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World

Saudi Arabia's Beef With Qatar Reflects Long Simmering Tensions

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Saudi Arabia is leading a blockade against its tiny neighbor Qatar. Two weeks ago, the Saudis accused Qatar of supporting terrorists. They severed diplomatic ties, closed Qatar's only land border and told Qataris living in Saudi Arabia to leave. But Saudi Arabia hasn't said what exactly the country needs to do to end the blockade. That's left some wondering about the Saudis' motives. The U.S. State Department spokesperson said the Trump administration is mystified.

Kenny Malone from our PLANET MONEY podcast says to understand what's happening now, it helps to look back, way back.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: It may be helpful to think of all of this as a family drama.

JIM KRANE: Yeah, that's a - you know, a good way of looking at it.

MALONE: Jim Krane is with Rice University. He's at the Baker Institute, which takes some funding from the energy industry. And Krane says the countries we're talking about...

KRANE: They refer to each other as brothers.

MALONE: Brother monarchies, and Qatar was the little brother. Eighty years ago, Saudi Arabia was discovering oil, getting rich. Qatar had a rickety port on the Persian Gulf.

KRANE: That, you know, used to be a pearling port.

MALONE: Pearling, as in...

KRANE: Diving for pearls, you know?

MALONE: Qatar found some oil but not Saudi levels of oil. And so for 40 years, Qatar lived in the shadow of its bigger brother. But in the late '60s, the shell company was drilling for oil off of Qatar's coast.

KRANE: And they make a big discovery.

MALONE: Not oil, though, gas - loads of natural gas. And over the next 40 years, Qatar became the largest exporter of liquid natural gas in the world and, per capita, one of the richest countries in the world. Qatar had its own source of money now and its own new attitude.

RANDA SLIM: This independent streak, if we can put it this way.

MALONE: Randa Slim is with the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., that gets some of its funding from oil companies working with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Slim says Qatar used its newfound wealth to try and become a big-time player in the world. It started a big-time news network.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Welcome to Al-Jazeera.

MALONE: Now suddenly there were Al-Jazeera reporters digging through the dirty laundry of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Qatar also broke with its brothers on foreign policy. It was willing to make friends and talk with everyone in the region, even rivals - Israel and Hamas, Saudi Arabia and Iran. And during the Arab Spring when other governments were falling, Qatar supported groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

SLIM: By supporting Islamists in Syria, it gives Qatar a place at the negotiation table over the future of Syria. By supporting Islamists in Egypt, it gives a place for Qatar over the future of Egypt.

MALONE: Qatar wanted to be at every table, and it was causing more and more tension in the region.

NADER KABBANI: And I think Qatar was OK with that.

MALONE: Nader Kabbani is with the Brookings Institution in Doha, which is funded in part by Qatar.

KABBANI: They had been in the shadow of these larger Emirates for a long time, and this was their coming out, essentially.

MALONE: Pressure was building, and a handful of recent events seemed to have pushed things over the edge. There were reports that Qatar had negotiated with terrorist groups and paid a huge ransom in order to free kidnapped members of its royal family. There was also a viral fake news story quoting the emir of Qatar saying all kinds of inflammatory things. And then there was also the glowing orb moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You are here at the command and control center (unintelligible).

MALONE: This was from Donald Trump's first overseas trip as president visiting a new anti-terrorism center in Saudi Arabia. He posed for a picture with the king of Saudi Arabia, the president of Egypt and a large, glowing orb.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: They laid hands on the orb.

(APPLAUSE)

MALONE: Everyone applauded. Now, the U.S. has military outpost in both Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Previous presidents have been careful not to be seen as favoring one side or the other. But Nader Kabbani of Brookings says one interpretation of Trump's first trip is that he chose Saudi Arabia.

KABBANI: Let's say not officially, but let's say they felt comfortable enough that they could take the next step.

MALONE: A little over two weeks ago, the blockade began. Trump initially tweeted support for the blockade but has since dispatched Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help resolve it. The State Department has said it's still waiting to hear from Saudi Arabia what exactly Qatar needs to do in order for the blockade to be lifted. Kenny Malone, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEN CLOHER SONG, "KAMIKAZE ORIGAMI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.