So far, the effects of U.S. President Donald Trump’s unpredictability in the Middle East have been relatively contained. But that may be changing. His administration’s recent flip-flop on Qatar, which is in the middle of a faceoff with the United States’ main Arab allies, has increased the chances of conflict in the Middle East.
A year ago, Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies—Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates—imposed an economic and diplomatic blockade against Qatar and issued a number of demands, including that the country deport to Egypt Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas. Qatar was also expected to end all financial and political support of the Brotherhood, its affiliated movements, and terrorist groups across the Arab world, including Hamas in Palestine and al Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria, and cease all military and strategic ties with Iran.
The blockade was only the latest in a series of confrontations between the countries. The first crisis occurred in 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring (Egypt withdrew its envoy separately). The standoff ended when the Qataris agreed to a document drafted by the late Saudi King Abdullah stating that Qatar would stop supporting the Brotherhood and that group’s affiliates across the region. At the time, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama stayed neutral, as it did throughout the rest of the president’s tenure.
Unlike his predecessor, Trump initially opted to support Saudi, Egyptian, Emirati, and Bahraini pressure on Qatar, calling Doha a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.”
The Saudi coalition’s demand that Qatar end its close ties with Iran was likely particularly appealing for Trump; after all, he has sought to make reversing his predecessor’s engagement with Tehran one of the hallmarks of his tenure.
Yet despite his previous support, the president has now come full circle. Earlier this spring, Trump hosted Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at the White House and called him a “friend of mine” and a “very big advocate” in the war on terror. Likewise, in a visit to Riyadh in April, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly told the Saudi-led coalition to end the embargo and concentrate on more important matters, such as achieving stability in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; carrying out operations against the Islamic State and al Qaeda; and containing Iran. Nevertheless, sanctions against Qatar still stand.
The Trump administration is making a strategic mistake, and perhaps a very grave one. For one, it is true that Qatar has become somewhat closer to Iran, particularly after a joint effort to get kidnapped Qataris back from Iraq. The kidnappers were from the Iranian-created Shia militia terrorist group, Kataib Hezbollah, and the Qataris swayed the Iranians by paying them and their associates a ransom of close to $1 billion. But beyond its ties to Iran, Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is at least as troubling, if not more so. Since 2011, Brotherhood-linked groups have sown chaos from Egypt to Libya to Syria. For example, Brotherhood-linked terrorists are believed to have been behind the 2015 murder of Egyptian Public Prosecutor Hisham Barakat, who referred many Muslim Brotherhood leaders to trial. There have been countless other such attacks in recent years.