Qatari Emir Hamad Al-Thani has thrown the Trump administration’s Arab NATO proposal into disarray by apparently suggesting a coup against President Trump and sparking up a feud with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Al-Thani stated that while Qatar’s relationship with the United States remains fairly good, there are “tensions“, and he believes “the situation will change because of the judicial investigations into the President’s abuses.”
The Emir’s surprising remarks strongly suggest that Qatar believes Trump’s grip on power is tenuous and that there is a strong possibility he may be impeached or forced to resign. His description of Trump’s past actions as “abuses” also indicates that Qatar would look favorably on this outcome. However, it could also mean that Qatar believes Trump will be somehow pressured into changing his stances on various issues as a result of these investigations.
The Emir went on to tout his good relationship with Iran,”because it is unwise to escalate the situation with Iran”, and also praised the work of militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas. Qatar has long served as a major benefactor of Hamas, but its praise for the Shia Hezbollah enraged the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. Both countries harshly rebuked Qatar, leading to a war of words which has dominated the Gulf media this week, culminating in both countries blocking the website of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera. Kuwait is now attempting to mediate between the opposing sides in this latest spat.
These events cast into doubt the future of Trump’s proposed ‘Arab NATO’ alliance, which would likely be dominated by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt (which has extremely poor relations with Qatar), but would not include the United States itself. It also presents a sharp contrast to Trump’s meeting with Al-Thani during a summit in Riyadh, where Trump proposed doing a similar arms deal with Qatar as to what he signed with Saudi Arabia.
Although these remarks were made on official Qatari state media, after observing the heavy backlash, Qatar alleged that they had been hacked and the Emir had not made these controversial remarks. The validity of this claim remains questionable.
Qatar’s notoriously independent foreign policy has been largely defined by the emirate’s bitter rivalry with the UAE and strong support for the Arab Spring and pan-Islamism. Qatar strongly supports the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the region, which the UAE sees as a threat to its influence.
This rivalry has led to proxy conflicts in Egypt and Libya, where the UAE has allied itself with secular strongmen such as Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Khalifa Haftar, while Qatar has provided support to their Brotherhood-linked militant opponents.
Saudi Arabia, by far the most powerful country in the Arab gulf, has vacillated between the Emirati and Qatari positions. On Syria, its policy is more aligned with Qatar, whilst on Egypt, it is aligned with the UAE. In Libya, it retains an officially neutral position, but is said to lean more towards the UAE. Saudi Arabia sees the Brotherhood, which considers the Saudi leadership to be corrupt puppets of the United States, as a long-term threat, but appears more than willing to use it as a weapon against Iran. The rise of the notably pro-Islamist King Salman and the brief weakening of relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia may have created optimism for the Qataris, but the events of the last week have undoubtedly dimmed the prospect of any wholesale Saudi shift towards them.
Historically, Brotherhood leadership has been less sectarian, deriving inspiration from the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. The Iranian government has traditionally taken a pan-Islamist approach, backing the Brotherhood’s brief rule in Egypt, but their dispute over the rule of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria has lately severely strained relations, with the Brotherhood rejecting an Iranian offer to mediate.
Similarly, Qatar has remained cordial with Iran and its proxies, declining to join the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in militarily assisting fellow Gulf monarchy Bahrain, which has a long-standing territorial dispute with Qatar, against a Shia uprising in 2011. Qatar also continues to boast relatively strong diplomatic and trade ties with Iran, despite their geopolitical differences.