President Trump jumped headlong Tuesday into a fast-worsening dispute between Qatar and a powerful bloc of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia, posting Twitter messages congratulating the Saudis for cracking down on the neighboring kingdom and himself for sparking the breach over alleged Qatari funding for terrorism.
“During my recent trip to the Middle East, I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” Trump said in a series of morning tweets. “Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!
“So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he tweeted. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar.”
Trump’s intervention came as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in New Zealand, took a somewhat different tack, noting that “all” countries in the Persian Gulf “have work to do” in ending their support for extremism, and encouraging them to “resolve this through dialogue.”
The regional crisis began on Monday, when Qatar’s Persian Gulf neighbors — Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — were joined by Egypt and smaller nations in severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, claiming it supports terrorists across the region. The eruption of the dispute shocked the neighborhood and threatened deeply intertwined regional trade links and air routes.
The Pentagon, whose air operations for the Middle East are headquartered at a massive air base in Qatar, where at least 10,000 U.S. service members are stationed, also opted for balance and calming words.
“We recognize that there are differing views in the region that have gotten us to this point,” it said in a statement. “United States and the Coalition are grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support of our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security. We have no plans to change our posture in Qatar.”
The statement said that restrictions its Persian Gulf neighbors have imposed on Qatari movements in and out of the region “have not impacted our air operations,” including missions in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. “U.S. Central Command is conducting appropriate planning to ensure that the full range of U.S. military operations in the Middle East can continue,” it said.
A senior White House official said Trump’s tweets did not indicate any change in policy or new information. “I think this actually shows the influence [Trump’s] trip had to isolate those who fund terrorism in the region,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue.
At the State Department, an official said in an email that “the tweets are not incompatible. For example, we recognize that Qatar continues to make efforts to stop the financing of terrorist groups. . . . That said, while they have made progress, they (and we) recognize more work needs to be done.”
“A strong, united front among our key partners is the best way to overcome our shared challenges,” this official said, also speaking only on condition of anonymity.
During his visit last month to Saudi Arabia, where he delivered a speech to dozens of leaders from Muslim-majority nations gathered for the occasion, Trump met personally with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani. “We are friends, we’ve been friends now for a long time . . . our relationship is extremely good,” Trump said at the beginning of the closed-door meeting. “One of the things we will discuss is the [Qatari] purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment. . . . It’s an honor to be with you.”
Trump used the Riyadh visit to urge Arab states to wage wider crackdowns on militant groups, including funding channels. But his strong message of support to Saudi leaders, in particular, also may have encouraged Riyadh to act on a long-standing feud with Qatar.
Tillerson, traveling Monday in Australia with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, moved quickly to try to close the regional fissure with comments that he added to on Tuesday.
“I think every country in the region has their own obligations they need to live up to,” Tillerson said in New Zealand, “and they have their own challenges to live up to that commitment to terminate support for terrorism, extremism, however it manifests itself anywhere in the world. And I would say that’s true of all the GCC countries; they have their own work to do in that regard.”
The GCC is the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose six members — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar — signed a communique with Trump pledging to continue their joint fight against terrorism. The visit also culminated in what the administration said was $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Trump has repeatedly praised Saudi King Salman as the “wise” leader of the region, and indicated he considers the Saudis the leaders of the Sunni Muslim world.
Small but influential Qatar has long been at odds with some of the its regional partners over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is seen by Saudi Arabia and other nations as a threat to the network of ruling monarchs and others across the region.
Qatar also had flexed its political influence by using its energy wealth to become a key patron of groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and, in the mid-1990s, to launch the Al Jazeera media network, which has wide reach through the Arab-speaking world.
U.S. officials who monitor terrorist funding have said that gulf governments have made significant strides in ending official support for terrorist groups, although some money still flows from individuals, primarily in Kuwait and to a lesser extent from Qatar.
Saudi Arabia also has come under scrutiny for indirectly backing militant networks through groups promoting the Saudi’s strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
Gerd Nonneman, a professor of international relations at the Doha campus of Georgetown University, one of a number of U.S. universities with branches in the Qatari capital, said the long-simmering dispute was fueled by “irritation” in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “with Qatar’s independence of mind in foreign policy, including its support for the Arab Spring movements.”
Qatar’s backing for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations, Nonneman said in an email, “was never driven by religious ideology but by a pragmatic calculation that these movements had considerable social traction and would likely become an important part of the post-Arab Spring era.” Qatar, he noted, “also refused to join the campaign to fully isolate Iran, rather than work on a pragmatic relationship, even while it furiously disagreed with Iran’s policies in Syria.”
The desire to isolate Iran, in addition to the fight against terror groups such as the Islamic State, has brought the Trump administration closer to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The administration has considered designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, although it was dissuaded from immediate action by other Arab leaders, including King Abdullah in Jordan, one of several countries in which Brotherhood political parties have significant support.
In the wake of Monday’s events, Kuwait took the lead in trying to broker a dialogue. The country’s emir, Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, headed to Saudi Arabia for talks with King Salman. In response to Kuwaiti urging, Sheikh al-Thani agreed to postpone a speech about the crisis, the Qatari foreign minister told Al Jazeera.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, spoke with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar about resolving the dispute. Turkey enjoys good relations with the parties in the conflict.
“President Erdogan has initiated diplomatic effort to resolve this dispute between friends and brothers” during “the holy month of Ramadan,” presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in a statement.
The tiny, peninsular monarchy of Qatar depends on sea routes and its land border with Saudi Arabia for nearly all its consumer goods. In Doha, worried residents emptied store shelves and stocked up on other key supplies.
Qatar Airways, a major international carrier, was forced to redirect routes as it faces possible limits on airspace passage from the countries that broke ties.
Flights to Qatar by the four Arab countries have been canceled, as have all land and sea links, putting pressure on Qatari exports, many of which transit through ports in the UAE.
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia revoked the operating license of the Qatari carrier, formally preventing it from landing and flying inside the kingdom, according to Saudi state media. The government also ordered all the airline’s offices in nine cities to close within 48 hours and also withdrew licenses to its employees in the country.
The airlines, which has 40,000 employees, is wholly owned by the Qatari government.
So far, Qatar Airways planes have been forced to take more indirect routes, as they can no longer fly over the airspace of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. There were reports that at least 15 Qatar Airways flights had to fly over war-torn Somalia to reach their destinations.
Bahrain, as of Tuesday, was allowing Qatar Airways to fly through its airspace on a single air route, opening it heavy air traffic congestion. If a complete shut down occurs, it could have a devastating impact on the carrier, and Qatar’s economy, since the nation is largely surrounded by Bahrain’s airspace.
The world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, Qatar normally offloads its cargo in the UAE to be transferred onto larger ships. It does the same with its exports of aluminum.
Meanwhile, banks from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE are also holding off on dealings with Qatar, putting further pressure on its currency.
U.S. military officials cited no immediate effect on their operations at Udeid air base in Qatar. Asked at a Washington conference held by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies late last month whether the United States should consider moving its Middle East air operations out of Qatar, former defense secretary Robert M. Gates warned that no one “should underestimate how complicated that would be.”
“It’s not just the facility,” Gates said of the base, “it’s the freedom of operations. Qatar’s the only country in the region that allows us to land B-52s. . . . We have run operations out of there for a dozen years.”
DeYoung reported from Washington and Raghavan from Cairo. Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Kareem Fahim in Dubai contributed to this report.