Led by Saudi Arabia, five Arab countries have broken ties with Qatar.
Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE and Yemen, along with the Saudis not only broke diplomatic relations, but also acted to isolate the gulf state, which sits on a peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf between Bahrain and UAE, with Saudi Arabia to the south.
Saudi Arabia has closed all commercial shipping and land borders to its gulf neighbor, and called for its citizens and companies to leave immediately. This action stems from simmering problems between the Arab states over Qatar’s funding of the Muslim Brotherhood, and ownership of the Al Jazeera news organization.
Egypt, in particular, considers the Muslim Brotherhood a threat to its stability, having ousted the group with a military coup. The other states have bristled at Qatar’s use of its news network to spread discord and negative reports about their rulers.
This break creates a bit of a conundrum for U.S. interests and efforts to fight ISIS, although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis deny that it will be an impediment. The New York Times reported:
Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Mattis, who appeared in their first joint news conference, in Sydney, after talks with their Australian counterparts, insisted that the rupture in relations among the Arab states would not undermine the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“I am confident there will be no implications,” said Mr. Mattis, who was privately informed of the decision earlier in the day.
Qatar has been a close ally in American military efforts in the gulf region, and hosts the forward headquarters of CENTCOM. U.S. Air Force jets fly missions from Al Udeid Air Base, and U.S. soldiers frequently spend their R&R at Camp As Sayliyah outside of Doha.
Over the last 25 years, the U.S. has made an enormous investment in facilities in the gulf state that’s now on the outs with other gulf Arab allies with which President Trump seeks to build a coalition for stability and peace.
In total, there are 27 warehouses with about 1.6 million square feet or 36.3 acres of enclosed storage space. The US Army also installed 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of roads and almost four kilometers (2.48 miles) of fencing. Support structures provide for a group headquarters, administration building, community center, dining facility, and enlisted and officers quarters. The site also has open storage areas, sunshades, and all associated utilities.
(This information might be dated, and in fact there are likely a lot more facilities around Doha in support of U.S. military requirements.)
While the U.S. Army and Air Force have a large presence in Qatar, the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, with more coalition air missions launching from UAE facilities. Balancing these locations when the countries have broken off all diplomatic activity puts a great burden on U.S. logistics, diplomatic assets, and military planners.
American corporations do business in all the Arab states. Will they now have to choose where to place business or personnel? This becomes a rats’ nest for American interests and a threat to the global cooperation sought by President Trump.
In fact, it could completely overshadow his historic visit to Saudi Arabia and fray the fragile ties of the Gulf Cooperation Council. “If there’s any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the G.C.C. remain unified,” Tillerson said.
A valid question arises from this: are the gulf states acting out of a desire to bully Qatar out of funding terror, or are they acting out of fear?
If they’re acting to reduce the footprint and funding of terror, this isn’t really a bad thing, and in fact, the U.S. should laud it and apply diplomatic pressure to Qatar. But it’s probably not the true motive.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the other gulf states fear the Muslim Brotherhood. They fear the access Qatar’s Al Jazeera network has to foreign capitals, journalists and diplomats. They fear the Arab Muslim group, that traces its ties to the Nazi sympathizer Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, and Sheikh Hassan al-Banna.
Egypt and Israel cooperate on anti-terror operations in the Sinai, and enjoy a (sometimes strained) peace treaty. Saudi Arabia has found shared interests with Israel against Iran. The UAE, although officially banned from doing business with Israel, has many commercial interests in common.
Qarar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, allegedly called for improving ties with Iran, which Qataris later denied and attributed to “hackers.” That’s likely a spurious explanation, and the Saudis didn’t buy it.
So where do we go from here?
Qatar will surely suffer. Losing shipping and land route access to its neighbors is going to hurt, and Qatari businesses will lose money and value. The rift cannot continue indefinitely, so the pressure is definitely on Qatar to do something conciliatory, or to get the U.S. to intervene on its behalf.
America is placed in an awkward situation, but in the end, anything that can be done to move Qatar away from funding terror is a good move. We should use our friendship and trust with the Qataris to encourage them to heal this split.