President’s claim that Qatar funds terrorism will shock state that sees itself as key US ally, as Gulf neighbours cut off trade and diplomatic links
Donald Trump, right, meets Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 21 May. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Donald Trump has appeared to take credit for the diplomatic and economic blockade imposed on Qatar by its neighbours in the worst crisis to hit the Gulf states in 30 years, saying evidence pointed to the state funding terrorism.
The president’s remarks on Tuesday will come as a shock to Qatar, which regarded itself as an ally of the US and is home to 10,000 US troops, and will delight Saudi Arabia, which until recently had been fighting off claims in Washington that Riyadh was the chief sponsor of terrorism.
In a series of tweets, Trump wrote: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”
He continued: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to horror of terrorism!”
It was his first intervention in the crisis and, although it does not endorse the diplomatic boycott of Qatar, runs counter to the tone of other administration officials calling for compromise and reconciliation.
Both the US defence secretary, James Mattis, and the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, have called for calm.
Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt announced on Monday they were cutting off air, sea and land links with Qatar and breaking off all diplomatic relations, claiming it had been supporting extremists, developing ties with Iran and acting as a safe harbour for key figures in Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar is also home to the US military’s regional headquarters in Al Udeid air base, which Qatar spent more than $1bn building and has been used to stage attacks against Isis in Syria and Iraq. Qatar regards itself as a key ally of the US, but its independent stance on foreign policy has increasingly angered the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Qatar itself feels it is the victim of an orchestrated and well-planned operation designed to end its independent foreign policy, which has exploited renewed US support for Saudi Arabia.
Late on Tuesday, CNN reported that US officials believe Russian hackers planted fake news stories with Qatar’s state news agency in an attempt to create a rift with the US and its allies.
“Qatar was the victim of ‘fake news’, and we have been working hard since the hacking incident to set the record straight,” said Saif bin Ahmed al-Thani, director of the Qatari government communications office.
The government of Qatar has said that a story which appeared on its Qatar news agency’s website on 24 May falsely attributed remarks to the emir of Qatar and Qatar’s foreign minister that appeared friendly to Iran and Israel.
It moved to defuse the blockade on Tuesday, saying it was willing to work with mediators to try to end the dispute, as Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Saber al-Ahmad al-Jabah al-Sabah, said he would travel to Saudi Arabia for talks with King Salman.
But in a sign that relations will not be repaired easily, Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates foreign minister, said there would be no concessions until there was a clear plan setting out the steps Qatar would take to revise its foreign policies.
Meanwhile, Jordan announced on Tuesday that it was also scaling back its diplomatic relations with Qatar to ensure regional stability, coordinate the policies of Arab countries and “end the crises in our region.” Saudi Arabia is a key financial supporter of Jordan.
Qatar is vulnerable to a blockade since it is heavily dependent on food imports across its land border with Saudi Arabia. Its position as a commercial airline hub is also threatened.
The anti-Qatar alliance is determined to drive a hard bargain, including an end to Qatar’s “soft pedalling” on Iran, closure of some of its independent media networks, including al-Jazeera, and the ejection from Doha of leading figures in the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
Fuelling the hard line against Qatar is fury over its alleged payment in April of a $650m (£505m) ransom for the release of 26 members of a Qatari royal party who were kidnapped in December 2015 while on a falcon hunt in southern Iraq.
Diplomats pointed to Trump’s support of Saudi Arabia as the more likely immediate cause of the move to break off trade and diplomatic relations with Qatar, rather than the ransom paid for the release of the Qatari royals. But the episode could be seen as emblematic of a lack of seriousness some leaders in the region show in defeating terrorist groups.
The 26 Qataris, including 11 members of the ruling al-Thani royal family, had gone on a falcon hunting trip when they were kidnapped from a desert camp in Muthanna province, southern Iraq, by a 100-strong armed group from the Iraqi Shia militia Keta’eb Hezbollah.
Complex year-long negotiations for the release of the group involved Iran, Iraq, the Lebanese Shia militants, Hezbollah, and others including the Syrian group Ahrar al-Sham. The Iranian foreign minister reportedly visited Doha in March to discuss the deal.
Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, personally greeted the men when they arrived in Doha on a private jet from Baghdad in April. The precise terms of their release has never been published but is believed Keta’eb Hezbollah received $500m, $30m went to Ahrar al-Sham, a similar amount to the Syrian al-Qaida affiliate formerly known as the Nusra Front and an unspecified sum to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia. The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, furiously claimed that the deal had been done without Iraqi government involvement or approval.
Trump’s apparent sympathy for the Saudi-led blockade marks a dramatic turnaround from his position two weeks ago when he met the Qatari emir in Riyadh, saying at a photocall: “We are friends, we have been friends for a long time now indirectly,” adding: “Our relationship is extremely good.”
He said it was an honour to be with the emir and welcomed the fact Qatar planned to purchase “some beautiful US military equipment”, which would mean jobs and security in the US.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE nevertheless believe they have the backing of the Trump administration for their approach and, by portraying Qatar as uniquely culpable in the funding of extremist groups, have caught the ear of key rightwing players in Washington.
As the blockade began to be imposed on Qatar, queues up to 25 people deep formed in the Carrefour supermarket in Doha’s City Center mall, one of the busiest shopping areas in the capital. Shoppers piled trollies and baskets high and shelves were stripped of essentials such as milk, rice and chicken.
Among the hundreds of shoppers desperately searching for staple goods was Azir, a Sri Lankan who went to the store when relatives called him from home after watching the news on television. “I was asleep. My family phoned me and woke me up from Sri Lanka,” he said. “I came because of the crisis.”
Ernest, from Lebanon, said he knew he had to go shopping because others would rush to the stores. “It’s a cycle of panic and I needed to get pasta,” he said as he shopped with his young family, pushing two trollies.
Apart from the lack of food in shops, Qatar Airways, one of the region’s major long-haul carriers, was forced to suspend all flights to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain until further notice. On its website, the carrier said the suspension of its flights would take effect on Tuesday and customers were being offered a refund.
The route between Doha and Dubai is popular with business passengers and both are major transit hubs for travellers between Asia and Europe. FlightRadar24, an airplane tracking website, said Qatar Airways flights had already been affected.
“Many of Qatar Airways’s flights to southern Europe and Africa pass through Saudi Arabia,” the site said. “Flights to Europe will most likely be rerouted through Iran and Turkey.”
The block on Saudis visiting Qatar will also hit its service and tourism sector. Saudis usually flock to Qatar on holiday during Eid al-Fitr at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. “This is very bad news, very bad news,” said Raihan, a cab driver originally from India. “All Saudis come here for Eid.”
Qatar has denied funding extremists, though western officials have accused it of allowing or even encouraging funding of Sunni extremists such as al-Qaida’s branch in Syria.
Supporters of Qatar, however, claim western diplomats privately welcome the presence of Hamas figures in Doha, seeing it as a base for talks, and do not regard Qatar as more responsible for extremist funding than Saudi Arabia.
Peter Salisbury, Middle East senior research fellow at the Chatham House thinktank, said Trump’s tweets made him feel for the first time “we may be moving towards the possibility where a demand can be made for regime change one way or another” in Qatar.
He said the Saudi leaders believed their relationship with Trump allowed them to make a big move against a US ally such as Qatar, with the aim of restoring Saudi Arabia as the principal power in the region.
He pointed to the fact that the UAE-backed media were highlighting dissident members of the royal family forming a Qatar Liberation Front willing to step in and take over, and questioned whether the Qatari emir “will be able to make enough concessions to make his neighbours happy, such as closing al-Jazeera down completely, or that they will simply decide instead he just simply has to go.”