Zeeshan Aleem · Tuesday, June 06, 2017, 10:00 am
Why seven countries severed ties with Qatar in a matter of hours.
A longstanding war of words between Saudi Arabia and its oil and gas-rich neighbor Qatar has just exploded into open diplomatic warfare, threatening the US-led fight against ISIS and setting off a new wave of instability in the Gulf region.
Here’s what happened: On Monday, Saudi Arabia and three of its biggest allies — Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain — all announced that they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, as well as suspending air, land, and sea travel to and from the country. The move came after Riyadh accused Qatar of backing radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS. Since then, Libya, Yemen, and the Maldives have also joined the diplomatic boycott.
Qatar is one of the wealthiest countries on earth, but it’s going to feel the pain all the same because it relies heavily on its neighbors for trade and travel in and out of the region. The peninsular nation imports most of its food through its land border with Saudi, which is now closed. Al Jazeera, a Qatar government-owned news network, has reported that trucks carrying food appear to be stranded on the Saudi side of the border. And in Doha, the capital of Qatar, people are already “stockpiling perishable goods,” according to Jassim Mater Kunji, a producer for Al Jazeera English. Many ships carrying food to Doha first stop in the UAE’s biggest cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi; it’s unclear what effect the new bans will have on their movements.
Tensions between Qatar and its neighbors skyrocketed last month after Qatar’s state-run news agency published an article in which the Qatar’s ruling emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was quoted praising Israel and Iran — Saudi Arabia’s biggest adversaries in the region. Qatar swiftly disavowed the article as fake news manufactured by hackers, but Saudi and its friends were unconvinced. Then Sheikh Tamim made things even worse when a few days later he called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on his reelection — a clear act of defiance against Saudi’s hawkish stance on Iran.
The new rift in the Persian Gulf is in and of itself a big deal — it’s already being interpreted by some observers as the biggest diplomatic crisis in the region since the Gulf War in 1991.
But the consequences will ripple beyond the region’s internal politics and seriously imperil US military operations in the region. Qatar is home to the forward headquarters of the United States Central Command, which manages all military operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. And the air war command for the US-led fight against ISIS operates out of Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base. All in all, there are around 11,000 US military personnel in the country.
As the New York Times notes, it’s obvious that an American-led campaign that includes aircraft from the countries severing ties with Qatar will be harder to wage if those countries refuse to allow their military representatives to even visit the American base there.
The big breakup highlights the vexing dual role Qatar has long played for the US in its fight against radicalism in the Middle East. On one hand, the US knows Qatar is a large source of support and funding for groups it considers to be terrorist organizations, like Hamas, or adversaries, like the Muslim Brotherhood. But on the other hand, it has also been willing to allow the Pentagon to operate bases in its territory and to serve as an intermediary between Washington and Islamist groups across the region. To take one high-profile example, Qatar helped broker the deal with the Taliban that won the release of the imprisoned US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.