As the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa was convening to hear testimony on the U.S.–Qatar relationship, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the gas-rich emirate’s foreign minister were smiling for a photo op before a meeting at the State Department. At the same time that Tillerson and Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani were happily shaking hands, Congress was assessing Qatar’s duplicitous role in the Middle East.
If that juxtaposition wasn’t enough, that same day, Qatar hired Avenue Strategies Global, an influence firm founded by President Trump’s former campaign manager, Cory Lewandowski. (Lewandowski resigned from the firm in May, six months after he founded the company.) The New York Post reported last week that, according to Department of Justice documents, the firm is set to “provide research, government relations and strategic consulting services” for $150,000 a month that “may include communications with members of Congress and Congressional staff, executive branch officials, the media and other individuals.”
Qatar certainly has an interest in compelling President Trump to change his tune on the Saudi Arabia–United Arab Emirates–Qatar crisis and pull his support away from the bloc led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). (In June, Trump tweeted: “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!”) If not, Qatar hopes it can convince those around him and in Congress to reconsider their positions.
Such is the state of the Gulf crisis that it boiled over on June 5 into a full-fledged cold war, and it shows no sign of abating. The sides are digging in for the long haul, bringing the dispute out of the realm of the Middle East and into the halls of Washington. It also provides yet another example of how the Trump administration is in the middle of a tug of war over a host of foreign-policy issues that include Iran, Israel, and Qatar.
Registering his official dismay, on June 26, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) said he would block the sale of lethal military arms to the Gulf Cooperation Council (the six Arab states of the Persian Gulf except Iran and Iraq) until the committee is provided with “a better understanding of the path to resolve the current dispute and reunify the GCC.” Meanwhile, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), chairman of the House subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, recognized during the committee’s hearing that “the Qatar dispute is spurring a long needed conversation about the Gulf nation’s permissive terrorist financing environment and ties to Islamic extremist groups.”
The list of problem areas is long. Qatar’s financial and political support for such a wide array of militant Islamist movements is unrivaled in the region and has been particularly overt, egregious, and brazen in recent years. Through a combination of the ruling Al Thani family or wealthy Qatari financiers, the oil-rich state backs al-Qaeda affiliates, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, Hamas, and others on the Sunni side of the ledger. Meanwhile, they continue to use their state-backed Al Jazeera network as a worldwide loudspeaker to promote the most radical Islamist propaganda, preaching hate and fomenting instability throughout the region.
This support undermines and unnerves its neighbors, poisons the minds of the next generation of Arab youth, prevents any Palestinian moderation, and lessens the likelihood that Israel will see peace with more of its neighbors, much less in the wider region. Moreover, it serves to nurture only radical Islamist alternatives to take the place of the Islamic State once it is defeated on the battlefield.
The ruling Middle East majority clearly sees Qatar’s subversive behavior as a greater short-term threat than either ISIS or Iran.
Unfortunately, Qatar’s duplicitous behavior runs even deeper. By partnering with Iran and its Shia terrorist proxies, the emirate is cozying up with the chief regional nemesis of the concerned Sunni Arab world. In doing so, it undermines the fundamental basis of “shared interests” between the U.S. and the 55 Muslim-majority countries that President Trump addressed in his speech in Saudi Arabia in May. Qatar’s ties with Iran create obstacles in America’s efforts to roll back Iranian influence, check the mullahs’ regional aggression, and prevent their acquisition of nuclear weapons.
The diplomatic row also threatens to break up the Gulf Cooperation Council, which has been a relative beacon of stability in a region where the turbulent waters are often tested and where several vital American interests intersect. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman formed the GCC in May 1981 as a shield against the Iran–Iraq war. For decades it has represented what can be called America’s traditional regional allies. They rely on the U.S. as the guarantor of Gulf security.
Given the high-stakes influence and media war under way, it’s no surprise that some are eager to deflect and point the finger at Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and elsewhere as the cause of the region’s instability. But nearly two decades after 9/11, such arguments are outdated. Among the GCC states today, when it comes to promoting multiple Islamist movements and subversive actions against regional governments, it’s not a close call on whose hands are the dirtiest: It’s Qatar, hands down.
The initial question when the Saudi Arabi–UAE–Qatar crisis erupted was whether the threat from Iran was enough to keep the GCC countries unified. Maintaining a united front against the expansionist regime in Tehran was the impetus behind the arguments of those who preferred to sweep the crisis under the rug and move on to other issues. But like it or not, the ruling Middle East majority clearly sees Qatar’s subversive behavior as a greater short-term threat than either ISIS or Iran. It would therefore be a self-defeating waste of time and effort to convince most of America’s regional allies that their interests are not what they say they are.
The crisis with Qatar provides President Trump with an opportunity to press for changes along the lines he discussed in Riyadh in May. What is needed is consistent messaging throughout the administration and a recognition that business as usual simply won’t cut it in the Middle East any longer.