In late May 2017, Donald Trump arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, bearing gifts of a $110 billion arms deal to challenge Iranian influence in the region, and support for the Saudis’ brutal war in Yemen that has killed more than 10,000 civilians and left more than 10 million without sufficient food and water. The Saudis lavished Trump with 83 of their own gifts, including swords, daggers, a robe lined in cheetah fur, and a portrait of the U.S. president. And Saudi Arabia and the UAE together pledged $100 million to a fund for women entrepreneurs proposed by Ivanka Trump.
On June 5, 2017, emboldened by President Trump’s visit, Saudi Arabia — together with its regional Sunni allies Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates — imposed a land, sea and air blockade on the tiny gas-rich nation of Qatar. The reason they gave was their claim that Qatar supports extremists and must be stopped. Back in the U.S., Donald Trump announced that the Saudis and their allies had told him that Qatar was the primary funder of terrorism.
Let’s look at the Saudi claim more closely. Saudi Arabia’s discomfort with Qatar has a long history, and much of it has little to do with terrorism:
- Qatar is the only other country besides Saudi Arabia that adheres to the Islamic doctrine of Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia’s version of Wahhabism has been repressive and severe, however, while Qatar’s is far more forward-looking and allowing for change.
- Qatar maintains a remarkably independent foreign policy, with a policy of open dialogue with its neighbors — including Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest natural gas field (a large source of Qatar’s enormous wealth). Sunni Saudi Arabia has wrestled with Shia Iran for power and influence in the Middle East region, and Qatar’s friendliness toward Iran complicates Saudi Arabia’s ambitions.
- Qatar provided tremendous humanitarian support to Gaza following the 2014 Israeli-Gaza conflict, giving over $1 billion to rebuild Palestinian homes and roadways. Since 2007, the governing authority in Gaza has been Hamas, which is seen by the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia as a terrorist organization. Qatar also maintains long ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate Mohammed Morsi was the first democratically-elected president of Egypt, but was overthrown in a 2013 coup led by Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — who has been president of Egypt since 2014, has given the Egyptian military essentially unchecked power, and has been the beneficiary of much Saudi aid and support (including of both the 2013 coup and his current military rule of Egypt).
- Qatar is host to Al Udeid Air Base, the largest American air base in the Middle East, as well as to campuses for a large number of foreign universities (including Georgetown, Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon).
Who supports terrorism?
As for Saudi Arabia’s claims that Qatar supports terrorists, this is seen by many as a case of the pot calling the kettle black:
- Saudi Arabia is widely considered to be the largest state sponsor of terrorism around the world. Among the 2010 WikiLeaks releases was a December 2009 cable from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to State Dept staff: “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Also: “More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups.”
- The Saudis contributed 15 of the 19 terrorists involved in the attacks on the U.S. World Trade Center towers on Sept 11, 2001. Two came from the UAE, and one from Egypt. None were from Qatar.
- After the Saudis blockaded Qatar, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Bob Corker made the comment that the support the Saudis provide for terrorist activities “dwarfs what Qatar is doing.” Corker made clear his intention to block U.S. arms sales to members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (which includes three of the four blockading countries) until the dispute is resolved.
- The U.S. dependence on Saudi oil is a complicating factor in any effort to hold Saudi Arabia to account for their extensive support of terrorist activity.
The 13 demands
Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Qatar came with a list of 13 demands of the tiny Gulf state, most of which the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said were neither reasonable nor actionable; the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called “difficult to meet”; and German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, described as “very provocative.” They included severing diplomatic ties with Iran, and essentially accepting all Saudi “enemies” as Qatari enemies (even though the UAE, one of the blockading countries, is the largest trading partner of Iran).
The blockading countries also demanded that Qatar shut down the media network Al Jazeera, widely considered one of the most independent and influential media outlets in the Arab world (or anywhere else). Al Jazeera’s reporting presents a clear challenge to repressive regimes in the region, including that of the Saudis. When Saudi Arabia and its friends imposed the blockade on Qatar, one of the first things they did was to block Al Jazeera in Saudi Arabia — making it impossible for the Saudi people to hear the Qatari response to the Saudi accusations leveled against it. The UAE has enacted a law that includes a $136,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison for voicing any support for Qatar. The Saudi attempt to shutter Al Jazeera has been widely condemned by media organizations and outlets around the world, including The Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the New York Times editorial board, and The Guardian. In a strongly-worded editorial, the Guardian said: “Qatar’s neighbours want to gag media that raises questions about the way these nations are run.”
Qatar has now hired a Swiss law firm to defend against the Saudi-led accusations and blockade. The German and Iranian foreign ministers have urged all sides to hold direct talks. Al Jazeera released their own open letter in response. Meanwhile, a Kuwaiti mediation initiative has proceeded, with the Kuwaiti emir recently announcing that the threat of military confrontation had successfully been averted. France has also appointed a special envoy to the mediation. And a phone conversation coordinated by Donald Trump between Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have opened new roads toward potential resolution of the 4-month long conflict.
Qatar ambassador to the United States, Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al-Thani, has stated clearly that the Saudi blockade and accusations of Qatar are a smokescreen, “seeking to isolate and punish Qatar for our independence and to retaliate against us for supporting the true aspirations of people against tyrants and dictators.”
And Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, told Al Jazeera: “We are not prepared to surrender, and will never be prepared to surrender, the independence of our foreign policy.”
Camilla Warrender and Zoe Licata (Cambridge, Massachusetts)