Editor’s Note: Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. You can follow him @jonathancristol. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
In the last 24 hours, Qatar has been politically and economically cut off by its Gulf neighbors
Jonathan Cristol: This isolation fits into Trump's new foreign policy approach, which favors confrontation over negotiation
In the last 24 hours, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Maldives and Yemen have all cut ties with Qatar. It has been expelled from the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. In addition, Emirates, Etihad and FlyDubai have announced the imminent cancellation of flights to Doha.
While President Trump’s role in this unfolding Gulf drama may not seem immediately obvious, his vision of a Saudi-led Arab world, united against Iran, is indeed responsible for the diplomatic hullabaloo.
Two weeks ago, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani allegedly criticized Donald Trump’s Iran policy and called Iran a “regional and Islamic power.” The remarks were posted online, but Doha has argued its official news agency website was hacked and that the (generally innocuous) quotes are not real. The FBI is assisting in the investigation of the alleged hack.
Ostensibly, in response to this statement, the Saudi Press Agency said, “(Qatar) embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS (Islamic State) and al Qaeda” as well as “rebel militias” in Yemen.
But the truth is there is likely something else at play here. Trump’s continued hard line against Iran, his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, his refusal to reaffirm NATO’s Article Five and his administration’s statement that “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage,” is an effective declaration that the age of negotiation and nuance is over and the era of confrontation and collision has begun.
If continued negotiations between the Gulf Cooperation Council – an alliance designed to counter Iranian influence in the region – and Iran were imminent, it would make sense to allow Qatar to remain quasi-neutral (it’s in the GCC after all, so it isn’t actually neutral). If there were to be negotiations between Hamas and Israel, between Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, or between the United States and the Taliban, it would also make sense to allow Qatar to remain a sort of safe haven.
And Qatar is uniquely positioned to play this negotiating role. Qatar has forged a unique personal brand of nonjudgment, if not neutrality, and acts as a go-between for regional actors of all stripes. It has enjoyed a good relationship with Hamas, sharing some of its own staff with the terrorist group, and providing safe haven to senior Hamas leaders in Doha; at least it did until Sunday when its “diplomats” were asked to leave. Qatar also enjoys a close economic relationship with Iran, sharing control over a large natural gas field vital to Qatar’s economy. Thus, it generally refrains from criticism of Iran’s policies, despite Qatar’s membership in the GCC.
Qatar is also home to a political office for the Taliban, which has operated for almost four years. The Taliban chose Qatar as a location because it was seen as “neutral” ground, and the United States voiced no objection to its presence.
Despite its cordial relations with terrorist groups, Qatar is also home to 11,000 US troops at the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest military instillation in the region. It also enjoys a more nuanced relationship with Israel than do most states in the region. Qatar funded the construction of a soccer stadium in Israel. It even opened trade relations with Israel in 1996, though these relations were severed in 2009. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with the Qatari Emir, and Qatar has quietly allowed Israeli representatives to operate in its territory.
In short, Qatar maintains a complicated series of relationships with virtually every single actor in the region.
There are two major reasons for Qatar’s position as the Switzerland of the Middle East. The first is that as a small country of 2.2 million people, it makes sense from a security standpoint not to alienate any powerful regional actor, be it Iran, Israel or Saudi Arabia. Its willingness to allow major terrorist groups to maintain offices in Doha also insulates it from becoming a target of these same groups.
The second reason is that the ability to play the middleman and to be at the center of regional power struggles and peace talks allows Qatar to punch above its weight in international affairs and regional politics. This is not some sort of new revelation. It has been well-known to all parties for some time. And yet the last 24 hours have seen unprecedented diplomatic drama.
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But if there is a shift toward confrontation, Qatar can be pressured by its neighbors to toe the party line against Saudi Arabia’s enemies. It shares its only land border with Saudi Arabia and is reliant on Saudi Arabia for 40% of its food imports. Soon consumer prices will increase dramatically, and runs on supermarkets are possible.
The only way for Qatar to resist Saudi diplomatic and economic pressure would be for the United States to intervene with its Saudi allies. Unfortunately for Qatar, in “Trumpworld,” money talks – and while Qatar is a rich country, Saudi Arabia is far richer.