What Is Going on in Qatar? Just as Important, Where is it and Why Does it Matter?

Where in the World is Qatar?

Qatar, which is often pronounced “cutter” or “kuh-TAR,” is a country situated on a peninsula that is located on the much larger Arabian Peninsula. Slightly smaller than Connecticut, Qatar is bordered by Saudi Arabia and the waters of the Persian Gulf. It has Qatar2a population of over just two-million people, of whom 67 percent are Muslim, according to the CIA Factbook. Qatar’s ruling family has grown rich thanks to hydrocarbons, and they haven’t been afraid to use that cash to gain influence and become a sizable actor (some would say outsized) in the region’s political affairs. This is where our drama unfolds.

What is Going on in Qatar?

Let’s just cut to the chase. Simply put, Qatar has really ticked off two much larger powers in the region, its neighbor Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two big boys on the block. On June 5, 2017, these two countries, along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, imposed a blockade on the tiny nation and issued a set of demands that Qatar must meet. These demands include the shuttering of the Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera, cutting ties with Islamist terrorist organizations, and downgrading ties with Iran, with whom they share a large gas field that generates a significant amount of wealth for Qatar. The deadline to meet the demands has passed. Qatar’s government has stated it won’t acquiesce. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the demands would be “difficult” for Qatar to meet.

Uh oh, What Did Qatar Do to Deserve This?

Like virtually everything in the Middle East, it’s complicated. But let’s try to wade through some of it.

  1. Qatar financially helps support the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt (and elsewhere). That draws the ire of Egypt’s ruling military elite, who in 2013 overthrew the MB Morsi government that took power following elections that ensued after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that overthrew former military ruler Hosni Mubarak. Follow? The MB is labeled as a terrorist organization by the United States, but is also a part of the social fabric of Egypt. Nevertheless, Egypt’s current regime doesn’t take kindly to what it sees as meddling in its sovereignty.
  2. Saudi Arabia doesn’t like the criticism it receives on Al Jazeera, it doesn’t take kindly to the financial support to opposition Islamist groups that they say is provided by Qatar, and apparently frowns upon the cordial relationship between Doha, the capital of Qatar, and the Saudi’s regional rival Iran.
  3. Furthermore, Qatar is said to financially support and arm Islamist groups within Syria that may be at odds with the factions that are supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Organizations and individuals within Qatar are accused of providing assistance to IS and Al-Qaeda.

Qatar, as you may have been able to deduce, conducts an “independent foreign policy.” That’s what countries do, but if you’re tiny, you run the risk of making some states upset, and that seems to be what Qatar has done. (It’s not like Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states don’t engage in the same type of behavior as Qatar.) It also doesn’t help Qatar that the current President of the United States seems to have signaled (now confirmed) it was okay to move against Doha.

How is the United States Involved? Why Does it Matter?

Again, it’s complicated. The United States has about 11,000 military personnel stationed at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. From this installation, air strikes against targets in Iraq and al udeid air baseSyria have been launched, so the U.S. has a vested interest in maintaining good relations with Doha. Additionally, it’s always a good idea to work closely with Gulf countries regarding counter-terrorism, and Qatar is a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS. On the other hand, Qatar has used its wealth to arm and gain influence with groups in Libya that are at odds with U.S. policy. The same has happened in Syria, while Qatar also supports Hamas in the Gaza Strip, yet another terrorist organization as deemed by the U.S.

Where does Qatar stand on the friend / enemy spectrum as it relates to the U.S.? Good question. Based on a June 6 tweet by President Trump, it looks like the U.S. is on the side of the anti-Qatar forces for now. In fact, Trump may have provided cover for the course of action pursued by the Saudis and Egyptians:

During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017

This is far from a complete analysis of why things are as they are regarding Qatar and its regional neighbors. However, it fleshes out some of the basic reasons of what is going on. It also helps to illustrate the problems of being a small nation carrying out an independent foreign policy in a rough neighborhood. Like a friend of mine likes to say, if you can’t hang with the big dogs, get out of the tall grass. Qatar is in the tall grass, and the big dogs are growling.