It is not true that complaints against Qatar had suddenly emerged after President Trump’s visit to Riyadh on May 20 as reported in some sections of our media. New York Times had filed a special report on September 7, 2014 that US agencies had noticed Qatar “tacitly” consenting “to open fund-raising by Sheikh Ajmi” and others belonging to “Nusra”, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. They were also noticed addressing gatherings in state owned mosques in Qatar and “even occasionally appearing on Al Jazeera”. Some Western analysts had accused Qatar of even supporting ISIS. But the Times report had equally blamed Kuwait, where Sheikh Ajmi is based, and Saudi Arabia whose donors were tapped by the Nusra Front. They were even seen “making their pitches on Saudi- and Kuwaiti-owned television networks”. Thus, the reason cited by Saudi Arabia for boycotting Qatar to protect “national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism” seems hollow.
However, the world was surprised at the suddenness of the Saudi Arabian announcement of an economic and political boycott of Qatar on June 5, so soon after Trump’s successful meeting with 50 leaders of the Muslim world. The Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani had attended the Riyadh meeting and also had a one to one session with Trump. This boycott was joined by Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Maldives and the Emirates. Already mile long queues are appearing on Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia.
In the past too Qatar had quarrels with Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Arab world. Other Arab countries, jealous of Qatar’s prosperity and independent foreign policy had sided with Saudi Arabia which had withdrawn its ambassador from 2002 to 2008. In 2014 other pro-Saudi countries had pulled out their diplomats from Doha. Observers say that this time the anger is more since al-Thani was suspected to have criticised Saudi Arabia and praised Iran in a recent statement. Doha says that it was “Fake news” planted by hackers who wanted to ruin the relationship between the countries.
But what has worsened the situation is the hype created by President Trump. First he tweeted on June 6 taking credit for the step against Qatar. In the past US and Western countries had always tried to keep a distance and let the feuding Arabs sort things out themselves with some discreet mediation. If at all any intervention was required their bureaucracies used to help instead of high level intercession. Trump did not follow this convention perhaps due to his impulsive nature or immaturity in handling sensitive foreign policy matters. His surprising outburst against Qatar on June 9 when he was addressing a joint press conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis at the White House worsened the situation. He alleged that “the nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level”. He did not know or perhaps forgot that Qatar was supporting the US war on terror by permitting 10,000 US troops at their Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US military station in the region, from where ISIS targets are being attacked.
Ironically, Trump’s outburst totally negated his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts in trying to cool the surcharged atmosphere and get the blockade lifted. It is also significant that the Pentagon had observed diplomatic protocol by releasing a statement on June 5 thanking the Qataris “for their longstanding support of our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security.” Perhaps it was for the first time that both the State Department and the Pentagon had shown open differences with the White House on an important issue.
Informed observers feel that Trump’s deliberate posturing may be due to another reason. It may be recalled that in September 2016 the US Congress had passed with overwhelming majority the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” (JAST) permitting US citizens to sue Saudi Arabia for American deaths during 9/11. This law allowed US courts to waive foreign sovereign immunity. It had the backing of Trump’s constituency. But it was vetoed by President Obama due to strong Saudi objections. Candidate Trump had then criticised Obama for this “shameful” veto. However, the US Congress successfully voted to over ride the Presidential veto. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US had sunk to a record low after the law was passed. Now Trump’s National Security Advisor HR McMaster wants Saudi Arabia to be exempted from JAST. This is not possible. Trump’s deliberate anti-Qatar outbursts could also be to mollify Riyadh since he is unable to oblige Riyadh by scrapping this law.
The situation in Qatar will worsen, if emboldened by the US stand, any military move by the Saudi led coalition takes place. On June 7, 2017 the Turkish Parliament ratified a law passed in May 2017 allowing its troops to be stationed in a Turkish base in Qatar. This base was opened in April 2016 following an agreement two years earlier. According to observers, this base was a symbolic step in “demonstrating Turkey’s move toward greater influence in the region and Qatar’s independence from its powerful neighbours”. The new Turkish base was expected to house about 3,000 personnel. There are presently about 150 Turkish personnel here. Saudi Arabia might view any Turkish troop movement as a provocation. Iran is already airlifting food to Doha since Qatar depends on imports for 80% of their food requirements.
In these circumstances, it would be advisable for India to keep contingency plans to protect the interests of 6,50,000 Indian workers who constitute one quarter of the 26 lakh Qatari population. They hail from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. India should not be caught unawares if a military conflict takes place since US is in no mood to sort out the situation.
The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat whose forthcoming book Keeping India Safe: The Dilemma of Internal Security will be published in July 2017 (Syndicate: The Billion Press)..