Qatar’s isolation – A consequence of Trump’s Middle East policies?

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Melanie Sauter – On the night of June 5th, Bahrein, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar. By suspending air and sea travel, as well as land crossings, the countries also shut down economic links. Over the course of Monday, Libya, the Maldives, and Yemen also severed diplomatic relations with the gulf emirate. Why this sudden escalation?

As part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Qatar has had a long history of friction with the other members of the union, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates (UAE). Relations with Saudi Arabia have been particularly fragile due to the long history of dominance over the emirate. After Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani overthrew his father in 1995, he started a foreign policy program independent of Saudi Arabia. The new program met resistance from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of which favored the emir’s father, who had yielded under their dominance. In fact, Saudi Arabia has been accused of plotting a failed coup against Al-Thani in 1996.

After 9/11 the United States decided to resettle its military base in Saudi Arabia. Qatar seized the opportunity and became the new host of the biggest US military base abroad. By means of previous diplomatic efforts, Qatar has gathered a diverse group of followers in the region that include the US, Europe, Israel, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist movements. Qatar’s state-owned news agency Al Jazeera controls the Arab world’s most popular news channel. The emirate has been using the transnational media platform to widen its geopolitical influence. For a small country, this game plan compensates for other limited power resources.

Cybercrime, fake news, and the escalation of tensions

Last Tuesday, the Qatar News Agency (QNA) was hacked, with a message spreading rumors about a speech in which the emir Al Tahni allegedly expressed support for Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Israel – while suggesting that US President Donald Trump may not last long in power. Doha vehemently denied that the comments were ever made and even invited the FBI to help investigate the case. Yet late on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia and the UAE blocked the Al Jazeera website, and throughout Wednesday media in the two countries continuously broadcast special reports on the alleged remarks.

Most news articles presented the emir’s alleged speech as fact, and accused Qatar of being the weak link in regional stability and the fight against terrorism. Qatar has a long history of supporting various Sunni Islamist groups and it has never made a secret about this fact. So why are its neighbors suddenly cutting ties over supposedly wrong accusations?

Figure: Statement of Qatar’s government

The Trump factor

The Obama administration always tried to engage the GCC as a bloc. For the first time since the US withdrawal of its military base in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has received favorable treatment over Doha.

In fact, the hacking incident happened only three days after Trump’s visit to Riyadh. During that visit, the Trump administration signaled favorability toward policies suggested by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, especially in relation to Iran.

One can speculate that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are trying to seize that opportunity to step up the rivalry with Qatar to a more public level and test how far they can go with the new US administration. The inexperience of Trump’s policy team regarding Middle East affairs might reinforce Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s motivation to level the playing field.

Baloney of regional powers: Qatar will remain important

A columnist in a UAE newspaper noted that “Qatar could be brought to heel by closing its airspace, removing its ability to host the soccer World Cup in 2022.”

This might be hyperbolic, seeing as Qatar is still host to the biggest US military airbase abroad, and the Americans are definitely not pleased about a closed airspace in the most fragile region of the world. Furthermore, Doha is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of liquefied gas. As much as economic sanctions would hit the emirate, it would also hit countries dependent on its natural resources.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE clearly try to bully Qatar to align with their policies. In this case it might backfire, because Qatar will need to negotiate new security alliances, ultimately making the gulf region more fragile. Pakistan and Turkey are already planning to engage in defense joint ventures with the emirate. Iran – Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s archenemy –  shares access to Qatar’s liquefied gas fields. Tehran acted swiftly by offering to send food aid to Qatar.

The case is a good example, on the one hand, of how dangerous cybercrime and the spread of fake news can be. On the other hand, it shows how meddling with alliances that lead to power shifts in the Middle East can quickly erupt into new conflicts. It remains unclear who is responsible for the hacking, yet the suspicion that one of Qatar’s neighbors is responsible is clearly viable. Since this is an unprecedented move, it is very difficult to see how the situation will play out. The countries cutting ties with Qatar might simply test how far they can go with the new Trump administration.

Map made by author.