Kim Sengupta

Qatar can thank Donald Trump for its current woes

Qatar can thank Donald Trump for its current woes
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The deadline imposed on Qatar to agree to the demands made by the Saudi-led Sunni coalition has passed without Doha caving in. This was to be expected -- the main stipulations, among the 13 made, had no chance of being accepted.

The deadline has now been extended by 48 hours and the Kuwaitis are trying to mediate. The Saudis and their cohort meanwhile are threatening more sanctions against Doha and possibly even extending  them to countries which continue to trade with Qatar. Qatar may also be expelled from the Gulf Cooperation Council. There is, for the time being, no threat of military action.

To recap: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain accuses Qatar of a variety of charges, including supporting terrorism. In reality there were four issues -- the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, Al Jazeera and the presence of Turkish troops -- which were key sources of irritation. The Qataris must, say the Saudis, end all links with the Brotherhood; drastically curtail relations with Iran; shut down the satellite television station and end the military presence in its territory of Turkey, which vies for the leadership of the Sunnis in the Middle East with Riyadh.

So far, the Saudis and the other three states have severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, imposed an economic blockade, stopped Qatari planes from using their airspace and closed off Qatar’s only land link and route for food imports -- the border with Saudi Arabia.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the Qatari foreign minister, is coming to London this week as part of a tour of Europe to put forward the case for his country. Britain’s response to the crisis has been muted. The Qataris say they understand this with Theresa May’s government distracted by other things.

But Qatar and Britain matter to each other. The UK is Qatar’s single largest investment destination with £35bn already in place and another £5bn to come. Qataris own more land in London than the Queen. Qatar Airways will lend planes and crews to British Airways, which it partly owns, as the British carrier tries to cope with its latest strike. The threat from the Saudis of third-party sanctions on nations trading with Qatar is obviously problematic for this country among others.

The Qataris want the EU and the UK to ask Washington to rein in the Saudis. But the imbroglio would not even have started had it not been for Donald Trump. The hostility felt by the Saudis and their cohort towards Qatar is nothing new, but it had been kept in check by a firm line from Barack Obama’s administration. But the aggressive rhetoric of Donald Trump during an arms selling trip to Riyadh, including threats against Iran, emboldened the Saudis to make the aggressive moves.

American policy on the dispute appears to be in something of a state of flux. Trump declared his support for the sanctions almost immediately after they were announced and castigated Qatar. But his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and Defence Secretary, General James Mattis, are said to be aghast at what is happening. US military operations in the Middle East are run from the Al Udeid airbase in Qatar. They see the country not as an accomplice of terrorism, but a vital ally against it. The people who will benefit from this Sunni schism, they point out, are the Iranians.

Mattis and Tillerson were in Sydney at the time of the Saudi announcement, clearing up after the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific partnership and the Paris climate accord and were, say their aides, 'blindsided' by the White House’s partisan stance. Tillerson became convinced that Trump’s statements were really coming from the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, who has cultivated the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. A 'close associate' of the Secretary of State told the media:

'Rex put two and two together and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid (Kushner) was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters…what a mess!'

Mattis, too, was authorising people to speak on his behalf. One senior American military officer commented 'every time we have asked the Qataris for something they have said ‘yes’. They have been absolutely first rate on Isis. The Saudis, on the other hand, have been nothing but trouble, in Yemen especially. Yemen has been a disaster, a stain -- and now there is this going on'. General David Petraeus, the former head of the US military, pointed out that the Saudis had claimed that Qatar was backing terrorism by hosting Hamas and the Taliban when, in fact, Doha had invited the two groups to come at the request of the US.

Six days after Trump’s public support for the Saudis in the dispute, Mattis met with Qatari defence minister Khalid al-Attiyah to sign the agreement to ship the F-35 warplanes. Officials in Tillerson’s State Department privately encouraged the Qataris to put forward their own demands to the Saudi alliance.

Turkey has offered to send more troops to protect Qatar: the Iranians have flown in supplies to counter the blockade. But, at the end, the outcome of this stand-off in the Gulf may well depend on what happens in the stand-off in the extraordinary administration of Donald Trump.

Kim Sengupta is the Defence and Diplomatic Editor of the Independent