Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain imposed a stunningly aggressive blockade on Qatar, the small but wealthy Gulf emirate.
Last week, after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the blockading coalition to be more specific about what it wants, it compiled an ambitious list of thirteen demands, a list that effectively requires Qatar to surrender its sovereignty. The coalition insisted that Qatar must shutter Al Jazeera and other news organizations it funds, expel a Turkish military presence, reduce ties to Iran, and follow the counterterrorism policies dictated by the coalition.
On Monday, this latest coalition ultimatum expires; the members have promised further pressure. There is not even a small chance that Qatar will agree to the thirteen demands, certainly not as presented. Amid the escalating conflict, there are more than ten thousand American military personnel stationed at Al Udeid Air Base, in Qatar. From day to day, the U.S. airmen and soldiers continue to launch combat and supply missions against the Islamic State, the Taliban, and other targets in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. That is to say, in alliance with the blockading coalition, the United States is making sacrifices to fight some enemies of that coalition while the coalition attacks an essential ally of the United States—all with the apparent approval of President Trump, who has encouraged the blockade of Qatar on Twitter.
In the early nineteen-nineties, after the Gulf War—during which a U.S.-led coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait—the U.S. Air Force stationed planes and air-command systems in Saudi Arabia, initially at the King Abdulaziz Air Base, near Dhahran. (The American planes enforced a no-fly zone over southern Iraq, as part of a standoff with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.) On June 25, 1996, terrorists from a branch of Hezbollah detonated a truck loaded with explosives next to a housing complex that was home to about two thousand American military personnel, killing nineteen of them and injuring about five hundred other people.
Saudi Arabia then encouraged the United States to move its planes and airmen to a more remote base, southeast of the capital of Riyadh. The Saudis seemed increasingly anxious that the presence of U.S. forces would stir up domestic trouble; the Americans chafed under new restrictions that the Saudis imposed after the terrorist attack. Then came the strains of the 9/11 attacks, followed by the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, which inflamed the Middle East and made the Saudi royal family more anxious and resentful still.
Meanwhile, neighboring Qatar, which was enjoying new wealth from natural-gas production, watched the fraying ties between Riyadh and Washington, and perceived opportunity. The Emir of Qatar began construction on an airbase, called Al Udeid, on a vast stretch of sand outside the capital of Doha. The royal family approached Washington and offered Al Udeid as a new home for the U.S. planes and command posts, with many fewer restrictions than Riyadh imposed. In April, 2003, the U.S. announced that it was moving its air operations to Qatar. “The Qataris are just as opportunistic as anyone else,” Steven Simon, who worked on Middle East issues at the National Security Council during the Clinton and Obama Administrations and is now a visiting professor at Amherst, told me. “They just made an offer we couldn’t refuse.”
The American base’s presence also provides vital security to Qatar, a tiny state with only a few hundred thousand native, enfranchised subjects. In geopolitical terms, Qatar is one of those small, oil-rich countries that looks like a bank waiting to be robbed by invaders or coup makers. The ten thousand Americans stationed at Al Udeid function as a de-facto Brinks force for the royal family. Yet it was not only self-interest that motivated the Qataris to offer Al Udeid. They also “wanted to stick it to the Saudis,” as Simon put it.
The U.A.E. is said to be willing to host the Al Udeid planes and the American regional military command.
Qatar has been messing with Saudi Arabia, and vice versa, for a long time. Their resentments date to pre-oil desert wars among impoverished tribes that formed their erstwhile emirates around oases, tried to keep the British at bay, and scrapped for the region’s then-meagre resources, such as pearls in the coastal waters of the Gulf. Saudi Arabia became rich decades earlier than Qatar, starting in the nineteen-thirties, after geologists discovered massive oil reserves. Qatar’s wealth lies mainly in natural gas, a resource that only created transformational riches after the eighties. When the Qataris did make it big, they started Al Jazeera, the freewheeling and provocative satellite-news network, and pursued an independent foreign policy that often seemed influenced by an instinct to irritate Riyadh.
The members of the blockading coalition have in common a deep fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, both of which Qatar has accommodated to some degree.
With regard to Shiite Iran, the Sunni states of the Gulf perceive a conflict rooted in scripture, lasting millennia and ordained by God. In addition, Iran has a talented population and an economy that could soar, if its clerical, faction-ridden revolutionary government ever yielded to a modernizing one.
As for Al Jazeera, a multinational newsroom and a rare forum for diverse debate and advocacy in the Arab world, the blockading coalition does not bother to disguise its intentions. Speaking to the Guardian,the U.A.E.’s Ambassador to Russia explained, “We do not claim to have press freedom. We do not promote press freedom.”
How, then, does the coalition resolve the conflict it has created? One path would be to quietly back down, accept less than it has demanded publicly, and take satisfaction that a newly chastened Qatar will likely trim its sails after this episode, at least for a time.
Another possibility would be escalation beyond the point of no return. Saudi Arabia and its allies could invade Qatar and overthrow the royal family. Or, perhaps more plausibly, they could drive Qatar deeper into an alliance with Turkey and Iran, and discredit Doha further.
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