The USA has signed a multi-billion-dollar arms deal with Qatar, which is enmired in a diplomatic spat in the Persian Gulf. The two nations are also holding joint military maneuvers: a strong signal, says Christian Meier.
Rarely has the arrival of a foreign military power been so yearned for in Qatar. On Wednesday, two US warships sailed into Port Hamad, south of the capital, Doha. The ships are in Qatar to conduct joint military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf with the emirate’s navy. The maneuvers have been planned for a while, as was the $12 billion (10.7 billion euros) purchase of American F-15 fighter jets – which was also announced Wednesday in Washington, DC. The timing of both events, however, sends a very clear signal: America is standing by its ally Qatar’s side during the largest diplomatic crisis the Gulf region has seen in years.
Exactly what the US stance on the matter would be was an open question just a few days ago. Two weeks ago, a number of Arab states – led by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – surprised the world by severing diplomatic ties with Qatar and closing all transport links to the country. They accused Qatar of supporting terror groups and collaborating with Iran to undermine stability in the region. Qatar does indeed have a rather dubious past in that regard. The tiny emirate, made exceedingly rich by its natural-gas deposits, explicitly fostered Islamist groups in Arab states during the so-called Arab Spring. It also harbored a number of leaders from the Palestinian terror organization Hamas, as well as controversial characters such as the Egyptian religious scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, considered by many to be the guiding spirit of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Meager progress in the fight against terror financing
But that has all been known for some time. And the US government recently attested that Doha had been making progress – however modest – in the fight against terror financing. This makes it look as if Qatar’s neighbors took such drastic action for another reason altogether: Qatar’s idiosyncratic foreign policy has been irritating Saudi Arabia and the UAE for years. They are also perturbed by the fact that Qatar has maintained open relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s adversary in the region. Speaking in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, one month ago, US President Donald Trump was energetic in warning about fighting terror financing, while at the same time singling out the Shiite government in Tehran as terror sponsor. Apparently, several Arab states interpreted this as a signal that the moment had come to cut Qatar down to size.
Is that what Trump had in mind? Contradictory signals emanated from Washington in the aftermath of the announcement: Referring to the Qatar boycott, the president tweeted that he was happy to see that his trip was “paying off.” At the same time, representatives from his administration were busy emphasizing Qatar’s strategic importance for US security interests. Qatar is home to the United States’ largest military base in the Middle East. Operations against the terror group “Islamic State” (IS) are coordinated at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. It seems that for the time being, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have been able to convince President Trump that Qatar is simply too important for America to let fall. Behind the scenes, the Americans will no doubt maintain pressure on Doha – and so they should. But the US would be wise to avoid getting duped into assisting one side or the other in the power struggles being played out among the Gulf states.