The Qatar diplomatic crisis has continued for six weeks now — and according to a new report, President Donald Trump played right into it at the very beginning.
U.S. intelligence officials told the Washington Post that the United Arab Emirates was behind the hacking of a Qatari state news agency that first sparked the crisis. U.S. intelligence officials confirmed that senior members of the UAE government discussed the hack on May 23, just one day before the news site and its social media accounts were hacked. The officials said it isn’t clear whether the UAE carried out the hack itself or got someone else to do it.
On May 24, the state-run Qatar News Agency (QNA) published an article that reported Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani had criticized the recent hostility towards Iran, said that Trump would not stay in power for very long, and defended Hamas and Hezbollah. Qatar later said the site was hacked, and the article was fake, but the story still created an uproar in the region. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt responded by blocking access to Al Jazeera and other Qatari media organizations. Two weeks later, they suspended diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar over its relations with Iran as well as its alleged funding of extremist groups in the region.
U.S. intelligence agencies told the Washington Post that they had previously suspected one of the four countries who initially cut ties (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain) was involved in the hack. If the reports are true, it proves how easy it is to set up bait for Trump — and to create an international crisis now that he is president.
The day after the four countries cut ties with Qatar, Trump tweeted his support for the boycott, calling it “the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” He ignored the fact that Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, and an escalation of the crisis could have serious ramifications on U.S. fights against ISIS and al-Qaeda in the region.
Since then, Trump has repeatedly expressed support for the countries imposing the boycott.
Spoke yesterday with the King of Saudi Arabia about peace in the Middle-East. Interesting things are happening!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 3, 2017
Trump’s Twitter diplomacy has complicated actual State Department efforts to resolve the crisis. In a visit to the region last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed a counterterror agreement with Qatar to address the funding of extremist groups in the region, but the other four Gulf countries have already declared that the agreement doesn’t meet their demands. Tillerson left the Middle East after he was unable to achieve a resolution in talks with leaders in the region.
In general, it’s unclear what the Trump administration’s policy is on the crisis. Where Trump has been vocal in his support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the State Department has embraced a more cautious approach, trying to find a resolution to the crisis. And while Trump continues to express support for the boycott on Twitter, the Pentagon signed a $12 billion agreement to sell as many as 36 F-15 jets to Qatar.
Still, it’s hard for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates not to feel as if Trump is on their side, especially given his embrace of their worldview.
The United Arab Emirates, for its part, has denied the allegations in the Washington Post report. Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, called the Post article “false” in a statement. “What is true is Qatar’s behavior,” the statement read. “Funding, supporting, and enabling extremists from the Taliban to Hamas and Qadafi. Inciting violence, encouraging radicalization, and undermining the stability of its neighbors.” UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash also said the story “is purely wrong” and said that “this issue has been festering since 2014.”
Over the past few months, emails of the UAE ambassador have been leaked to the media by a group called “GlobalLeaks.” In them, Otaiba criticizes Qatar and expresses a desire to see the U.S. military base moved out of the country. The emails also reveal the UAE government’s effort to work with think tanks in Washington, D.C. to help spread its views on Qatar among policymakers.