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Strained relations within GCC affect US security interests

Coolness between Qatar, which hosts vital US security facilities, and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain adds to Washington's difficulty in juggling regional concerns.

The US president Barack Obama will have to address his country’s relations with the GCC states as well as a rift between its members when he visits the region later this month. Olivier Douliery / EPA / March 10 , 2014
The US president Barack Obama will have to address his country’s relations with the GCC states as well as a rift between its members when he visits the region later this month. Olivier Douliery / EPA / March 10 , 2014

NEW YORK // The diplomatic rift between Qatar and its GCC neighbours has raised concerns in Washington over the effect on US regional security interests.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain last week withdrew their ambassadors from Doha after accusing Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, of failing to implement an agreement not to interfere in their internal affairs.

Qatar’s foreign policy and its support for Islamist militant groups has long unnerved the Obama administration, but Washington’s primary concern with the split between its key Arabian Gulf allies is what it will mean for the GCC.

“It complicates his efforts to manage relations with the GCC now that the two [members] who are the most credible and powerful US allies are on strictly bad terms with a third ally,” said Bilal Saab, a senior fellow for Middle East security at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

US president Barack Obama is scheduled to meet Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in Riyadh and perhaps other Gulf leaders later this month.

Washington has downplayed concerns that it is abandoning its traditional role in the Gulf to focus more resources on Asia. But it has also pressed GCC leaders to further integrate their defence policies to better share responsibility for protecting vital oil shipping lanes in the Arabian Gulf.

At a December conference in Manama, US defence secretary Chuck Hagel announced plans to sell weapons systems to the GCC as a block rather than to individual members.

“The US has been pushing them for some time to act more collectively and selling arms to them as one unit,” Mr Saab said.

“But with this crisis now it’s going to be hard to do that.”

Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, said that there are “many places” where the fractures among the GCC will “make things even messier than they already are.”

Many of Washington’s regional security interests — protecting energy resources, trying to mediate Syria’s war, helping oversee Yemen’s transition to democracy, and negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme ­— will be affected by the fallout between Doha and Riyadh.

“It’s not just a bilateral thing you can work out between the two countries, there are a lot of regional issues intertwined as part of this divide,” Mr Hamid said.

Both Saudi and Emirati officials have privately pushed their US counterparts to stem the flow of private funding from Qatar to Islamist militants in Syria and elsewhere.

But analysts said that Washington is unlikely to put pressure on Doha to comply with Emirati and Saudi demands, because of the importance of its own strategic relationship with the Qataris.

In December, Mr Hagel and Sheikh Tamim signed a 10-year defence cooperation agreement, renewing a relationship that is important for both countries.

“Security relationships take a lot of political will to re-evaluate, and Washington today seems to have very little interest in using money or troops to substitute for Qatar in the region, even if the Qataris do things that give us rather persistent heartburn,” said David Weinberg, senior fellow focusing on the Gulf at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Qatar’s Al Udeid air force base hosts one of the most important US military installations in the region, essential to Washington’s long-term counter-terrorism strategy and efforts to contain Iran.

The base is a hub for the US Central Command and the US Combat Air Operations Centre for the Middle East, which moved from Saudi Arabia to Qatar in 2003.

“Qatar has leverage with Al Udeid,” Mr Saab said. “It is a very, very important base for the US.”

These ties play an important role in Qatar’s ability to counter both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the regional powers that lie on either side of the tiny country.

Still, despite the close relationship, Washington remains concerned about Qatar’s support for Islamist militants.

Earlier this month, David Cohen, the US Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, singled out Qatar as a “permissive terrorist financing environment”.

And in December, the US designated Abdul Rahman bin Umair Al Nuaimi, the Qatari president of the Switzerland-based Al Karama Foundation, as an Al Qaeda supporter.

The US claims that Mr Al Nuaymi transferred nearly $600,000 (Dh2.2 million) to Al Qaeda’s now deceased representative in Syria, Abu Khalid Al Suri, last year.

In 2012, he also provided funds going to Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.

And, for a period of time, Mr Al Nuaimi also oversaw the transfer of $2m per month from Qatari citizens to Al Qaeda in Iraq, according to the US Treasury report.

“The recent designation of Al Nuaimi,” who was well known to the Qatari government, “is indicative of the fact that there are real problems going on,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s security studies programme.

Qatar’s funding of extremists rebels during the 2011 uprising against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi also raised tensions with the US.

However, Qatar’s support of Muslim Brotherhood parties across the Middle East and North Africa is less concerning to Washington, which does not view the group as a terrorist organisation.

The US “tends to see actors through the prism of material interests, but the UAE and Saudi probably see Qatari policies as being more ideological than we do,” Mr Gartenstein-Ross said.

“And as a result they have different perceptions of what the US should be doing.”

tkhan@thenational.ae