Just a week after President Donald J. Trump’s first foreign trip, Persian Gulf is in an unprecedented regional crisis.
Last Monday, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt first announced to break diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing the tiny Gulf state of supporting terrorist groups such as Muslim Brotherhood. They closed land, air and sea links to Qatar and some have ordered to expel its citizens from their countries.
Qatar and several Gulf nations have been at odds for years, while this rift does follow Mr. Trump’s visit. President Trump himself appears to also take credit for it.
One day after Saudi Arabia’s move, Mr. Trump tweeted, “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!.”
He then wrote in a series of tweets, “[s]o good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off.” He added, “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
The tweets had bewildered Qatar’s ambassador to Washington and U.S. analysts. During Mr. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he had met with Qatari leader Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani and commented Qatar “a crucial strategic partner.” Qatar hosts the U.S. biggest military base in the Middle East to combat terrorism.
Despite Mr. Trump’s claim that he convinced the regional Arab allies to dump Qatar for its support for terrorism, his role is still unclear. It is not, however, surprising that Gulf countries would seek Mr. Trump’s blessing before tightening the noose around the closest U.S. ally in the Gulf.
As Ahmad Majidyar, director of IranObserved Project at Middle East Institute, told The Globe Post, “we cannot just judge by President’s tweets.”
Yet he also said that Mr. Trump’s visit might have played a part, as it sent a very strong signal to the Saudi government in fights against terrorism.
Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University, shared a similar view. “I do think that the Emiratis and Saudis were emboldened by Trump’s visit to put pressure on Qatar. They certainly got the impression from the visit that Trump was going to be behind them,” Mr. Gause said to The Globe Post.
After the tweet rant, Mr. Trump is reversing his course. On Wednesday, in his phone call with Qatar leader, Mr. Trump emphasized the importance of uniting to defeat terrorism. He also “offered to help the parties resolve their differences, including through a meeting at the White House if necessary,” according to a White House statement.
He also spoke with Saudi King, Crown Prince of UAE and President of Egypt on the need for regional stability.
The Pentagon and the State Department had tried to ease the tensions. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Saudi, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt to “ease the blockade against Qatar” last Friday.
Yet on the same day, Mr. Trump’s speech at the White House Rose Garden sent a different message.
“The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” he said, asking Doha to “back among the unity of responsible nations.”
The U.S. normally plays as a mediator without picking sides when similar conflicts erupt in the Gulf region. However, as Mr. Gause said, “you have a president who is unpredictable on these things and a Secretary of Defense who is much more in the American diplomatic policy tradition… It was not like a coordinated plan where Trump is playing the bad cop and Secretary of Defense playing good cops.”
In a surprising move, the U.S. signed a $12 billion deal with Qatar to provide them at least 34 F-15 fighters jets.
To add more confusion to the unfolding saga, the U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Dana Shell Smith, announced her resignation on Twitter. It remains unclear whether her decision is related to the current crisis.
Iran and Turkey’s dilemma
Seen as a common threat in many Gulf nations, Iran is cast as a primary culprit in the breakdown of diplomatic relations as well as Mr. Trump’s motivation to tweet against Qatar.
Mr. Majidyar said that President Trump wishes the Gulf nations to unite against Iran. “As Qatar maintains a close relationship with Iran, that does go against with Washington politics.”
The crisis, however, has actually further pushed Qatar closer to Iran.
Iran has sent over 500 tons of food to Qatar with more coming every day, as the Gulf state is suffering the consequences of a closed land border with Saudi Arabia, where 40 percent of Qatar’s food comes from. Iran also opened its airspace for Qatari flights.
Mr. Majidyar pointed out that different voices have emerged in Iran’s government. While some suggested exploiting the crisis to weaken the American alliance and their impact, others had concerns over “unexpected damage” should Iran acts too aggressive.
In addition, Qatar and Saudi had differences in the past and they managed to resolve it. If it happens again, Iran’s investment would be on the line.
Amid the escalating crisis, Turkey also joined the group standing up for Qatar. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan approved to deploy military troops to Qatar and called for a total lifting of the blockade.
“There are those who are uncomfortable with us standing by our Qatari brothers, providing them with food. I’m sorry, we will continue to give Qatar every kind of support,” Mr. Erdogan said in a speech last Friday. “Until now I have not seen Qatar give support to terror.”
Turkey and Qatar cultivated a common strategy for years since the Arab Spring, when different factions of the Muslim Brotherhood thrived, according to Mr. Gause.
“The reason that the Turks are there is a subtle contest of influence within the Sunni community about what Islam means for politics among the Sunni community,” Mr. Gause said.
While Mr. Erdogan’s strong rhetoric appears to indicate Ankara’s stance, Turkey might also encounter a dilemma.
The desire to protect Qatari government to restrain the Gulf nations and the U.S. and to avoid damaging its relationship with Saudi Arabia makes it hard to remain a balance, Mr. Majidyar suggested.
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