Trump backs Saudi decision to cut ties with Qatar over ‘terror support’

US president’s intervention may cause concern at Pentagon, as Qatar is a key US ally

A man walks past the Qatar Airways office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Monday. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

A man walks past the Qatar Airways office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Monday. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

 

US president Donald Trump has swung behind Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations that have accused Qatar of backing terrorism, saying funding for “radical ideology” needed to be cut off.

Qatar – host to the US’s main military base in the Middle East – is embroiled in an escalating row with several Arab neighbours that have taken the unprecedented step of cutting diplomatic ties and transport links with the gas-rich state.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain cut their connections to Qatar’s airspace, airports and seaports on Monday. They accuse Qatar of backing and financing terrorism in countries including Syria, Yemen and Libya.

Mr Trump appeared to support the move to isolate Qatar, despite the Gulf state being a US ally. Referring to his visit to Saudi Arabia last month, he 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!”

In two further tweets, Mr Trump, who recently visisted Saudi Arabia, wrote: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. 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!”

Mr Trump’s comments are likely to cause concern at the Pentagon given that Qatar plays host to a key military command centre that co-ordinates the US-led coalition air operations across Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and 17 other nations stretching from north-east Africa across the Middle East into south and central Asia.

Colin Kahl, who served as national security adviser to former US vice-president Joe Biden, tweeted: “Trump piles on Qatar. I hope POTUS [president of the United States] has a back-up for the Qatari base that is key to the air war against Isis.”

Maverick

During his visit to Riyadh – his first official foreign trip as president – Mr Trump held talks with Arab leaders, including Qatar’s emir, as he sought to forge a coalition to counter Iran’s regional influence and help fight the Islamic State terror group.

The trip is seen to have emboldened Saudi Arabia and its allies, which have long considered Qatar to be a maverick that backs Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, the Palestinian militants, and is too cosy with Iran.

Qatar, the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, denies it sponsors terrorism and argues that it acts as a neutral force in a region beset by conflict and rivalries. Doha has insisted for years that it engages with Islamist groups with the full knowledge of the US.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, told Al Jazeera, the Qatar-owned satellite network, late on Monday that the crisis was the result of fabrications in Saudi- and Emirati-controlled media. Qatar would respond with “discussion and mutual respect”, he said.

Qataris have expressed fears that the Saudi-led initiative is aimed at removing Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s emir, as well as his parents, who many believe are the real power behind the throne.

“If the Saudis want to do something militarily, we have been told the Americans are not going to interfere,” said a senior Qatari businessman. “For them, this is an internal Gulf matter.”

Some Saudi and Egyptian newspapers have also suggested regime change in Qatar is the goal of the co-ordinated action.

But Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, Doha’s former ambassador to the US, said Qatar would unite as a “wall” against threats from outside. “We are not going to give up our sovereignty to anyone,” he said. “We will co-operate and listen. If we did something wrong we will acknowledge this, but they need to say what is wrong.”

Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al-Sabah, emir of Kuwait, was due in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for mediation efforts to resolve the worst breakdown in Gulf relations since the formation of the Gulf Co-operation Council more than three decades ago.

World Cup

Sheikh Tamim heeded a request from his Kuwaiti counterpart to hold back from giving a speech to his nation ahead of the mediation with Saudi Arabia. Kuwait has often played the role of regional broker and in 2014 helped resolve a spat between Doha and its neighbours.

Qatar, one of the world’s richest nations in per capita terms and host of the 2022 football World Cup, sought to project an image of defiance.

Newspapers in Doha led with large photos of Sheikh Tamim, pledging their support. “We are all Tamim, we are all Qatar,” one headline read.

Qatar has also warned that the crisis raised questions about the viability of the GCC, the six-member political and trading bloc. “This brings about real questions about the future of the GCC nations,” said Sheikh Mohammed. “We reject that some in the GCC are trying to impose their will on Qatar or intervene in its internal affairs. This is rejected.”

The move to isolate the import-dependent nation caused Qatar residents to rush to supermarkets to stock up on food. The small state relies heavily on its now closed land border with Saudi Arabia for imports.

Officials told local media that there were sufficient food stocks and supplies were being imported “in a routine manner from different sources”.

Aviation links to Qatar were thrown into chaos when Qatar Airways suspended flights to and from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain from Tuesday morning. That followed the suspension of flights by Etihad, the Abu Dhabi carrier, and Emirates of Dubai to Qatar.

Qatar Airways has shifted its routes to use Iranian airspace. Westbound flights will now avoid Saudi and Bahraini airspace, while Asia-bound flights are circumventing UAE airspace.

The closure of routes between Qatar and the four Arab states has caused concern for many in Doha, who often fly to neighbouring states at the weekend.

“My husband lives in the UAE,” said an aviation worker based in Qatar. “From now on we are going to meet in Oman. ”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017