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What’s going on with Qatar?

- June 1, 2017

Tensions have resurfaced in a sustained media onslaught that has again cast Qatar as a threat to stability and security in the Persian Gulf. At the heart of the latest argument among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are incendiary comments attributed to Qatar’s Emir Tamim at a military graduation ceremony May 23, 2017.

A report published on the Qatar News Agency (QNA) website later that day alleged that the emir stated that Qatar had a tense relationship with President Trump’s administration, described Hamas as “the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” and called Iran “a big power in the stabilization of the region.” Qatar TV later reported the emir’s alleged speech on its evening news program before the government communications office claimed — belatedly, on May 24 — that the QNA website had been hacked and false statements posted on it.

Campaign to discredit Doha

Regardless of whether they were made or fabricated — and people present at the military graduation insist that the emir made no speech whatsoever — Tamim’s remarks caused immediate uproar in regional media, much of it based in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both countries blocked Al Jazeera and other Qatar-based media outlets in the aftermath of the allegations, and new articles have been published daily in the week since. Almost without exception, each article has taken the emir’s speech as fact and proceeded, on that basis, to accuse Qatar of being the weak link in the threat to regional stability from Iran and terrorism — and to demand that Qatar choose sides between the GCC and Iran.

The ferocity and the sheer scale of the “Qatar-bashing” articles suggest that an orchestrated campaign is underway to discredit Doha regionally but also — crucially — in the eyes of the Trump administration.

This comes three years after a nine-month standoff between Qatar and three of its neighbors — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain — rocked the six-member GCC. In the time since, Tamim and Abu Dhabi’s influential crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, exchanged frequent visits, and Qatar’s decision to deploy 1,000 soldiers to Yemen in September 2015 seemed to indicate that the 2014 upheaval was a thing of the past. What, then, has changed, and why has a seemingly dormant dispute suddenly flared up again and in such a visceral manner?

The Trump factor

A convergence of factors appears to have shifted the geopolitical landscape in the Persian Gulf. The Trump administration signaled that it intends to follow a set of regional policies that are aligned far closer to those of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh than Doha. Both Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were high-profile visitors to Washington in the run-up to the Riyadh summit with Arab and Islamic leaders.

Further, the policy inexperience of many within Trump’s inner circle has presented an opportunity for both the Saudis and the Emiratis to shape the administration’s thinking on critical regional issues such as Iran and Islamism, both of which were evident during the Riyadh visit.

Whereas the Obama administration sought to enhance U.S. engagement with the GCC as a bloc, Trump focused instead on Saudi Arabia and the UAE as the twin pillars of its regional approach. Strong bonds reportedly have formed between Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia as well as Yusuf al-Otaiba, the influential UAE ambassador in Washington.

Key principals within the Trump administration, such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, hold views on Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood that are virtually indistinguishable from those in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are emerging as the two spearheads around which U.S. regional policies are realigning, including a set of hawkish defense and security interests; the joint raid conducted by U.S. and UAE Special Forces in Yemen in January may well be only the first of numerous joint initiatives across regional conflict zones in the months and years ahead.

Whatever signals may (or may not) have been passed in private, there has been a noticeable increase in domestic and regional assertiveness in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s Saudi trip. In Bahrain, the deadliest raid by security forces on opposition forces since 2011 resulted in five deaths just two days after Trump assured the Bahraini king of a new era in bilateral relations.

The Saudi-Emirati media campaign against Qatar happened to coincide with a high-profile event in Washington, where analysts and former senior U.S. officials cast doubt on Qatar’s reliability as a regional security partner. Ruling circles in Persian Gulf capitals may feel emboldened by the new political climate to see how far they can go in pursuit of hawkish domestic and regional policies and what, if any, pushback they encounter.

Playing out in public

There are differences between this latest disagreement and the past — not least in the way the current standoff is being played out in the media rather than behind the closed doors of leaders’ meetings — and no act equivalent to the withdrawal of the ambassadors. In fact, few officials have publicly joined the feeding frenzy and have been careful not to single Qatar out by name in calling for brotherly unity against the Iranian “menace.”

The carefully controlled public spaces in GCC states mean it is inconceivable that such attacks on a fellow member state could have been made without, at the very least, a degree of official sanction behind the scenes. By allowing the media campaign to run into a second week with no apparent letup, policymakers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may be hoping to pressure the leadership in Doha into making concessions or watching to see whether figures within the Trump administration take the bait without having to resort to official threats or sanctions. Where this leaves the GCC as an entity in the age of Trump is anyone’s guess.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.