Everyone is suddenly talking about Qatar. Normally dwarfed by its neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia, both in physical size and the energy they both consume in official Washington, the oil-rich Arab nation has in the last six months become a symbol of political martyrdom and, more recently, of Beltway intrigue.
Qatar, which sits on a tiny peninsula on the Persian Gulf, was abruptly cut off economically and diplomatically by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt in June. This meant the closing of all land, sea, and air routes for trade and travel, the expulsion of Qatari citizens from blockading countries, and an amped-up propaganda campaign against the ruling royal Qatari government, one of the United States’ staunchest allies in the region.
Led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the blockaders aimed for a righteous tone, declaring Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism. Fresh from a trip to Saudi Arabia where he joined other Gulf States in sword dances and gathered around a glowing orb of unity, President Trump at first embraced the blockade as part of his own tough posture against “radical Islamic terrorism,” calling Qatar a backer of this ideology “at a very high level.”
Any geopolitical analyst worth his salt knew the blockade and PR offensive was all a Saudi-UAE smokescreen to cover those countries’ own festering disputes with Qatar, over Doha’s funding of Al Jazeera news and its refusal to vilify Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Deeper into the mix is Qatar’s humanitarian investments in Hamas-controlled Gaza, and its refusal to cut off the organization as a political force in the region. This has drawn the ire of the influential anti-Iran neoconservative faction in Washington, who have struck a strange alliance with the authoritarian regimes of the blockading countries.
Trump eventually dialed back his support of what TAC’s Daniel Larison has called the “punitive measures” of the blockaders in their “vendetta” against Qatar. But it’s since emerged that Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner might have helped get a White House blessing for the blockade in the first place—without first consulting his cabinet. TAC’s Mark Perry reported in late June that the now-fired secretary of state Rex Tillerson was completely “blindsided” by Trump’s initial remarks against Qatar. Sources suggested that Kushner had been influenced by close friend UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, and in turn Kushner had influenced Trump.
Now it’s come out that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in the course of probing Russian meddling in the Trump campaign and transition, has fastened on to an aide to the UAE crown prince who may have made several trips to the White House and used Kushner to influence the president over the blockade. Meanwhile, in a blockbuster report by The Intercept, it was revealed that Kushner’s father Charles Kushner had attempted and failed to secure an investment from the Qatari royal family for his New York-based real estate company headquarters. “That 2017 effort followed previous entreaties made in the region by Jared Kushner himself,” according to The Intercept.
The blockade was announced a month after his father was reportedly rebuffed.
Now, in a statement to TAC, the Qatari ambassador to the U.S., Sheikh Meshal Bin Hamad al-Thani, says Qatar “has not been approached nor has it considered approaching the special counsel’s office or any entity within the United States government.” The embassy is clearly most interested in keeping the administration at the negotiating table and, if possible, in their corner. And it was clear, at least until Tillerson’s surprise firing this week, that the Trump administration was actively working to end the blockade, with the State Department deploying Retired General Anthony Zinni and Deputy Assistant Secretary Timothy Lenderking to the Gulf region, where, according to a statement to TAC, they’re “engaging with all parties involved to discuss potential paths toward resolving the Gulf dispute and discussing preparations for the upcoming U.S.-GCC Summit” next spring. The administration also hosted a strategic dialogue with Qatar in January, and is reportedly laying the groundwork for a potential Camp David meeting with all parties this summer.Right now, with the Saudis and UAE and Kushner looking exposed, Qatar, rather than begging for mercy, is digging in for the siege. In a wide-ranging interview at the Qatari embassy in Washington earlier this month, Ambassador al-Thani insisted that the blockading countries resented Qatar’s trajectory of democratic change over the last 20 years, with Al Jazeera the symbol of its pan-Arab outreach and free speech principles that the ruling royal families in the Gulf fear the most.
“Qatar wanted to enforce the idea that change is possible without violence. The blockading countries don’t want democratic change, they are working against it,” al-Thani told TAC.
“Many people don’t realize that Al Jazeera is part of what we are doing in our own country. In 1996 we decided to lift censorship rules, and abolished the ministry of information and planted the seeds of freedom of the press,” he said.
Al-Thani charges that the blockade was a farce from the beginning, when the Saudis used as a “red line” a news story that has now been dismissed as “fake news” and the result of a cyber attack. In that story, Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani supposedly called Iran an “Islamic power” and praised Hamas in a speech. It went viral immediately and remained in circulation on Arab television networks after the Qataris warned it was false.
“It happened in the the middle of the night. But the TV channels (Saudi/UAE) were conveniently all ready—at 12:30 a.m.—to debate this, with guests,” al-Thani said.
The UAE immediate shut down all broadcasts of Qatari media inside its borders, including Al Jazeera. Within days the blockade had begun. By July, U.S. intelligence officials confirmed that the cyberattack had been initiated at the senior level of the UAE government.
“They’re basing their aggression on a falsehood. Therefore, in my view, anything else that comes from them now is false,” al-Thani said. He also acknowledged the massive PR and lobbying campaign, which has involved high-powered American operatives who have been able to maneuver inside the power centers as close as the White House.
“The challenge here is unfortunate—you have your own neighbors putting out obstacles for you and trying to undermine the relationship between the U.S. and Qatar,” he said. “It feels like they are stabbing us in the back.”
Al-Thani said the insincerity of Qatar’s Gulf neighbors can be seen in their 13 demands, issued in June as a condition for lifting the blockade. They included shutting down Al Jazeera, cutting off all contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, scaling back Qatar’s relationships with Iran, throwing Turkish troops off Qatari soil, and opening up to “compliance” inspections.
“They were issued because they knew they would not be met. They infringe on our sovereignty,” said al-Thani. “They want to halt all of the progress we’ve made in the last 47 years.”
That progress, he says, includes a host of educational partners, including Northwestern University, Carnegie Mellon, and Georgetown University. Al-Thani says educational and social reforms undertaken in his country over the last two decades have made Qatar more competitive and attractive on an international scale, drawing business and development, and does not shy from what he calls “progress” at home. While Qatar remains an Islamic Sharia-based country, it has grown more socially tolerant than its neighbors, passing new labor and divorce laws, instituting municipal and federal (council) elections that are open to women, and implementing free press and speech reforms.
“We are far from perfect,” he noted. “We have have to work more, but we will not let anyone stop our transformation process.”
Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup and has drawn fire for its treatment of migrant workers who have traveled from third-world countries to build the massive soccer stadium. Rumors have been flying that FIFA might take its prestigious hosting honor away. Migrant laborers make up some 94 percent of Qatar’s workforce and have been subjected to exploitive Kafalah rules popular across the Gulf region, which tie workers to one employer and in many cases lead to horrible abuses and accusations of modern-day slavery. Recent reports say hundreds of workers die each year due to extreme heat on construction sites, including the stadiums.
Al-Thani pointed out that Kafalah was abolished in 2017 in Qatar in part as a result of the growing criticisms. The government also announced it would be issuing a minimum wage law. While some say it remains to be seen whether the abuses end, al-Thani insists Qatar is adapting, while its enemies are using the FIFA controversy to turn the world against them. “I tell the UAE and the Saudis to calm down, rest, it’s a closed matter,” he said of the World Cup. “We’re hosting.”
As for Iran, Qatar shares ownership of the South Pars/North Dome, the largest natural gas field in the world. It also supports the Iran deal that keeps the Iranian nuclear program under the inspection of the U.S. and its coalition partners. And while it joins its Gulf neighbors in regarding Iran’s activities in the region with wariness, it disagrees over how to keep them in check—particularly over the Saudi-led war on Yemen.
“We agree with the United States and the Arab countries that the behavior of Iran in the region has been destabilizing. We do not appreciate what they have been doing in Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, and Yemen,” Al-Thani noted. “At the same time, you empower Iran with every move you make—like in Yemen and Qatar, stopping food and medicine from coming in. All these impulsive policies that are just giving Iran an excuse to be active in our region.”
For the time being, Qatar is doing just fine economically, despite the embargo. As the second richest country in the world, it merely opened up new ports and air routes to get goods flowing again. If anything, the embargoes are hurting the blockading countries more. But the political rift is crippling, and the embassy points to harmful travel bans as straining families and students. It claims that there have been 26,000 cases of human rights violations filed with Qatar as a result of the blockade.
Calls and emails to Egyptian, Saudi, and UAE officials went unanswered for this story.
As for its relationship with the U.S., Qatar is hopeful that $35 billion in recent investments, its longstanding military ties (Qatar is home to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, the Al-Udeid Air Base, housing some 11,000 American personnel), and its other partnerships will act as an anchor during this particularly difficult time in Washington. With Tillerson out and an anti-Iran war hawk nominated to replace him, Qatar may be facing some choppy seas.
“We consider the U.S. our partner and ally. Truly,” said al-Thani. “We are proud of our relationship. We won’t let our neighbors try to undermine that relationship.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is the executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.