Trump Takes Sides in Gulf Rift, Backs Isolation of Qatar

  • U.S. said to get little notice of move, but aware of tensions
  • President’s tweet ‘fuels more conflict,’ analyst says

Trump Vows to Calm Gulf Flareup

President Donald Trump threw his weight behind the Saudi-led diplomatic isolation of Qatar, calling it just punishment for the country’s financial support for Islamic extremists and taking sides in a dispute among key U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.

“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” Trump said on Twitter Tuesday. “Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!”

He followed with two additional tweets, saying the action was proof that his meeting with Persian Gulf Arab leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia earlier this month was “already paying off.”

“Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” he said.

QuickTake Why Tiny Qatar Angers Saudi Arabia and Its Allies

The U.S. has had a friendly and cooperative relationship with Qatar, which is home to the forward headquarters of the U.S. military’s Central Command. CentCom, as it’s known, has a primary role in the battle against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. A U.S. official said there is no serious consideration of pulling out of the base, though there may be concerns about transporting supplies and basic goods across borders if the current dispute drags on.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer confirmed the president’s tweets are “official statements” of his views, but he described a softer U.S. stance on the dispute.

“The U.S. still wants to see this issue de-escalated and resolved immediately,” Spicer said, several hours after Trump commented on Twitter. He added that Trump was “very heartened” by Qatar’s pledge to join an effort targeting terror finance.

No Change

Although Trump’s tweets suggested the rupture was an outgrowth of his meetings in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. was only informed of the Saudi-led actions against Qatar immediately beforehand. She echoed the more nuanced position taken by Spicer and other government officials, saying the U.S. is “grateful for support” from Qatar and has “no plans to change our posture” toward the country.

Trump spoke with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on Wednesday, according to a White House statement, which said they discussed “the critical goals of preventing the financing of terrorist organizations and eliminating the promotion of extremism by any nation in the region.” The statement also said that Trump “underscored that a united Gulf Cooperation Council is critical to defeating terrorism and promoting regional stability.”

Accusations

Saudi Arabia and three other U.S. allies in the region -- the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain -- accused the Gulf Cooperation Council member of supporting a range of violent groups, from proxies of Shiite Muslim Iran to the Sunni militants of al-Qaeda and Islamic State. They suspended flights and sea travel to Qatar, ordering Qatari diplomats and citizens out.

Trump’s “tweet fuels more conflict, increases tensions and will be used by those who are trying to demonize Qatar,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Qatar University in Doha.

They also caught some U.S. officials by surprise. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said he wasn’t aware of the president’s tweets when asked about them Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol.

“Our general stance as a nation has been that these things ebb and flow and they come up from time to time, but we’ve worked with all the countries,” Corker said.

Qatar has dismissed the Saudi charges as baseless, and said the Saudis are seeking to dominate the region. Western officials have expressed concerns that Qatar may back fundamentalist groups, but they’ve also raised similar issues about Saudi Arabia.

“We are combating the funding for any terrorist group,” Qatar Foreign Minister Mohammed Al Thani told CNN.

Allies at Odds

The crisis pits U.S. allies against each other, disrupting trade, flights and business activity in one of the world’s most strategically important regions. The Saudi-led action has prompted some analysts to openly speculate about the possibility of regime change in Qatar, the No. 1 exporter of liquefied natural gas, whose sovereign wealth fund owns stakes in global companies from Barclays Plc to Credit Suisse Group.

Oil prices surged on Monday before settling lower as the rupture was seen as having little impact on global oil supplies. West Texas Intermediate for July delivery rose 79 cents to settle at $48.19 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The crisis has roots as far back as 1995, when the father of the current emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani deposed his own pro-Saudi father and the country began shipping natural gas from the world’s largest reservoir, a resource it shares with Iran.

Qatar used its gas wealth to back the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and armed factions opposed by the UAE or Saudi Arabia in Libya and Syria. Gas also paid for a global television network, Al Jazeera, which at various times has embarrassed or angered most Middle Eastern governments.

‘Careful Wording’

“Moving Qatar away from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and others is good for the region and the world,” said Paul Sullivan, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington. “It may be partially done by public missives and speeches, but a lot of this has to be behind the scenes. And careful wording is needed-- very careful wording. This situation could spin in many directions. And some of those directions are likely not where we want to go.”

Mediation efforts intensified on Tuesday, with Kuwaiti ruler Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah traveling to Saudi Arabia for talks to defuse the crisis. Sheikh Sabah also spoke with Qatar’s ruler and urged him to avoid any escalation, Kuwaiti state-run media reported.

Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, said that “Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have decided to put pressure on Qatar, which so far has seemed to refrain from pursuing equally harsh policies toward Iran. Trump’s latest tweet is a reflection of his anti-Iran stance.”

— With assistance by Nick Wadhams, Marc Champion, Ladane Nasseri, Fiona MacDonald, Stuart Biggs, Ben Holland, Justin Sink, Erik Wasson, and Laura Litvan

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE