Since last month, a collection of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia has been enforcing a blockade to the small Kingdom of Qatar, set on the coast of the Persian Gulf. The official justification for that move was that Doha had been financing terrorism. This Tuesday, however, the United States signed a deal with Qatar for cooperation in investigating and disabling “terrorism financing” around the world, Al-Jazeera reports.
The announcement was made during a press conference led by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. The aim of the agreement is to seek whoever funds terrorist organizations and disable them, with the exchange of information between both countries being a cornerstone of such efforts.
Tillerson further added that the U.S. had the ultimate goal of “driving terrorism off the face of the Earth.”
Although the announcement included an open invitation for Riyadh and her allies to join the memorandum, the secretary of state said that such move was not directly related to the blockade affair. Tillerson traveled to Doha to find a diplomatic solution to that crisis, and it makes sense for him to use the memorandum as a tool for the de-escalation and promotion of cooperation between the Gulf States.
The ongoing crisis was sparked on June 5, when Saudi Arabia accused Doha of financing terrorism. It is worth mentioning that Qatar supports the Islamic Brotherhood, an organization that has been hailed as terrorists by the Saudis.
By the end of June, Doha was given a list of 13 demands that would have to be met in order for the kingdom to fall in the good graces of Riyadh once more. Among such demands were the closing of the Al-Jazeera news network, curtailing the relationship with Iran, and expelling Turkish troops in Qatari territory.
Halting any financing to terrorist organizations was another important point, which was even underlined by President Trump, who accused Qatar of backing terrorism at the time, the Los Angeles Times noted.
The negotiations, mediated by Kuwait, led to Qatar refusing the 13 points, which was seen as a disappointment by Riyadh. Saudi politicians stated that new measures will have to be taken in this regard.
There is still fear that the whole situation could escalate into something far worse than a simple political crisis. Qatar is positioned in a crucial location. It has one land border with Saudi Arabia to the west and has Iran beyond the Gulf on the other side. Caught between these two antagonistic powers, Qatar needed to weight its political allegiances. It does seem to have taken a third option.
Recep Erdogan’s Turkey is rising to take its place in the Muslim world and is locked in a three-way cold war with Riyadh and Teheran. Being a member of NATO, Turkey also boasts great military power and has built a base in Qatar, which became a central tenet in this crisis.
According to BBC News, Turkey has important economic relations with Qatar, the latter taking almost half a billion dollars in imports from Ankara, while also investing heavily in Turkey. Furthermore, Qatar itself stands atop one of the richest fossil fuel deposits in the world, with some fields being shared with Iran.
Although economy plays a central role in any conflict, this situation in the Middle East also has large religious undertones. The conflict between the Sunni Arabs and the Shiite Iranians is widely known, but the internal struggles between the different sects of Sunni Islam are less understood by the public at large.
Different political leaders in the Sunni world have been making strong efforts to conquer the hearts and souls of the Sunni populations, with the two major players in the Qatari situation being the purposely “modern” Muslim Brotherhood, and the conservative Wahhabism defended by the House of Saud. Both sides are antagonistic and reject each other.
The active conflicts in the region also need to be accounted for, with the wars in Syria. Iraq and Yemen are now in proxy wars between Riyadh, Teheran, and Ankara. Within this scope, the possibility of a war for Qatar is not unsubstantiated.
The U.S. has been pushing for a role in the region for decades, and through several administrations. Tillerson’s attempts at de-escalating the crisis between the Arab states stems from the U.S.’s traditional proximity with them, especially since Iran fell into Moscow’s sphere after the 1979 revolution.
A direct conflict between the Arabs would not further American objectives for the region, especially given that the proximity between Russia and Teheran allowed Moscow to be quite active in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, and in spite of the strong words spoken by President Trump last month, the truth is that the U.S. is selling advanced F-15 fighter jets to Qatar and maintaining political ties with that kingdom. Washington does not want to lose its post in Doha, nor a possible line of defense against Iran. The good relations between Trump and Riyadh are well known, but by taking sides, the president could possibly compromise the U.S.’s position.
Consequently, Secretary Rex Tillerson finds himself responsible for disarming a very complex situation. Peace among Arab states is important to the U.S., but the Arabs themselves do not know how long such peace can be kept.
[Featured Image by Qatar News Agency/AP Images]