“The Qatar Crisis Is a Wake-Up Call”, published at The National Interest on July 5, 2017
The Qatar crisis that began snowballing so shortly after President Trump returned from his first foreign trip has laid bare the folly of the administration’s unabashedly pro-Saudi policy. Using the pretext of Qatari support for terrorist and militant groups, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies cut off diplomatic ties and blockaded the small Gulf kingdom. While Trump initially indicated support for Saudi actions—more reflex than careful consideration, arguably—the full scope of the problem became clear later and may have been explained to him by his national-security staff. Trump’s attempt to form an anti-Iran coalition is evidently crumbling, and cracks are forming between U.S. allies. The situation, therefore, is important to understand, as Qatar hosts a huge presence of U.S. forces in the Middle East and is the launch site of many anti-ISIS air strikes.
This latest crisis has also divided countries in the region, including those with which the United States has important relationships. Turkey has called the blockade un-Islamic, all the more so because it is happening during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and is moving troops and hardware to Qatar, where it has a base. Iran, taking advantage of the chaos, is sending shipments of food and drinks to Qatar.
The underlying issue behind the Saudi conflict with Qatar goes back to 1995, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani seized power from his father in a bloodless coup. The new young sheikh of Qatar pushed limited reforms and greatly increased Qatar’s oil production and influence. His son, the current emir, is continuing those policies. The Saudis and Emiratis, fearing palace coups in their own kingdoms, opposed him. The relationship eased with time, but never quite recovered, as Qatar has always punched above its weight, by supporting political and militant organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. That put it at the forefront of Middle East great game, a position it occupied when the Arab Spring erupted; Qatar put heavy resources behind Syrian rebels and others. The Egyptian government’s worst fears came true when the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by Qatar, was instrumental in filling the vacuum after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
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