Foreign ministers of four Arab and Sunni nations met in Manama, Bahrain, on Saturday, July 29, to discuss the continued blockage of Qatar, the small but very rich country that exports natural gas and serves as the home base of the news organization Al Jazeera.
After the meeting, the ministers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt announced their program of sanctions will continue, though they expressed willingness for “dialogue” if Qatar is willing to renounce its alleged sponsorship of terrorism.
Back on June 5, the same four countries along with Yemen and the Maldives broke off diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of subsidizing terrorists and of excessive closeness to Iran. They closed borders, suspended air travel to and from, and expelled Qatari citizens. These countries were later joined by several others.
On June 20, the U.S. President met with Saudi leaders and seemed to take their side of the dispute. This was itself odd, since the United States has an important airbase in Qatar, and it had only recently agreed to sell that country fighter jets (F-15s) worth $15 billion.
What Blockaders Want
On July 5, the blockading nations announced that they wanted Qatar to accept six broad principles preliminary to any resumption of normalcy. This decision itself involved the abandonment of some of the earlier demands, such as that Qatar close Turkey’s military base in its country, and that it break off its diplomatic relations with Iran.
The six broad principles in turn boiled down to three: the Saudi-led group wanted Qatar to promise not to provide safe havens to extremist operations; to promise support for the governments of the other Sunni Gulf states and of Egypt; and to muzzle al-Jazeera, which the blockaders regard as incendiary.
In domestic American politics, both the left and the right agree, for the most part, that President Trump has put himself in the wrong here. Those on the right most interested in the matter are willing to take Qatar’s side, while those on the left don’t want to take any side, they don’t even believe in the existence of a real underlying conflict between Saudi Arabia et al. and Qatar. But both find public statements by a U.S. President openly siding against Qatar to be, at best, unseemly.
Right Wing View
Qatar’s side of this dispute has attracted a fair amount of sympathy from the American right.
The blockaded country has hired a well-connected conservative to make its case in the circles of American power: former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft, a veteran of the cabinet of President George W. Bush, has credentials for making Qatar’s case, since he has never been thought soft on terrorism or those who harbor it.
As the blockade was getting underway, Daniel Larison wrote for The American Conservative that the Saudis and their allies are recklessly pursuing a vendetta. Soon thereafter, when President Trump made his support for that vendetta known, Larison returned to the subject, calling this “an avoidable and potentially dangerous regional crisis that may undermine a U.S. war effort….”
Jim Krane, an energy research fellow at the Baker Institute, Rice University spoke to Marc Champion of Bloomberg about the crisis. Krane said, “Qatar used to be a kind of Saudi vassal state, but it used the autonomy that its gas wealth created to carve out an independent role for itself.”
Krane’s language there makes an important point: many observers think the Saudis want all the states in the region to be its vassals, and believe that Qatar’s non-vassalhood is the issue.
Krane also said that part of Qatar’s role has been a “policy of engagement with Shiite Iran to secure the source of its wealth.” He left room for the inference that it is a good thing that somebody on the Sunni side is ready to be so engaged.
As the President made his own anti-Qatari view clear, Susan Wright, on the Red State blog, denounced Trump’s words as “irresponsible, ill-informed jabbering.”
Left Wing View
From the left of center one encounters a good deal of suspicion that there really is a serious diplomatic rift in the Gulf. The Huffington Post, for example, ran a story on July 28 saying that “business as usual is the chief message from Qatari officials, who hope to highlight that their economic ties to the outside world and their security contributions remain consistent.”
Al-Jazeera itself, not only a bone of contention in this dispute but a forum for commentators thereon, is of the collective opinion that there is far less to it all than meets the (American) eyes. “[E]nergy trumps political antagonism,” wrote one author on its website, Susan Kurdli. By way of example, Kurdli noted that the blockading UAE receives about two billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas a day from blockaded Qatar, and that the diplomatic crisis has not affected that.
A leftward think tank, the Institute for Economics and Peace, maintains a Global Peace Index, measuring countries by three variables, which it calls “domains”: safety/security; ongoing domestic and international conflict; militarization. In its 2017 iteration, the GPI says that Qatar is the most peaceful country in the Middle East/North Africa region. Further, it has become more peaceful in the last year, moving up from the 35th to the 30th most peaceful country listed.
Saudi Arabia is much further down in the rankings, the 133d most peaceful country (out of 163), and has fallen in that position over the last year.