency quickly issued a statement that its website had been hacked and denied the ruler ever made those comments. But it was too late. Events were kicked into motion and soon Saudi and other Arab countries began to turn up the rhetoric against Qatar and its rulers, culminating in this week’s decision to effectively besiege the tiny state.
So what happens now? The Arab states leading the charge against Qatar — now with the apparent tacit approval of the White House — have a clear list of demands that Qatar must meet to restore diplomatic relations with its neighbors. They include shutting down Al Jazeera, expelling leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and expelling a prominent Palestinian secular writer Azmi Bishara.
So far Qatar has maintained that it is open to resolving this conflict through dialogue and not through ultimatums and demands. Kuwait is said to be mediating backdoor diplomacy to resolve the standoff, and for now the only public statements from Washington, the key player in all of these countries, has been the president’s tweets.