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Saudi King Salman meeting with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 2, 2017 (Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Council /Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Council /Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Real Story Behind the Diplomatic Crisis With Qatar

Lee Smith

The intra-Arab rift that has set Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt against Qatar is now in its second week. A feud that seemed to begin as a principled stand against Doha’s support for terrorism—one flash point was Qatar’s recent payment of nearly $1 billion to Iran and to Sunni extremists to liberate a hunting party held captive in Iraq— now appears to be something else.

The diplomatic crisis splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council isn’t really about Sunni extremism, or Qatar’s easy flirtation with Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Thus it has nothing to do with the larger issues shaping American foreign policy and the role of our GCC allies in implementing it. No, it’s just Abu Dhabi waging political warfare against Doha with a specific goal in mind—to get the United States to move its military base from Qatar to the UAE.

The feud looks bigger than it actually is because the Emiratis have Saudi Arabia on their side. The Qataris are indeed a big problem, and Riyadh has plenty of reasons to dislike and fear Doha. Among others, as Saudi analyst Mohamed al-Yahya explains in this helpful article, the Qataris keep trying to undermine the Saudi government. Indeed, perhaps the best way to understand Qatari foreign policy is as a many-pronged effort to thwart their larger, richer, and more influential Saudi neighbors.

President Trump in turn has sided with the Saudis. After eight years of an Obama White House that downgraded traditional American alliances in favor of realignment with Iran, the Trump administration has wisely reaffirmed the strength of the longstanding American relationship with Riyadh. Thus, Trump has singled out Qatar for censure in both tweets and statements—even though Doha hosts a major American military base at Al Udeid, which serves as regional headquarters of CENTCOM and a staging point for American operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the region. And that’s the crux of the matter—the Emiratis want the base.

The campaign’s point man is the UAE’s ambassador to the United States Yusef al-Otaiba, a diplomat well-known around Washington for his talent representing the interests of his country. Tuesday, he told reporters that the Trump administration should move the base.

“Maybe someone in Congress should have a hearing and just say, you know, ‘Should we consider moving it?’” said Otaiba. He explained that the UAE hasn’t told the U.S. it should relocate, but is “willing to have that conversation.”

Otaiba thinks that Al Udeid is the reason why the United States hasn’t taken stronger action against Qatar. “The air base,” he said, “is a very nice insurance policy against any additional pressure.”

The problem with Qatar, as Otaiba explained in a Wall Street Journal article published Tuesday, is that it “has supported and sheltered extremists” for years, from Hamas members to groups linked to al Qaeda. It’s high time, argues the Emirati ambassador, that Qatar, “decide whether it is ‘all in‘—or not—in the fight against extremism and aggression.”

Qatar is a deeply problematic actor that typically plays on both sides of the fence—like hosting an American military base while backing terrorists and doing business with Iran. However, the UAE has some questions of its own to answer and its own decisions to make.

As part of the effort to punish Doha for its flirtation with Iran, the Emiratis closed their airspace to Qatari carriers and all air traffic to and from Doha. So why does the UAE still have direct flights to and from Iran? Mahan Air, sanctioned by the Department of Treasury “for providing financial, material, and technological support to the IRGC-Qods Force” flies to Dubai. In fact, several companies sanctioned by the Treasury Department for supporting Mahan Air are based in the UAE.

As Emanuele Ottolenghi and David Andrew Weinberg of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote last year, Syrian Air flies to the UAE, even though Syria’s national carrier was sanctioned in 2013 “on charges of providing a platform for … the Quds Force, to ship illicit arms and ammunition for the Syrian regime’s crackdown.” Syria’s second-largest carrier, Cham Wings, sanctioned by Treasury in December 2016 for providing material support to entities sanctioned for proliferation and terrorism activities, flies to Dubai. According to a FDD report from Ottolenghi and Weinberg, Cham Wings “may have also transported weapons and militias between Iran and Syria … In recent months, Cham Wings aircraft have flown routes that [the IRGC] and the Syrian regime regularly use for that purpose— including twice a week to Tehran.”

The UAE, where Iran often moves money, has served as something like an offshore site for Iran and the Assad regime (the dictator’s sister lives in Dubai) to wage their genocidal campaign. Treasury sanctioned Hezbollah procurement agents with offices in the UAE; it sanctioned networks of individuals and companies with offices in the UAE that worked in the petroleum sector assisting Assad and the Iranians; and there are sanctions against UAE-based companies like Yona Star, “a shipping agent for the Syrian Air Force, as well as other designated Government of Syria entities, including the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC),” the organization responsible for the Syrian regime’s unconventional weapons arsenal, including chemical weapons.

The problem is not that the UAE’s public campaign against Qatar is two-faced. Hypocrisy is a natural and necessary component of competent statesmanship. The issue rather is that an intra-Arab squabble should not dictate American policy. The Emiratis want to be further inside the U.S. tent and to drive the Qataris out. The Trump administration has much more important regional concerns than refereeing the clans.

What’s important in the Middle East these days? The Iranians are completing a land bridge across the Middle East that links the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean, via Tehran through Baghdad through Damascus to Beirut. This is a big problem for American allies, especially Israel and Jordan—it is a much bigger deal than a Qatar-UAE skirmish.

Also, the GCC split is further widening the divide in the anti-Assad opposition. According to a recent report sourced to Syrian rebel groups, “the crisis has also nudged Qatar closer to Iran, which has sent planes loaded with food to Doha. ‘Any rapprochement between Qatar and Iran, or any other state and Iran, is very concerning for us,’” said a Syrian opposition figure. It’s unlikely the Emiratis set out to weaken a front against the Iranian axis, but it is one of the effects of the split.

The UAE is an American client that should be relieved the new administration has returned to the traditional understanding of the American-led order of the Middle East. Instead of seizing an opening to make a play against a Gulf rival in order to project power through an American military base, it should get its own house in order. Like Qatar, the UAE is a weak link in the U.S. effort to stop Iran. The Emiratis should cease doing business with the IRGC, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime.

The Emirati campaign against another American GCC ally is a distraction from the serious regional issues the Trump administration needs to tackle—Sunni extremism and Iranian expansionism. Moreover, it’s weakening the U.S.-led order of the Middle East at a time when the White House needs its regional partners in line.

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