With the naval and economic blockade of Qatar extending into the second week, while Qatar’s banks and money exchanges are fast running out of dollars, today the wealthy Gulf state defied and accused the Saudi-led alliance of engaging in an “illegal siege” designed to apply political pressure, while rebuffing the Saudi “offer” of food and aid.
Qatar “completely rejects linking its name with false allegations on financing of terrorism or even claiming its failure to fight terrorism,” the statement cited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as saying. The bloc’s actions are “aimed at putting the State of Qatar, its citizens and residents under pressure to achieve political purposes.” The economic crisis that has ensued after Saudi Arabia and fellow states severed ties with Qatar “can’t be described as merely a boycott” Qatar said in a statement on Wednesday and reported by Bloomberg, and responded to the Saudi offer that the country has enough food and medical supplies.
The terse response signals that the world’s biggest exporter of LNG is prepared for a lengthy dispute with its neighbors after both sides stepped up efforts to win support from the U.S. over the past week.
Meanwhile, in a striking development, the U.A.E.’s ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, urged the Trump administration should consider moving its air base out of Qatar, the Associated Press reported, a decision which while unlikely, would leave Qatar without a significant insurance policy in the crisis.
As a reminder, Qatar is home to Al Udeid Air Base, CENTCOM’s forward headquarters in the Middle East and a crucial hub for the U.S. air campaign against ISIS. Home to 11,000 U.S. and coalition service members and up to 120 aircraft — including the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing’s legendary combat airpower and, as of 2016, B-52s dropping bombs on suspected jihadists — the base is home to a $60 million Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) that oversees U.S. airpower in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and 18 other nations throughout the region.
Which is why the Department of Defense will “resist very strongly” any suggestion of moving the Al Udaid base, according to Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “Al Udaid offers the U.S. facilities that are, at the moment, unmatched in the Gulf, and cannot simply be replicated elsewhere, at least not overnight,’’ Ulrichsen said on June 6 in an email. Still, “moving the base would be a big blow for Qatar as having CENTCOM was an external security guarantee that has, for decades, underpinned Qatar’s regional security stance.”
However, the fact that Saudi Arabia is now actively working on eliminating Qatar’s most powerful bargaining chip with the US is troubling, and suggests that the oil-rich kingdom is preparing for even greater escalation with its LNG-exporting neighbor.
Meanwhile, adding to the confusion, the US has continued to send conflicting signals: Trump said on Friday he backed the Saudi-led movement because Qatar has historically “been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.” He spoke after a more conciliatory statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who urged the easing of a “blockade” he said was hindering the fight against Islamic State and causing food shortages. The UAE ambassador, however said, that wouldn’t happen, adding that he didn’t see the crisis escalating into a military conflict.
Topping it all off, also on Wednesday Qatar expressed its growing frustration at not receiving specific demands from the Saudi alliance, despite reports of a “24-hour ultimatum” last week, which it said made a diplomatic solution impossible to reach. Al Otaiba told reporters the Saudi-led alliance would “fairly soon” provide a list to the U.S. Almost as if Saudi Arabia does not want a resolution to the conflict it started, and is merely waiting, and hoping, for an escalation.