Shortly after President Donald Trump delivered his historic address to the U.S.-Arab-Islamic Summit in Riyadh, a new Middle East crisis erupted. The growing rift between Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners has not only unleashed a crisis of potentially far-reaching geopolitical implications but also threatens Trump’s principal foreign policy success.
The GCC crisis erupted on May 24, when the official Qatar News Agency (QNA) was hacked and quoted Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in a fake statement saying that Iran is an “Islamic power” and that Qatar enjoys “good” relations with Israel. The statement also quoted the emir calling Hamas “the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” as well as saying that Qatar had “ strong relations ” with Iran and the United States.
Unnamed U.S. officials have since attributed the hack to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a charge that was swiftly denied by Abu Dhabi. Qatari officials, however, allege that the virus which infested the QNA website had been planted on April 20, 2017 and that the hacked statement of Tamim was set to be released on May 11, 2017, ten days before Trump was scheduled to deliver his Riyadh address.
Doha has also requested assistance from the FBI and its British counterpart to take part in its investigation and provided evidence of the alleged Emirati orchestrated hack at a news conference on July 20. It is to be followed up by legal action against Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, who Qatar considers a co-conspirator. It is unclear when Doha will present its legal case to the international community.
On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar over allegations that it is supporting terrorism and embraces Iran and its regional agenda. The block also imposed an economic embargo of Qatar—which includes cutting off all food supplies and access to medicine—by closing off land and maritime borders.
All Qatari citizens have since been expelled from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE and their citizens living in Qatar were provided a fourteen day deadline to leave. Egypt, however, has not placed any travel restrictions on its citizens residing in Qatar, expelled Qataris living in Egypt or imposed an economic embargo on Doha. Saudi Arabia and its regional partners have nonetheless closed down all air routes to and from Doha from their respective countries. Qatar, however, has not expelled any citizens from Saudi Arabia and its regional allies.
Tweets About Qatar Trigger Fear Of Miscalculation
On June 6, Trump weighed in on the dispute by posting the following message on Twitter:
“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar—look!”
He swiftly followed up by another two tweets later that morning, which gave little ambiguity of his stance vis-à-vis Qatar:
“So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
Three days later, on June 9, after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called upon Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to ease their blockade of Qatar, Trump contradicted his top diplomat by announcing hours later during a press conference at the White House that “the nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism.”
Whatever intention Trump had vis-à-vis the GCC dispute, his tweets followed up by the June 9 press conference had a clear destabilizing impact. The reaction was perceived as Trump supporting the Saudis as well as a “green light” for a Saudi military invasion in order to depose Tamim and settle Riyadh’s long-standing grievances with Doha once and for all.
Moreover, the ultimatum—which required Doha to sever ties with Tehran—was widely perceived by Qatari officials as a trap. If Qatar did turn to Iran for diplomatic protection, Saudi Arabia would likely press the United States for further diplomatic pressure on Doha.
As part of an effort to shore up international support for Doha and to prevent Tehran from taking advantage of the crisis, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani visited all Western powers, including Russia and Turkey, but not Iran. Qatar also believes that Iran is the only beneficiary of the GCC crisis.
Qatar, however, did receive Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Jaberi Ansari on June 18 in Doha. During the two-month long crisis, Qatar has received the foreign ministers of Germany, United Kingdom, France and the United States. On July 23–24, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first major international leader to visit Riyadh and Doha as part of an effort to defuse the crisis.