US President Donald Trump (C-R) and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and US president Donald Trump at the bilateral meeting in Riyadh on May 21 © AFP

As soon as Meshal bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s ambassador in Washington, received news that Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were severing ties with the small gas-exporting country, triggering a schism among US allies in the Gulf, he made frantic late-night phone calls to the US state department.

He had been in “constant contact” since, he said.

Reassured by US diplomats that the relationship between the US and Qatar — which hosts a massive air base and thousands of US troops — remains “strong”, officials in Washington are struggling to fix a mess some analysts blame on President Donald Trump.

“Trump is the unwitting facilitator of the split . . . I suspect he and his party had no conception that the Saudis would move against Qatar,” said Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran of 30 years’ standing and senior adviser on the Middle East to four US presidents. The Saudi action was the result of being emboldened by Mr Trump’s visit last month, he added. 

During the trip, Mr Trump called for a broad-based coalition against terrorism, but now faces deep disunity among his allies in the region. 

Saudi and UAE, along with Bahrain and Egypt, this week moved to isolate Qatar, expelling citizens as well as diplomats, closing down air space, shutting off land borders and initiating an economic blockade. 

Saudi and others are angry that Qatar refuses to outlaw Muslim Brotherhood movements that seek a political version of Islam, and accuse the country of funding terrorist groups in Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.

“What the Saudis did very brilliantly is that they played to president Trump’s weaknesses — they flattered him, they surrounded him with gold leaf, they kept the American media from getting anywhere near him for two days,” said Mr Riedel. 

But the allies kept their plans for Qatar up their sleeves: they told the US only “immediately prior” to announcing the move, according to a state department official who said they had been “flat-footed” by developments. “We had no idea this was coming,” said the official. 

US diplomatic machinery nevertheless went swiftly into action. On Monday, Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, urged unity. James Mattis, US secretary of defence, noted that all the countries, including Qatar, were committed to fighting Isis.

Mr Trump’s spokeswoman said the president himself wanted to “de-escalate” the situation. The next morning, Mr Tillerson spoke of “a certain level of frustration” and once again urged dialogue. 

But then came Mr Trump’s now infamous early-morning Tuesday tweets. In quick succession, he appeared to celebrate the rift, taking credit for the move against Qatar and claiming it as a victory for his efforts to stem terrorism funding. 

“So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he said. “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!” 

However, his tweets were “both undiplomatic and inaccurate”, said Robert Malley, former Middle East policy chief under the Obama administration and now at International Crisis Group. Mr al-Thani said he was “surprised” by them. State department officials were dumbfounded. 


Then came Mr Trump’s “180-degree turn”, said Mr Malley. Later the same day, Mr Trump spoke to Saudi’s king, underscoring that a united Gulf was “critical”. The next day he spoke to Qatar’s bruised emir and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, urging the same and calling for talks.

By Thursday, Qatar was saying that Mr Trump was “crucial” to resolving the crisis. Mr al-Thani admits the country needs to improve, despite passing a ream of legislation and working with the US Treasury to stem the financing flows.

On Friday, Mr Tillerson called for the Saudis and its allies to end the blockade against Qatar, which he said was imposing hardship and hindering US military efforts in the campaign against Isis.

“The most significant change in the past few days has been the shift in President Trump’s posture which does open up greater room for negotiating a settlement,” said Mr Malley. “He’s a president who reacts based on his immediate instincts but then his views can evolve based on what he’s told.” 

The Qatar episode sent a mixed message, added Mr Malley. “On the one hand, that maybe over time cooler heads and more conventional policy approach will prevail over Trump’s initial instincts — on the other hand, that the president remains as unpredictable as ever, willing to treat as a foe one day someone he treats as a friend the next.” 

One US official who works on the Middle East said: “It doesn’t make a lot of sense that we have to turn to Twitter to understand the president. It’s just painful.” 

Mr Trump’s tweet highlighted the double-game that has plagued US engagement in Qatar. The US worries about terrorism financing but finds Qatar’s back channel links to extremist groups such as Hamas, the Taliban and others useful.

“When it comes to policy toward Doha, the US has to decide whether it wants to nurture those relationships or discourage them,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a former CIA analyst now at the Washington Institute.

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