Trump accuses Qatar of supporting terrorism as Gulf crisis grows
America's public neutrality over the Gulf crisis was shattered on Tuesday as President Donald Trump effectively backed the Gulf blockade of its ally Qatar.
In a series of tweets, Trump said that his trip to the Middle East in May was "already paying off" as Gulf leaders followed through on their promise to take a hard line on the funding of militant groups.
He said "all reference" to funding extremism pointed to Qatar.
"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 the horror of terrorism!" Trump said in a series of Twitter posts.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in a coordinated move, with Yemen, Libya's eastern-based government and the Maldives following suit later. The move came just two weeks after Trump's demand for Muslim states to fight terrorism.
Jordan said it’s reducing level of diplomatic representation in Qatar, canceling local registration for Al-Jazeera TV, according to an Associated Press report late on Tuesday.
The US leader's comments come after his own diplomats and close allies attempted to downplay the nature of the crisis. Trump has now effectively accused Qatar, which houses the largest US military base in the region, of supporting terrorism.
US officials were blindsided both by Saudi Arabia's decision to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar and Trump's aggressive tweets towards the tiny Gulf country. Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker was reportedly "stunned" when he was informed of Trump's tweets.
In a sign of diplomatic confusion in Washington DC, the president's tweets were followed by praise for Qatar from a US military spokesperson.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis told reporters that Qatar has an "enduring commitment to regional security," sticking to a message of reassurance even as the US commander in chief gave out a radically different message online.
Davis declined to answer a question about whether Qatar supported terrorism, the accusation made by Arab states, saying: "I’m not the right person to ask that. I consider them a host to our very important base at al Udeid."
The stakes are high for the US military in Qatar. More than 11,000 US and coalition forces are deployed to or assigned to al Udeid Air Base, from which more than 100 aircraft operate. British military personnel are also stationed at the base.
Of those 11,000 US troops and air force personnel, nearly 1,000 work in a combined air operations center that helps oversee missions for campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the military says.
The president's statements also contradict an earlier insistence from the White House that the US was acting to "de-escalate" the situation.
Asked about the Arab rift before Trump's tweets, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Monday that the president was committed to pursuing "conversations with all of the people involved in that process and all of those countries. We want to continue to de-escalate that and at this point we're continuing to work with each of those partners".
'All of our partnerships in the Gulf are incredibly important, and we count on the parties to find a way to resolve their differences sooner rather than later'
- US state department official
A State Department official stressed the need for a swift resolution of the dispute, saying its relations with Gulf nations are vital. "All of our partnerships in the Gulf are incredibly important, and we count on the parties to find a way to resolve their differences sooner rather than later."
And US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said on Monday that he did not expect the crisis to have "any significant impact... on the unified fight against terrorism".
Another unidentified State Department official told Reuters that Washington does not want a “permanent rift” between Gulf countries, but criticised Qatar.
"There’s an acknowledgement that a lot of Qatari behaviour is quite worrisome, not just to our Gulf neighbours but to the US," the official said. "We want to bring them in the right direction."
Saudi Arabia, which dominates regional politics in the Gulf, is demanding that Qatar take several steps, including ending its support of Palestinian Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, to restore ties with other key Arab states and end the crisis.
"We've decided to take steps to make clear that enough is enough. Nobody wants to hurt Qatar. Qatar has to choose whether it must move in one direction or another direction," Saudi Arabia's foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir told journalists in Paris on Tuesday evening.
Al-Jubeir added that Qatar was undermining the Palestinian authority and Egypt in its support of Hamas and the Muslim brotherhood and backing "hostile media".
Hope for talks?
French President Emmanuel Macron is also understood to have told his Qatari counterpart of the importance of preserving stability in the region. He also offered to remain in contact with all parties in the crisis.
Meanwhile, Kuwait's leader was due in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday amid calls for reconciliation in the Gulf as Trump's intervention looks set to increase tensions between Qatar and neighbouring countries.
Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber al-Sabah is acting as a mediator between Doha and three Gulf Arab states including Saudi Arabia, which severed diplomatic and transport ties with Doha on Monday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood to defend Qatar on Tuesday, saying he intends to "develop" ties with the embattled Gulf state hit .
"We find that the sanctions taken against Qatar are not good," Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.
"Turkey will continue and develop our ties with Qatar, as with all our friends who have supported us in the most difficult moments," he added in reference to last year's failed coup.
Last week, the Qatari emir travelled to Kuwait to meet al-Sabah, in what was widely seen as an attempt at reducing tensions by the Kuwaitis.
As tensions continue to mount, the Philippines said it had temporarily blocked Filipinos from travelling to Qatar for work because of the possible "ripple effects" of the breaking of diplomatic ties and "wild rumours" of what's happening there.
'There’s an acknowledgement that a lot of Qatari behaviour is quite worrisome, not just to our Gulf neighbours but to the US. We want to bring them in the right direction'
- State department official
Filipino labour secretary Silvestre Bello said the ban would be in place until the government has completed its assessment.
"I temporarily suspend the deployment of our OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) in the county of Qatar. This is for us to be able to assess the situation because there are so many wild rumours going around, saying things are not going well there," Bello said in a statement on Tuesday.
The diplomatic bust-up threatens the international prestige of Qatar, which is set to host the 2022 football World Cup. Football's governing body FIFA said on Monday it was in "regular contact" with Qatar's 2022 organising committee, but did not comment directly on the diplomatic situation.
Worst crisis for decades
The crisis is the worst to hit Gulf Arab nations since the creation in 1981 of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) grouping Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.
On Tuesday, Qatar's foreign minister hit back at the Gulf states for not having raised their concerns at previous diplomatic meetings.
"Regarding the reasons for this escalation, honestly, we don't know if there were real reasons for this crisis or whether it was based on things we're unaware of," HE Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani was quoted as saying during an interview with Al Jazeera.
"If there were real reasons, it would have been put on the table for discussion during the GCC meeting, but none of that was mentioned. It wasn't mentioned either during the American-Islamic-Arab summit in Riyadh. There were no indications whatsoever."
"This certainly represents an unprecedented uptick in tensions within the GCC," said Adam Baron, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "Qatar has long had an independent streak that's led to resentment from its neighbours."
'Qatar has long had an independent streak that's led to resentment from its neighbours'
- Adam Baron, European Council on Foreign Relations
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan also spoke by phone with the leaders of Qatar, Russia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on lowering tension, presidential sources in Ankara said on Monday.
"The importance of regional peace and stability was underlined in the talks, as well as the importance of focusing on the path of diplomacy and dialogue to lower the current tension," the sources said in a statement.
Iran offers food aid
Iran said that the hawkish tone of Trump's visit, when he met more than 50 Muslim leaders in Riyadh, laid the groundwork for the diplomatic crisis.
"What is happening is the preliminary result of the sword dance," Hamid Aboutalebi, deputy chief of staff of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, tweeted in a reference to Trump's recent visit to Saudi Arabia.
Iran also offered to transport food to Qatar to overcome the closure of the land borders with the country.
"You have a shift in the balance of power in the Gulf now because of the new presidency: Trump is strongly opposed to political Islam and Iran," said Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global risk and resilience at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
"He is totally aligned with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, who also want no compromise with either Iran or the political Islam promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood."
Iran said on Monday that it saw America pulling the strings of events in the Middle East.