May 22, 2018
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The crisis in Qatar could turn nasty

Qatari and a U.S. Coast Guard flags flutter during a joint naval exercise by US and Qatar troops in the Arabian Gulf, Qatar, June 16, 2017.
By Gwynne Dyer, Special to the BDN

Public-spirited businessman Moutaz al-Hayat is flying 4,000 cows into Qatar from the United States and Australia to boost milk supply in his country, which is being blockaded by most of its Arab neighbors in the Gulf. It will take sixty flights, and is definitely not cost-effective. But that may not be his biggest problem.

Ninety-nine percent of Qatar is open desert, and most of the very limited grazing areas for cattle are already fully occupied. Is al-Hayyat also going to airlift in the fodder for his 4,000 cows? There are many ridiculous aspects to the current crisis over Qatar — but it does have a serious side, too.

Compared to the real wars (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya) raging in the Arab world, Qatar’s crisis is a bit like a tempest in a teapot. The country is tiny but rich, and nobody is getting killed there yet. Yet, there is a blockade, and refugees, and troop movements, and it is not inconceivable that the gas-rich Gulf state might get invaded and its government overthrown.

On June 5, all of Qatar’s Arab neighbors in the Gulf withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, Qatar’s gleaming capital. They also cut all land, sea and air communications with the country. Roads were blocked and flights were banned, which is pretty serious for a country of 2.7 million people (only a quarter-million of them actual Arab citizens of Qatar) that produces almost nothing except abundant natural gas.

It is a real blockade because 40 percent of Qatar’s food comes in across its one land border, with Saudi Arabia, and that is now closed. The “refugees” are better dressed and educated than the normal ones, but the ban on Qataris living in the hostile countries and citizens of those countries living in Qatar is already uprooting people and breaking up families.

As for military movements, there have been no reports of Saudi Arabian troops moving toward the Qatari border, like they did before they rolled across the causeway into Bahrain in 2011, but speculation is rife that they might.

This is a pretty low-key crisis at the moment, but it could turn much nastier — and there are two further complicating factors. One is that Qatar hosts the biggest U.S. military base in the Middle East: there are 10,000 American troops in the country. The other is that there also is a Turkish military base in Qatar.

The Turkish-Qatari agreement was signed two years ago, and there are only about a hundred Turkish soldiers on the base, but it will accommodate 5,000 eventually. Turkey could fly the rest in very quickly if it chose to, and it just might do that if the crisis worsens. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed Qatar from the start.

Does this mean that Turkey could end up fighting Saudi Arabia in defense of Qatar? It sounds very far-fetched, but things have got so violent and complex in the region that people and countries no longer just stab each other in the back. They are also stabbing each other in the front, the sides and the unmentionables.

Turkey and Qatar are both close U.S. allies, but they support the same Sunni extremists in the Syrian civil war, and have lavished money and arms on some groups that both the United States and Saudi Arabia see as terrorists (Islamic State, the Nusra Front, and so on).

Saudi Arabia, like most of the Sunni-ruled Gulf states, used to support the same extremists. Now it doesn’t any more — or not all of them, anyway — and says it is blockading Qatar because that country does still give money to the “terrorists.”

Whether that is true is debatable, but the Saudi Arabians managed to convince President Donald Trump that it was true during his recent visit to Riyadh, so Trump encouraged this blockade. Indeed, he takes the credit for it.

“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of radical ideology,” he said on Twitter. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to horror of terrorism!”

But the U.S. Defense Department didn’t get the memo: On Wednesday, it concluded a $12 billion arms sale to Qatar. Meanwhile, in Riyadh, they have just founded a “World Center for Countering Extremist Thought.” You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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