Another day, another diplomatic crisis in the Middle East. This one, unusually, is all about Qatar, the ultra-wealthy monarchy in the Persian Gulf. On Monday, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, as well as factions within war-torn Yemen and Libya, announced they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar. Qatari nationals have been ordered out of those countries, the border with Saudi Arabia has been closed, and some offices of Qatar's Al Jazeera network have been shuttered.
There are many longstanding sources of tension between Qatar and these nations. But the proximate cause of the breach was President Trump's visit, as he himself explained on Twitter. His combination of extreme ignorance and extreme gullibility allowed the Saudis to seize the initiative against a rival. Having a fool as a president is not so great.
As Derek Davison explains, the crisis is rooted in the geography and history of Qatar. As a tiny peninsula state (population: 2.7 million, only about 300,000 of whom are citizens), which has been ruled by outsiders for most of its history and whose only land access comes via the much larger and more powerful Saudi Arabia, Qatari strategic thinking has been consumed by ways to secure itself against Saudi domination. (It's also worth noting that many of the expatriates living there are prevented from leaving and endure conditions of brutal exploitation.)
Qatar has the world's fourth-largest reserves of oil and natural gas (also giving it the world's highest per-capita income), and it has used that money in various ways to backstop its position. Under Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who overthrew his father in 1995, and then abdicated in favor of his son Tamim in 2013, they adopted a fairly promiscuous diplomatic approach, trying to curry favor with all manner of parties. They host the largest American military base in the region, and they were helping Saudi Arabia with its disastrous Yemen intervention (until now). But they also have cultivated ties with Hamas and Iran, and supported many Arab Spring movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and sundry Islamist Syrian rebels.
These last two moves infuriated the Saudis. Iran is their great regional rival, and they hate the idea of any sort of political Islam outside of their own version. President Obama was too wary to take sides in the dispute, so as long as he lasted the status quo was preserved. But when Trump visited the region, apparently they accused Qatar of being the fount of all radical Islamism (after first buttering him up with pictures of his face plastered over everything). He swallowed it whole:
This puts Qatar in a very tricky spot, since much of its food comes overland from Saudi Arabia, and its airlines have been forced to fly around through Iran. There has already been panicked hoarding at grocery stores, and as Fred Kaplan points out, Saudi newspapers are already basically calling for a military coup d'etat.
It's anybody's guess what will happen next. Perhaps Qatar will withdraw enough media and funding support for things the Saudis don't like to buy them off, and everything will return to normal. Or perhaps the Saudis will get greedy and try to install a puppet government. Even the rattletrap Saudi military could probably defeat the tiny Qatari force, though that would raise the thorny prospect of fighting near the huge American military base there, and possible Iranian retaliation.
Or perhaps worst of all, this would just be one more step towards forming a 1914-style set of alliance blocs across the whole of the Middle East and North Africa, with a Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia, and a Shia bloc led by Iran — a powder keg which would not just be dangerously unstable, but actually already on fire in multiple locations. War and devastation across the parts of the region that aren't already a smoking crater could be the result.
Now, it is true that Qatar has likely funded some terrorist groups. But Saudi hands are not remotely clean in that department. Only an absolute dolt would either take Saudi accusations at face value, or look at the delicate balance of power and diplomacy and the way America has (for good or bad) insinuated itself into both sides of the rivalry, and with no warning suddenly galumph off towards one side. Qatar thought it was purchasing some American backing by hosting a large base — but it turns out a child could manipulate our president.
May God have mercy on us all.