Opinion: Qatar’s snub of Trump over Turkey puts another key US relationship at risk

Written By: The Conversation
USA Published: Aug 28, 2018, 11:13 AM(IST)

File photo of US President Donald Trump. Photograph:( AFP )

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This gesture of support for Turkey is not the first time that Qatar has taken a stand that conflicts with US foreign policy objectives.

By Nader Habibi

The US and Qatar have been key allies for decades, with close military and economic ties. Qatar is home to the United States’ biggest base in the region, and in turn the US has pledged to protect the small, oil rich country that juts out into the Persian Gulf.

But the relationship is being tested like never before by the latest example of Qatar snubbing the interests of Uncle Sam – or, put more generously, its maverick foreign policy.

The US recently placed severe sanctions on Turkey’s economy for refusing to release an American pastor detained for almost two years, sparking a currency crisis. Qatar was the first, and so far only, nation to offer Turkey tangible aid in the form of a $15 billion investment and other types of financial assistance.

Although the Gulf country has long pursued policies out of step with the US, such as maintaining good relations with Iran and aiding various groups that the US considers terrorists, its very visible support for Turkey in the dispute poses a direct challenge to the Americans. And while the US has in the past practiced patience with its sometimes wayward ally, President Donald Trump is often willing to toss out the rulebook and has previously lambasted Qatar on Twitter.

As a longtime observer of the region’s complicated economic and political developments, I believe that Qatar’s interjection in the US-Turkey crisis raises two important questions: Why is Qatar willing to risk its close relationship with the US? And why has the US let it get away with this behaviour for so long?

Punching above its weight

A country of just 320,000 citizens – as well as 2.32 million expatriate residents – Qatar has a habit of using its massive oil and natural gas reserves to exert influence in the Middle East and beyond. Such a hyperactive foreign policy is very unusual for a small state like Qatar.

Qatar made its offer to Turkey during a recent visit by Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim Al Thani to Ankara. The announcement helped stem the rout in the lira, which lost a third of its value in a month. It was followed by a so-called currency swap agreement that will allow Turkey to bypass the US dollar in bilateral trade and financial transactions with Qatar.

While Iran and several Arab countries including Kuwait have expressed opposition to the US sanctions, none so far has offered tangible financial support similar to Qatar’s.

Meanwhile, the US is trying to put economic pressure on Turkey in hopes it spurs the release of the American pastor, who has been detained for nearly two years on allegations he supported the failed July 2016 coup. Qatar’s aid clearly counteracts that pressure.

So far, the US hasn’t publicly reacted to Qatar’s actions.

Allies aiding adversaries

This gesture of support for Turkey is not the first time that Qatar has taken a stand that conflicts with US foreign policy objectives.

On several occasions in the past two decades, the US has expressed concern about Qatar’s support for various Islamist and extremist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as its relations with Iran. In May, US officials issued a warning after a newspaper reported evidence of clandestine contacts between Qatar and Iran’s revolutionary guards and other groups it supports.

This behaviour may seem puzzling because ever since its creation as an independent state in 1971, Qatar has relied on the United States for its external security.

At the same time, Qatar hosts about 10,000 US military personnel at Al Udeid Air Base, home of the US Air Force Central Command, which is used to conduct operations in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

The United States also maintains strong economic relations with Qatar as its largest foreign investor – particularly in oil and natural gas production.

(Nader Habibi is Henry J Leir Professor of Practice in Economics of the Middle East, Brandeis University)

(This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

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