The Blockade of Qatar
Accusing Qatar of supporting Islamic militants and Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain abruptly announced in June a travel blockade on Qatar. They tabled 13 demands for their fellow member state in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to fulfill before the blockade would be lifted. Egypt, which is particularly sensitive to Qatar’s hosting of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood personalities critical of the Sisi regime, joined in this action. Qatar has protested that the demands constitute an unacceptable infringement on its sovereignty. It has offered to discuss the demands but has been told that the demands are non-negotiable. The blockade adds a further complication for American policymakers dealing with current Middle Eastern power struggles.
The initiative for blockading Qatar appears to have been led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Bahrain joined, but Oman has steered clear of the controversy, perhaps partly because of its appreciation of Iranian support in earlier decades for the Sultan’s leadership against rebel Omani forces. Kuwait has sought to mediate the dispute but lacks the weight to alter Saudi and Emirati policies.
Imposition of the blockade came on the heels of the May visit to Riyadh by U.S. President Donald Trump. The President, who was received with exceptional warmth by the Saudi leadership, initially welcomed the blockade as potentially marking the beginning of the end of international terror. A few days later, however, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke of Washington’s desire for good relations with all GCC members and travelled to the region in an attempt to mediate the dispute. This showed Washington’s keen awareness of the value of GCC unity in managing conflicts with both Iran and the Islamic State.
The Secretary quickly reached an agreement with the Qataris about refraining from funding terrorist groups. But this was not considered sufficient by the Saudis, and their supporters and they have continued to assert that all 13 demands must be met and are non-negotiable.
Perhaps the least surprising of the 13 demands is that Qatar’s Al Jazeera television station be closed. Al Jazeera has carried talk shows and commentaries in its Arabic language programming that have directly criticized other Arab governments, including those of the GCC member states. Its coverage provoked Riyadh into suspending diplomatic relations on more than one occasion. Qatar has argued that its government does not control Al Jazeera’s output, but the fact that Al Jazeera has refrained from any direct criticism of Qatari rulers speaks for itself. Cairo charged its correspondents for the station with advocating the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood and imprisoned them for three years. The Saudis and the Emiratis are deeply suspicious of the Brotherhood.
The Saudis and others in this confrontation have been particularly irritated by Qatar’s support for closer ties with Iran, a country that Riyadh sees as a direct threat to its national interests and regional goals. The fact that Qatar shares exploitation of a major natural gas field with Iran, and that field is the primary source of Qatar’s economic wealth, has surely had an impact on Qatari foreign policy.
As for the charge that Qatar supports international terrorist groups, the issue is particularly complex. The United States itself has found this to be a thorny problem in dealing with some of the region’s many conflicts. For example, we joined with the Saudis in supporting the mujahideen militias in Afghanistan to meet the challenge of the 1979 Soviet invasion. We later fought against some of those same mujahideen when, after the Soviet exodus, they opposed our efforts with a new government in Kabul to reshape Afghan politics. The Saudis were sobered by blowback attacks targeting their own country that were instigated by Saudi national Osama bin Laden in 2005. This stimulated Riyadh’s efforts to exercise stricter controls over how wealthy private Saudis contributed to groups that their government decided to classify as terrorist.
Sorting out terrorists from “moderates” is never easy. The confused setting of Syrian rebels opposing the Bashar al-Assad regime has plagued decision makers in both Washington and Riyadh in recent years. American, Saudi and Emirati monies have all reportedly flowed through the hands of those we intended to aid to avowed anti-American groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Nusra front.
What are the implications for U.S. interests as this confrontation continues? We have developed useful ties with all the GCC leaders that must be maintained. Disputes between the tribally based, proud GCC leaders have always required patience on all sides to be sorted out. Before establishment of the GCC, the Buraimi oasis dispute between the then-leader of Abu Dhabi (under protection of the British in one of the Trucial States) and Riyadh took a generation to resolve. Thus far, the Saudis and the Emiratis appear content to wait for Qatar’s capitulation. For its part, the latter has its own major financial resources and supporters in Iran and Turkey, who have already provided alternate transport and supply lines for Qatar. The continuing tensions will inevitably spill over into bilateral American dealings with GCC members and affect our cooperation on a broader front.
A strong American military position in the region to deal with the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban means that we require on-the-ground access. This at times has proved controversial. The Saudis, sensitive to their image of avoiding dependence on foreign troops, asked us to remove our ground units from the Kingdom a few months after our successful cooperation to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1990. In 2003, they asked for withdrawal of our air presence. Bahrain has for years hosted a U.S. Navy presence, and the UAE has accepted a U.S. Air Force unit in Abu Dhabi. Qatar at al Udaid provides a major base for the U.S. Air Force in support of U.S. air operations extending from Syria to Afghanistan.
The United States also has a significant cultural presence, with branches of several American universities operating in the UAE and Qatar. These do not seem to be at risk in the present circumstances. They have all assured their host countries that students enrolled in those states will enjoy degrees equivalent to those awarded in the United States. This has helped make them valued commodities in the local scene. Their academic leaders have been careful not to involve their institutions in issues of political concern to local leaders.
The changes in Saudi leadership in the past three years have introduced new policies for economic and social development and increased energy applied to their implementation. Prince Muhammad bin Salman, recently named as Crown Prince, captured international attention two years ago in the months after his father succeeded to the throne. He quickly made plain the major role he planned to play in implementing Vision 2030, a detailed program involving fundamental shifts in the direction of Saudi economic and social policy, including privatization of part of Saudi Aramco to secure the necessary funding for these new approaches.
He has sought good relations with the United States but it is too early to predict with any confidence how successful he will be as a leader. He quickly achieved popularity among the educated Saudi youth who look to him to provide wider participation in a newly energized economy and government. As the country’s defense minister, he was responsible for initiating an aggressive military campaign in Yemen in response to Iranian activity in that country. This has brought a humanitarian disaster to Yemen and not yet achieved military success. Overall, his prospects will depend in part on the longevity of his father, King Salman. Prince Muhammad’s appointment as Crown Prince was approved by the appropriate Royal Family Council, but it would not be surprising if his appointment aroused some resentment within the Royal Family, as well as uneasiness among senior members of the bureaucracy who are more comfortable with earlier development policies. However, the most useful maxim to remember in interpreting Saudi family politics is this: if you know what’s going on inside the Family, you don’t talk about it; if you talk about it, you don’t know.
Washington remains engaged in exploring possible approaches for its mediation. This will take time given the negative mindset of Qatar’s critics who believe that Qatar has not honored previous commitments and that now is the time for them to exert maximum pressure on Qatar to conform.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs 1983-1989
United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 1981-1983
United States Ambassador to the Philippines, 1978-1981
United States Ambassador to Syria, 1974-1978
United States Ambassador to Mauritania, 1971-1974