Here's Why The Hell Everyone Is Talking About Qatar Lately

It's a tiny country the size of Connecticut that punches above its diplomatic weight. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have had enough of that, and are bringing the US along for the ride.

This is Qatar.


Ruled by Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatar is a small Middle Eastern country in the Persian Gulf. (English speakers have been fighting for years about the right way to pronounce it, but something like "khutter" will get you through.)

In the region, you've basically got to be friends with either Saudi Arabia or Iran. Not both. But Qatar’s always been a bit more open with its friendships than others.

ABC / Via

It's worked hard to stay on civil terms with Iran, hosted the Taliban in order to facilitate peace talks, backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, allowed its citizens to support Islamist groups in Syria like the Nusra Front, and hosts an important US military base. That number of competing friends means that everyone is always mad at it, all the time.

But when President Donald Trump met with the Qatari emir during his first foreign trip last month, it went well and everything was fine!

Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

After a pleasant meeting with Qatari Emir al-Thani, Trump used his big speech in Riyadh to praise Qatar: "Qatar, which hosts the US Central Command, is a crucial strategic partner."

(Egypt, in comparison, got a shout-out to its pyramids.)

Qatar is also home to Al Jazeera, a state-funded news company that's made a lot of enemies in the region for its coverage.

Osama Faisal / AP

Though it touts its editorial independence, its reporters have been both arrested and tried as potential spies or terrorists, and accused of being tools of Qatari foreign policy.

Qatar's media is actually at the base of the latest tensions in the Middle East — and like everything else in 2017, it's likely hackers are to blame.

Government Communications Office Statement Regarding Hacking of #Qatar News Agency:

The Qatar News Agency (QNA) infuriated Saudi Arabia and others in late May when a statement appearing to come from al-Thani appeared on its site, chiding the region for being so mean to Iran. The Qatari government quickly disavowed the statement, saying that hackers had posted it on the QNA website. (The FBI is helping Qatar investigate; CNN on Tuesday said it was likely that Russia was behind the intrusion into QNA's systems, though others have pointed fingers at the UAE.)

Days later, hackers released emails stolen from the UAE's ambassador to the US that, among other things, disparaged then-president-elect Donald Trump, and showed how the region was attempting to conspire against Qatar.

It all came to a head on Monday, when Saudi Arabia et al decided that they’ve had it with Qatar’s Qatariness.

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For decades, Saudi Arabia was the main US ally in the region. But with the Obama administration's willingness to bring Iran back into the fold, the Saudis and other Sunni states — especially the UAE — began to worry that Iran would eclipse them, and are now trying to reassert themselves.

Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of backing the Houthis, the Yemeni rebels that a Saudi-led coalition has been bombing to devastating effect on civilians for the last year and a half.

Mohammed Huwais / AFP / Getty Images

Iran has been accused of backing the Houthis. Both are Shia — a point that the Gulf countries have been quick to use in support of the bombing campaign when pitching it to the Trump administration.

The kingdom cut diplomatic ties and closed Qatar's only land border, in what amounts to a blockade.

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Saudi Arabia's moves were followed by Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt, the UN-backed Yemen government, the eastern half of Libya, and...the Maldives. That group was later joined by Djibouti, and Jordan downgraded its diplomatic ties in a bit of hedging. All in all, it was a lot of action super fast, leaving Qataris scrambling to purchase food ahead of a potential shortage.

It went beyond diplomats being expelled. The UAE went so far as to tell Qatari citzens inside their borders to get to stepping within the next two weeks, and declared that defending Qatar on social media would be considered a crime.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also demanding that Qatar break off ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and Hamas before things can go back to normal.

Normally, the US would try to weigh in about how important it is for allies to be cool and not fight, or at least stay out of it and watch the drama unfold.


Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to do that when appearing in Australia together on Monday, giving vague statements of concern and downplaying the whole mess.

Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images

Tillerson said the US "would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences, and we, if there’s any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] remain unified."

But then on Tuesday, the President of the United States weighed in on Twitter, making clear he had a preferred side:

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!

"So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off," Trump wrote on his preferred policy-declaration platform. "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 the horror of terrorism!"

The whole thing has got a lot of people freaked out, not necessarily for what’s happening, but for the way it’s happening, which is very, very confusing.


The US doesn't seem to have, well, any sort of plan at all about what it's going to do now that Qatar has been shunned. The Pentagon has said that operations are still ongoing from the US Air Force base in Qatar. The State Department hasn't joined in the push to recall its diplomats, nor given any indication of how it plans to juggle its relationship with Doha while everyone else is mad.

Qatar's role in funding Islamist groups in the region also has been known for a long time. And it isn't alone in doing so, prompting people to wonder what's up with the timing and target.

NBCUniversal / Via

One theory popular with analysts: Saudi Arabia is very, very, very good at flattering Trump, leading them to believe that they had a green light to isolate their main Sunni regional rival.

Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

Also unclear: what would happen to the journalists at Al Jazeera if the channel was forced to close its doors, which some have speculated may be a condition for restored ties.


More broadly speaking, it's also not clear whether Qatar even wants back into the Cool Sunnis Club, or if they're going to join up with Turkey, Russia, and Iran.


What is clear, though, is that Saudi Arabia now seems to have the US's backing on pushing Qatar around and asserting its dominance in the region. And that could lead to some more very tense moments down the line.