Our great and glorious ally Saudi Arabia is done messing around. The Saudis announced yesterday that they and several other Arab entities—the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, the eastern government in Libya—have severed ties with Qatar, a tiny state on the Persian Gulf and per capita the wealthiest nation on earth thanks to abundant natural gas. According to an Al Jazeera journalist, the Saudis then issued a set of ultimatums to the Qataris and gave them 24 hours to comply.
It was a strident move from a country that, until very recently, was known for its geopolitical caution. The demands the Saudis have reportedly issued (do note that at least one Gulf source has denied them) are absurd, and include expelling all Muslim Brotherhood members from Qatar, which is impossible, shutting down Qatar’s native Al Jazeera, which is insane, and severing Doha’s ties with Iran, which is counterproductive. Qatar cannot and will not meet them, meaning a protracted crisis on the Persian Gulf is inevitable.
Qatar has long been the Puck of the Gulf States, merrily skipping along, defying its neighbors in pursuit of its own often outrageous aims. A Saudi prince once contemptuously dismissed Qatar as “300 people and a TV station”; apparently that frolicking nation has now become so irksome that its bad behavior can’t be quipped away. Why this sudden bout of Saudi distemper? Riyadh says it’s because of Qatar’s longstanding support for political Islam groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and its relatively strong relations with Iran.
Whatever the case, we come now to Donald Trump, who yesterday crashed down into this donnybrook with his usual delicacy. On Twitter, the president lauded the Saudis for isolating Qatar and declared “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
Fat chance. If the Saudis were serious about squashing jihadism, they would begin at home, cracking down harder on terrorism donors within their borders, stymying funds to extremist preachers abroad, shutting down academies that teach hateful drivel about Christians and Shias, stopping the weapons shipments to Islamist groups in Syria, ending their brutal campaign of mass death in Yemen that’s empowered no one except al-Qaeda. They won’t, of course, because they’re an even stricter Wahhabi society than the Qataris, and while they’re less effusive about their support for political Islam (Qatar supported the former Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt, for example, while the Saudis did not), they’ve still done more than any other country to spread al-Qaeda’s ideology throughout the region.
Here’s the thing: Donald Trump is actually right about Qatar. From raining down weapons on jihadist groups in Syria to that aforementioned Muslim Brotherhood closeness, the Qataris have been aiding extremism. But you cannot tackle the problem of Sunni terrorism without also going through Qatar’s hulking next-door neighbor, and post-orb the White House doesn’t seem willing to do that.
The real reason, or at least the main reason, that the Saudis ostracized Qatar is Doha’s relatively strong relations with Iran. The message telegraphed from Riyadh yesterday was: You collaborate with the Iranians in any way and we’ll crush you, which will have dire resonance with less hardline Arab nations like Oman, at work with Iran on a gas pipeline, and Kuwait, which keeps its channels to Tehran open. Saudi Arabia wants the Sunni Muslim world united against its Shiite counterpart. What looks like a bold move against Qatar is actually another volley lobbed over the emir’s head and into the Middle East’s pointless, archaic, extremism-breeding, terrorism-fueling, sectarian cold war.
Donald Trump has unwittingly played a role in this. By visiting Saudi Arabia and reasserting default American opposition to Iran, he gave a green light to Riyadh. Whatever the Saudis do to crush Iranian advantage, America will be unflappably aboard—no more attempts at balance, we’re back on the side of the Sunnis. So first stop Qatar, and second stop, well, we’ll see. This is what happens when we follow Charles Krauthammer’s advice and “reassure” our bad-faith Gulf allies: they interpret it as a blank check and pursue their own ends to our disadvantage.