Welcome Back Qatar


The minuscule Arab state of Qatar,  awash with untold billions in oil revenue, has come into sharp focus in recent weeks, and not always in the best light. But its importance in the effort for Mideast peace means it should not be isolated, as several Arab states have tried to do.

The international diplomatic community was taken aback this month when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut off diplomatic relations, trade and transportation links in actions designed to quarantine Qatar for its support of terrorist groups and Iran. Qatar vehemently denies those charges, accusing the Saudis of using the tiny nation as a pawn in its efforts to become the dominant state in the region and counterbalance the growing influence of Iran.

President Donald Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia was generally praised as a success for bringing together about 50 Arab heads of state, who agreed to establish “full” relations with Israel if it agreed to a Palestinian state. But the dust-up with Qatar, a nation of 2.7 million people, seemed to muddy the waters.

Despite its small geographic footprint, Qatar has an enormously important role in the always volatile Middle East. In a blog post from the Council on Foreign Relations, Steven A. Cook has pointed out that the Al Udeid Air Base outside Doha “is one of the largest U.S. bases in the world and the place from which the U.S. Central Command ran the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and currently runs the campaign against the Islamic State.”  


Cook added that the base grew in importance to U.S. war planners in 2003, when the Saudis demanded that American military personnel withdraw.

Qatar has served the same kind of role in international politics that Romania had during the regime of Nicolae Ceusescu. Romania had close ties with both Israel and the PLO, as well as with the Soviet Union and China, and those ties made it possible for hostile players to hold back-channel, informal meetings.

Sultan Barakat, a longtime observer of the region, has warned in a piece on AlJazeera.com that the “outrageous hostile act” by the four Arab states against Qatar will backfire. He says that “Qatar has striven to be open to all, a country where representatives of the Taliban, political leaders from the Palestinian group Hamas, and U.S. generals can all operate.”

Qatar’s unique position, Barakat added, “has allowed Doha to play mediator and help resolve some of the most intractable conflicts in the region.”

Apparently, Trump could not resist jumping into the fray, publicly blasting Qatar for supporting terrorism and backing the Saudi-led effort to punish Qatar for funding of terrorist groups. But Saudi Arabia hardly enters this debate with clean hands because, for years, the royal family has supported Wahabi extremists in Saudi Arabia and throughout the major capitals of the world.

So once again, the president seems to have blundered into a political thicket without command of all the facts, undermining what his administration’s diplomats were trying to accomplish. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had already attempted some fence mending and damage control, but in the midst of his efforts, Trump doubled down on his anti-Qatar attacks.  

As the former CEO of Exxon-Mobil, Tillerson has considerable political and economic capital in the oil-rich Middle East. He should be allowed to patch things up, unimpeded by impulsive and unhelpful statements from the White House.