President Donald Trump made Saudi Arabia the first stop on his foreign trip, and it wasn’t long after his departure from Riyadh that one of the Gulf’s long-seething tensions spilled over into a messy, dangerous standoff. Early last week, several Arab states — including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen — cut off all diplomatic and economic ties with the tiny Gulf state of Qatar. Those countries accused Qataris of funneling money to Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and of keeping inappropriately close ties with Iran. By Tuesday, Trump himself was involved, adding fuel to the rivalry by tweeting support for the Saudi coalition — despite Qatar’s indispensable role in the United States’ military operations in the region. The planes that bomb ISIS targets in Syria take off from the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which is the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command.
The rest of the administration, led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, scrambled to undo the damage, and reportedly got Trump on the phone to talk to both sides. But Trump undercut those efforts on Friday by calling Qatar a funder of terrorism at a “very high level.” The diplomatic meltdown may sound oddly familiar in its cast of characters, which includes alleged Russian hackers and fake news. But the roots of the crisis go back decades, and are unfamiliar to most Americans not steeped in the fine points of political tensions within the Arab world. To give context to the standoff, Daily Intelligencer spoke with Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. He has studied and written extensively about the region, and is the author of the book Qatar and the Arab Spring, which happens to be a solid place to begin to understand the current tensions
Can you walk through exactly what’s going on?
To start with, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain did the same thing in March 2014, and relations remained disrupted for nine months. What’s different now is that several other countries have joined in, and they have economic sanctions. They’ve also closed off air, land, and sea links with Qatar, and ordered their own nationals to leave Qatar and ordered Qataris to leave their countries, too. So they’ve gone a lot further than in 2014.
But at its very heart, [the conflict] is rooted in the Arab Spring, when Qatar supported Islamist groups — in North Africa, and in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — and were much more supportive in general of the uprisings. But Saudi Arabia and the UAE were very fearful the uprisings could potentially spread to the Gulf. The Qataris had basically no prospect of any potential unrest in 2011 because it’s such a wealthy state with a very small number of citizens enjoying huge amounts of personal wealth. So they saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to cast Qatar as something distinct. The Qataris also have Al Jazeera, which gave them a global profile, and they had just won the 2022 World Cup hosting rights. Their self-confidence was at its height, so they figured they could do anything if they threw enough resources at it.
What were the consequences of that?
The bet the Qataris placed on the Brotherhood seemed to pay off, at least in the beginning. But then, in 2013, you had the counter-coup in Egypt, when you had Mohammed Morsi being toppled, and then, of course, you had the uprisings in Syria and Libya turning into these never-ending civil wars. The big bet Qatar made failed. They backed the wrong horse. The Saudis and the Emiratis are not going to let them forget that.
But what prompted the Saudis, the UAE, and others to act now?
Saudis and the UAE feel emboldened, obviously by Trump’s election and his initial sign that the administration is going to be much more hawkish than its predecessor on Iran and Islamism. Those are exactly the two issues that Qatar was so different on in its approach. The Saudis and Emiratis feel this is now the time to put Qatar back into its box once and for all.
Once and for all?
This has been going on for 20 years, since the current emir’s [Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani] father [Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani] seized power from his own father in 1995 and began to set Qatar on a much more distinct path — in part to escape the Saudi shadow. The lesson Sheik Hamad, the ruler of Qatar, took in 1995 was from Kuwait in 1990, when it was invaded by Saddam Hussein. You have a 34-country coalition led by the U.S. mobilized within weeks because Kuwait has something of value to the global economic community. The lesson to Qatar was if we create these links around the world, we’ll potentially have people who will have a direct stake in our survival. So ’95 and onward, Qatar has tried to diversify its sources of international relations and security away from Big Brother next door.
So is this Saudi Arabia’s endgame — to assert its influence again over its little brother?
The UAE is also a key figure in this — it’s not just a Saudi thing. The Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, who’s this 31-year-old, very ambitious young prince; and then his mentor, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, have become this new axis of hawkish policymakers. Under the Obama administration, the Saudis and Emiratis didn’t feel they had the U.S. government backing. They didn’t believe Obama understood the security concerns about Iran and about Islamism. They were horrified by the Iran nuclear deal, and by the U.S. government’s acceptance of the uprising in Egypt in 2011 that, for them, swept away one of the U.S.’s longest security and political partners in the Middle East. They were thinking, Well, if that could happen to them, it could happen to us. In Abu Dhabi and in Riyadh, they thought for the first time in decades that if they couldn’t rely on the U.S. to ensure security, they would have to do it themselves.
And they also got pushed to become more assertive by Qatar, because Qatar was becoming much more regionally interventionist on the side of the Islamists. But the Saudis and Emiratis came out on top because, by 2013, the initial phase of the Arab Spring was more or less crushed.
But what triggered the Saudis and Emiratis to take action now?
In December 2015, a Qatari hunting group, including at least 12 or 13 members of the royal family, were taken hostage in southern Iraq by a Shia militia called Kata’ib Hezbollah, which has links back to Iran. For a long time, the Qatari government refused to make any ransom payments. Finally, in April, the Qataris came to a very complex agreement with Iran, with Hezbollah, and with a couple of Sunni groups in Syria. It involved prisoner exchanges and resettlement of villages in Syria. It also involved large amounts of money changing hands. The exact details are not known, but rumors were that the Qataris paid between $200 to $300 million. Just this week, the Financial Times [reported] up to $1 billion. Again, it’s very murky, but it seems a lot of the money ended up either in Shia militias’ and/or in Iran’s pockets. The Iraqi government was furious, claiming that it hadn’t been consulted and it was destabilizing to Iraq to strengthen these militias and strengthen Iran. The Gulf states said the same thing. This is now being used as the casus belli.
You say being used as the casus belli.
I think the trigger was Trump’s visit, and the feeling in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that they got a green light to be much more assertive. But the ransom payments are what they’re using as a justification. It reinforces the perception that Qatar is supporting all sorts of dodgy groups. It does so in a way that resonates; it plays well in D.C. The Gulf states, the Saudis, and the Emiratis know the U.S. government is not going to look favorably on a country that’s supporting Islamist groups and Iran. They know that this can damage Qatar’s reputation.
Has Qatar’s opportunism — trying to play so many sides — come back to haunt it?
Qataris would say it’s pragmatic. I can see why it looks to outsiders as opportunistic. For example, you have Qatar being much closer to Iran and at the same time being the host of U.S. Central Command. But from a Qatari perspective, they’re trying to hedge their bets. Qatar’s wealth comes from its possession of the world’s largest gas field, which is not associated with an oil field. But that gas field is in the middle of the Gulf; it straddles the Qatari-Iranian border, and Iran has a portion of it. They wouldn’t do anything that would endanger the oil fields that built Qatar to what it is today. But the Qataris don’t want to become too vulnerable to any Iranian pressure, so having CentCom allows Qatar this security guarantee — even though it doesn’t look like a natural fit. But when it goes wrong, like it has done now, they’re vulnerable to this kind of accusation of being an unreliable partner.
It seems as if Qatar has plenty of friends. What did Saudi Arabia, UAE, and others hope to gain by cutting off Qatar?
I think they thought the addition of so many other countries to the protest and economic sanctions would create shock and awe. I think they were hoping Qatar would immediately cave. The Qataris haven’t done so. To some extent rightly so, because Qatar hasn’t exactly done anything differently than it was already doing. And the Qataris have now acted, again, to diversify their own sources of support. You had the Turkish government fast-tracking legislation in Turkey to put troops in Qatar, where it has a base. You had Vladimir Putin, quite opportunistically, calling the emir on Tuesday to offer his support — right after Donald Trump’s tweets. The Qataris are showing the Saudis and the Emiratis that they have friends. It’s almost playing a game of bluff.
Speaking of Trump’s tweets, reports surfaced on Thursday that the president wasn’t aware of the U.S. military base in Doha. How significant is the U.S.’s military partnership with Qatar?
In the 1990s, the U.S. continued to maintain a presence in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War. In 2002, the Qataris sensed an opportunity, especially after 9/11, to entice the U.S. to leave. So they constructed and financed this entire base, Al Udeid. They basically presented CentCom with a ready-made facility to move into — which it did, in 2003. The U.S. now has two bases in Qatar, which are instrumental. And the Qataris have always been careful to keep the U.S. presence carefully hidden away in the desert — you wouldn’t see U.S. soldiers walking through downtown Doha, but they’re there. And they’re there for a reason. Maybe the only thing that stops the Saudis from moving into Qatar is the knowledge that they’ll run into U.S. CentCom. The Qataris know that. As long as the U.S. is there, it’s underpinning Qatar’s external security posture.
What do you make of the rest of the Trump administration, led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, trying to do damage control?
Tillerson, before he became Secretary of State, was head of ExxonMobil, and that company has enormous interests in Qatar. Tillerson, as its CEO, was instrumental in expanding those interests. He knows the emir, he knows the emir’s father — the previous emir — extremely well. So does Mattis, from when Mattis was commander of CentCom. So these two, unlike Trump, have extensive experience with the commercial and strategic value of Qatar to the U.S., and they also have personal relationships with the rulers going back years. I think they were definitely pushing back.
Backtracking a bit, it seems that a hacking scandal has also helped escalate this crisis. Can you explain how that’s relevant?
There was an allegation of hacking of the Qatar News Agency after a fake article appeared that described comments the emir allegedly made at a military graduation ceremony in Doha, just two days after Trump’s visit, on the 23rd of May. The Qatari emir was presiding over the ceremony, but he never gave a speech. Diplomats who were there said he never gave a speech. But that night of [May 23], a news story on the Qatar News Agency site claimed the emir made a speech and criticized Trump, saying Qatar had a difficult relationship with the U.S., saying that Iran has to be recognized as an important Islamic power, saying [Qatar has] a great relationship with Israel. All things that would be incendiary. And based on Qatar’s own past, one could imagine the emir could have said those things. It wasn’t so completely outlandish.
Who might have been responsible for the alleged hack?
An FBI intelligence assessment concluded that Russia was somehow involved. It’s not known whether or not it was the Russian government, or freelancers in Russia seeing if they could cause some mischief. If it was the Russian government, you can imagine that this could have easily been an attempt to undermine the U.S. military stance in the Middle East by driving a wedge between the U.S. and one of its most important partners. If that was the intention, then initially it worked very well with Trump’s tweets. It seemed as if the U.S. was ready to cast off its relationship with Qatar. It would have been a huge thing.
But that wasn’t the last hack, right?
Last weekend, you had the hack and release of emails belonging to the UAE ambassador to D.C.. We don’t know who the hacker is, and the Qataris have said it had nothing to do with them — but it looks like a tit for tat. Among the released emails were those showing the UAE ambassador was really pulling strings behind the scenes with a lot of influential people in D.C. to paint Qatar in this negative light. So it all seemed to reinforce a feeling it was part of a campaign to discredit the Qataris.
Do you think that hack prompted Saudia Arabia and the UAE, joined by others, to act against Qatar?
It could be linked. They could have seen it as an unacceptable provocation, and finalized their plans to take action in response. I have no proof of that, we’ve seen a lot of these hacks, and the timing seems to escalate every single time.
So what happens now? Where do Saudi Arabia and its partners go from here?
I’m not entirely sure the Saudis and Emiratis have a plan for what they’re going to do next. They could tighten sanctions, they could extend financial sanctions on Qatar. The Saudis and others have already gone in at such high-level pressure, they don’t have much more to do before they have outright acts of war. They could try to work the U.S. government into joining in and force it to take sides. Trump’s tweets played into that narrative. But there’s been a lot of pushback — at least from the institutional parts of the U.S. government in charge of the nuts and bolts of the bilateral relationship that have said, ‘actually, this is too valuable to put in jeopardy.’ [Ed. note: Trump slammed Qatar again Friday.]
Who else, besides the United States, may be trying to ease tensions?
Kuwait’s been very active in negotiations. The Kuwaiti emir is 88 next week, he’s the Gulf’s elder statesmen, and he sees himself as a regional diplomat. He has a very close relationship with the emir of Qatar. The Kuwaitis will try to find a resolution that gives enough of something to everyone that would allow all parties to back off without losing faith. That’s going to be the key — whatever that is.
How do you see this situation resolving, if at all?
I think it’s going to be hard for the Saudis and Emiratis to back down because it would involve a loss of face. The key would be to try to negotiate a resolution that allows everyone to bow down gracefully, but it’s been so confrontational and acrimonious, I don’t see how that could happen.
On the other hand, if the blockade continues for weeks and months, that will do real damage to the Qatari economy. Qatar has a land boundary with Saudi Arabia, and 40 percent of its food imports come through it and all its construction materials for the mega projects and World Cup projects. So the Qataris will have to think about what kind of concessions they could offer.
How does this fit into the larger tensions in the region — between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for instance — that have bubbled up after Trump’s foreign trip?
The signals the administration was giving may embolden the Saudis and the Emiratis to become much more assertive. The fact that you have key people within the Trump administration who may be inexperienced also gave the Saudis and the Emiratis an opportunity to begin to try to shape how the administration would think about the Middle East, which seems to have happened. For example, it was reported in January that al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the U.S. — the guy whose email was hacked — was in almost daily contact with Jared Kushner, effectively mentoring him on Middle East politics. If that’s al Otaiba’s level of access to the administration, he’s passing on a vision of a Middle East that’s very much in the UAE’s interest. And there’s a vacuum in the Middle East right now, and governments are going to rush in to fill that vacuum.
Why is there that vacuum?
There’s a feeling that the U.S. is focused on domestic issues. There’s a sense of disconnect or drift in U.S. foreign policy. There’s a perception that countries and people are working off, that maybe this is a good time to make a move.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.