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World

Arab Nations Cut Ties To Qatar. What Does It Mean For U.S. Interests?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week, the tiny Arab country of Qatar found itself at the center of a regional standoff. Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt have cut off diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar. The small Gulf nation is home to the largest U.S. military base in the region, a launching pad for the air campaign against the Islamic State.

But Qatar also supports groups some see as terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. President Trump has been tweeting this morning, criticizing Qatar. He appears to be blaming Qatar for terror financing and suggesting that this diplomatic spat could lead to the end of, quote, "the horror of terrorism."

For a look at the reasons behind this Middle Eastern schism, we are joined by Mohammed Cherkaoui. He's a professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University, and he is just back recently from a trip to Qatar. Thanks so much for coming in this morning.

MOHAMMED CHERKAOUI: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: You were in Qatar last month for this international conference. Did you get a sense that a crisis like this was in the offing?

CHERKAOUI: Well, there were no indications that the Gulf region was moving toward this southern escalation. And now we see this complex conflict where there is growing manipulation of character assassination.

On the one hand, the Qatari government is - its image is reconstructed as if it's a pro-terrorist government hosting Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. On the other...

MARTIN: That's how Egypt and Saudi and these other countries are portraying Qatar, as a terrorist-linked country.

CHERKAOUI: Yes. And at the same time last weekend - over the weekend, we saw this issue of the Emirati ambassador's email that revealed some immoral exercise according to the Arab mindset because of the - his affiliation with several pro-Israeli, you know, institutions here in Washington. So it's a double game on both sides, characterization of the Emirati government as well as the Qatari government.

MARTIN: So these are longstanding issues you're talking about, about alliances in the Middle East.

CHERKAOUI: Absolutely. It's a mix - it's a typical mixed bag of negative perceptions and also an escalation toward cornering or putting Qatar in the corner because of the - its resistance against - demonizing the Iranians after the summit in Riyadh, also its reservations against how far we should follow this counterterrorism paradigm. Plus, it seems that Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are now becoming the new currency of this conflict in the region.

MARTIN: But the overarching conflict seems to be the fact that Qatar has a closer relationship with Iran than countries like Saudi and Egypt would prefer.

CHERKAOUI: Absolutely. And I think the other Gulf nations are over-capitalizing on this...

MARTIN: On this moment to air their own grieving - grievances.

CHERKAOUI: ...narrative of counterterrorist - yeah.

MARTIN: Is it surprising that this split is coming so soon after President Trump was in Saudi Arabia talking about regional unity? Did his visit have anything to do with this decision happening now?

CHERKAOUI: I think there has been an accumulation of factors over the last three or four years, but his presence in Riyadh and his success in securing some funding for a new deal - it's about $400 billion - sort of became the trigger event of a - an implosion of this Gulf house, if you like.

MARTIN: Yeah.

CHERKAOUI: So it seems that the Qataris are less willing to go along with his plans in the region. And the same time, the Saudis, the Bahranians, the Egyptians and the Emiratis are trying to side or to push the catalyst aside as if they can monopolize their influence on the Trump administration.

MARTIN: And just briefly, should the U.S. stay out of this since it has allies on both sides or help broker a way to end it?

CHERKAOUI: Well, from what I heard yesterday from Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis, I don't think that the Trump administration will be meddling. I think it's a chronic conflict. And its solution is not in Washington. It's back in the Gulf.

MARTIN: Professor Mohammed Cherkaoui of George Mason University, thank you so much for talking with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.