President Donald Trump said Mideast leaders he met last month accused Qatar of financing extremism, remarks that analysts say may deepen Doha’s isolation as it faces unprecedented punitive measures from a Saudi-led alliance. “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” Trump said on Twitter Tuesday. “Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” Trump’s comment came a day after the White House said the president wanted to “de-escalate” the crisis and is committed to holding talks with all parties. The kingdom and three regional allies — the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain — accused their fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member of supporting a range of violent groups, from proxies of Shiite Muslim Iran to the Sunni militants of al-Qaeda and Islamic State. They suspended flights and sea travel to Qatar, ordering Qatari diplomats and citizens out.
Trump’s “tweet fuels more conflict, increases tensions and will be used by those who are trying to demonize Qatar,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Qatar University in Doha.
Qatar has dismissed the Saudi charges as baseless, and said the Saudis are seeking to dominate the region. The crisis pits U.S. allies against each other, disrupting trade, flights and business activity in one of the world’s most strategically important regions. The Saudi-led action has prompted some analysts to openly speculate about the possibility of regime change in Qatar, the No. 1 exporter of liquefied natural gas, whose sovereign wealth fund owns stakes in global companies from Barclays Plc to Credit Suisse Group. Qatar’s influence goes beyond money. It’s also a home to the forward headquarters of CENTCOM, the U.S. military’s central command in the region.
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“It’s not a coincidence for the spat between Qatar and Saudi Arabia to erupt right after Trump’s visit to the region,” Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, said by phone. “Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have decided to put pressure on Qatar, which so far has seemed to refrain from pursuing equally harsh policies toward Iran. Trump’s latest tweet is a reflection of his anti-Iran stance.” Mediation efforts intensified on Tuesday, with Kuwaiti ruler Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah traveling to Saudi Arabia for talks to defuse the crisis. Sheikh Sabah also spoke with Qatar’s ruler and urged him to avoid any escalation, Kuwaiti state-run media reported.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani delayed a speech to the nation on Monday to allow Kuwaiti efforts a chance to succeed, Foreign Minister Mohammed Al Thani told Al Jazeera television. “Qatar will not take measures to escalate, because Qatar thinks that such disagreements between GCC states or between brotherly and friendly states must be resolved through dialogue,” he said. The Qatari ruler “considers Sheikh Sabah as his father, and he honored his wish to postpone any step or speech to the people until there is a clearer picture of this crisis,” he said. The escalation in tensions hit Qatari stocks on Monday, with the benchmark QE Index falling the most since 2009. The country’s main stock gauge extended its losses on Tuesday, dropping 1.6 percent.
‘Fraught with Pitfalls’
There are risks, however, that the escalation could backfire on Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., according James M. Dorsey, a Gulf specialist and senior fellow in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “The Saudi-U.A.E. move is fraught with pitfalls,” he said. “Without U.S. intervention to find a compromise solution acceptable to all, this could prove to be a long drawn out struggle in which Qatar would probably move closer to Iran, Turkey and Russia. It also splits the GCC down the middle with Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Bahrain on one side, Qatar on the other and an unhappy Kuwait and Oman in the middle.” The rift threatens the unity of the GCC at time when the U.S. and Saudi Arabia want to contain Iranian influence in the region. The bloc was founded in 1981 and also includes Oman and Kuwait, which have maintained commercial and diplomatic ties with Qatar.
“For Kuwait and Oman this is worrisome because of Saudi Arabia’s willingness backed or driven by the U.A.E. to act like a behemoth that believes it can impose its will,” Dorsey said. Thousands of trucks carrying food across Saudi Arabia’s land border with Qatar were stopped on Monday, the Riyadh-based Al Eqtisadiah newspaper reported. It also said that Saudi Arabia’s central bank instructed “all banks working in the kingdom” to stop buying Qatari currency and to sell it as quickly as possible.