The blockade against Qatar, Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Tuesday this week, referring to the tiny Persian Gulf emirate, is “a very complex situation.” It certainly is. Taken at face value, it doesn’t even make any sense.
The Saudis have spent billions of petrodollars funding mosques all over the world to promote their extreme Sunni Wahhabi sect. Cutting off the Qataris for financing extremism is like prosecuting an apparatchik for “corruption” in a crooked police state where everyone is corrupt. Something else is going on.
The trigger was a fake news story planted by Russian hackers with a fake quote by Qatar’s ruling emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. A story appeared on the state-run Qatar News Agency quoting Al Thani saying nice things about Israel and Iran while criticizing President Donald Trump. The emir supposedly made these remarks in a speech at a military ceremony, but he did not deliver a speech at that ceremony, let alone a speech that included those words. The incident was entirely fabricated. It seemed legit, though, since it appeared on a news site controlled by his government.
“Intelligence gathered by the US security agencies indicates that Russian hackers were behind the intrusion first reported by the Qatari government two weeks ago,” CNN reported on June 7. Russia, as always, is using cyberwarfare to open up rifts within the Western alliance and between the West and its Middle Eastern allies, once again to smashing success. This Qatar News Agency story, unlike press reports critical of the White House, is actual fake news. Real fake news, if you will. Weaponized propaganda by a hostile power.
Even so, there’s a lot more going on than a single fake news story. A single fake news story wouldn’t blow up the Gulf if Qatar’s neighbors weren’t already nearing the breaking point.
Here’s the real story: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE think Qatar is too soft on Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and they’re fed up with relentlessly negative press coverage from Qatar’s state-run media organ Al Jazeera.
They aren’t wrong. Qatar really is soft on Iran. For starters, the two countries share the world’s largest liquefied natural gas field—which just so happens to threaten the Gulf’s petro economy—so they’re forced to get along to a certain extent. More importantly, though, Qatar, like many small and weak states throughout history that lack a powerful and reliable patron, is taking great pains to foster good relations with everyone in the neighborhood. Small and weak states that double down on the losing side in a regional conflict tend to get smashed, and Iran, like it or not, is a force to be reckoned with.
We know Al Jazeera is part of the problem because the Saudis and the others have been grousing about it for years and because almost immediately after the fake news story hit the Internet, the Saudis blocked Al Jazeera. That network is emphatically not CNN. It’s a state-run media enterprise that at times savagely criticizes Middle Eastern governments yet, for reasons that ought to be obvious, always spares Qatar’s government. Since the emir exerts considerable pressure over the channel’s coverage, it’s generally safe to assume that what Al Jazeera anchors and reporters say is the government line.
The Saudis are pulling a fast one here when they say this is about Qatar’s supposed funding of Islamic extremism. They figured that angle would get President Donald Trump on their side, and it worked.
“During my recent trip to the Middle East,” the president tweeted, “I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!” “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he said in another tweet. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
Others in the administration can’t be fooled quite so easily. They know this is bad news for the United States, partly, though not entirely, because Qatar hosts an enormous military base from which the US is fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. “We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to ease the blockade on Qatar,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Friday.
The US military is also contradicting the president and continues to praise Qatar as if Trump’s tweetstorm never happened. “We continue to be grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support for our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security,” Navy Captain Jeff Davis said at a news briefing. When a reporter asked about how that squares with what the White House has been saying, Davis said, “I can’t help you with that.”
The United States has plenty of reasons to be disgruntled with Qatar, and they just so happen to be the same reasons the Saudis and the others are disgruntled with Qatar. This diplomatic spat has been a long time coming. We’ll have to wait and see if the emir will change his behavior. One way or another, though, the Qataris need to come back in from the cold. Otherwise, for the sake of survival, they will probably draw themselves into the Russian-Iranian orbit. It’s what small and weak states do when they have no other options.