Can’t we all get along?
A year ago, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with, and blockaded, Qatar. In a bizarre early scene, the Saudis sent back thousands of Qatari-owned camels across the desert. They were stranded near the border and hundreds died.
Qatar’s prized national airline lost passengers and other businesses were hurt, but the wealthy country bounced back. It’s time for President Trump to lean on all sides in the Gulf rivalry to put the feuds aside and get on the same page regarding America’s strategy of containing Iran, because isolating Qatar has plainly failed.
Why did it fail? In the past, Qataris mostly imported milk from their neighbors. After the blockade, they imported thousands of cows, invited in top dairy-rearing professionals and, voila — let there be milk.
It’s the Qatari way. The country, with 300,000 citizens and 2 million residents, has long imported top-shelf art mavens, architects, medical professionals, educators and scientists. For FIFA’s World Cup 2022, which will be hosted by Qatar, stadium-planners have been pouring in to build state-of-the art air-conditioned open-air facilities for a country where the temperature regularly hits 110 degrees.
Much of this brain-shopping is America-oriented. Doha’s Qatar Foundation is affiliated with six top-shelf US universities. Traditional white robes aside, many Qatari students speak and act as if they grew up in Chicago or Newark.
Americans do business here and, crucially, Al Ubeid, the largest US air base in the region and a key cog in our war on terror, is located in Qatar.
So the Qataris are good allies, right? Well …
There’s that TV station. Qataris say Al Jazeera Arabic brings democracy to a region where there is none. Their neighbors say it encourages extremism and incites against every regime in the region, except one: Qatar’s.
Much of the growing rift is also rooted in a Hatfield-McCoy-style enmity going back several generations. In a region where no one ever forgets a slight, that’s a problem.
“It’s a personal thing between the young king and the emir,” one diplomat told me a while back, referring to the Saudi king-in-waiting, Mohammad bin-Salman, 32, and the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, 38.
“You think we could be involved in Gaza without Israel’s approval?” one official told me. Indeed, in February the Qatari envoy to the Hamas-controlled strip publicized a meeting he had with Israel’s minister of regional cooperation, Tzachi Hanegbi.
“We build infrastructure, hospitals and education centers,” several Doha officials told me, adding that they, rather than Hamas terrorists, control construction, so Qatari-imported concrete can’t be used for building attack tunnels.
Yes, Hangebi told a Tel Aviv radio station last month, Israel approves of Qatar’s Gaza activities “because they really are doing construction.” Yet, he added, the neighbors complain “they flirt too much with terrorism” and “episodes that border on subversion.”
And on Wednesday, Qatar provoked its neighbors again: As the Saudi-led, US-backed coalition launched a major assault on Yemen’s Hodaida port town, which is controlled by Iran’s allies, the Houthis, Qatar sent a new envoy to Tehran.
The overarching goals of the feuding countries are remarkably similar: extinguish terrorism, stop Iran’s expansionism — even wean their economies off oil. These are America’s goals too, so we have a historic opportunity in a region that hasn’t always agreed with us.
Ending Qatar’s feud with its neighbors may advance President Trump’s aspiration for an Arab-Israeli “deal of the century” and, crucially, further other American interests, too.
They, of course, want him to lean hard on their neighbors, but Washington should push all sides: Give a little, and settle your differences for everybody’s sake.
Author: Benny Avni