Analysis: Tiny emirate has found who its real friends are after it was so casually abandoned by US President. But in Qatari business circles, there are fears the move was not so casual after all
What on earth made President Donald Trump identify Qatar – with its longstanding relationship with the US and host to 10,000 American military personnel on the biggest airbase in the Middle East – as a “funder of terrorism”? Did someone misinform him of Qatar’s role in the region? Or was Mr Trump embittered because, as Qatari businessmen are asking themselves, a real estate deal between the future US president and Qatar’s rulers fell through in 2010?
Clayton Swisher, the investigative journalist who broke the Palestine Papers story in 2011 – detailing secret talks between the Israelis, the Palestine Authority and the Bush-era US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice – says that Mr Trump and his daughter Ivanka came to Qatar seven years ago. There, he says, they approached two senior Qatari officials for investment help. One was Hussein Al-Abdullah, executive board member of the Qatar Investment Authority. The other was Sheikh Hamid bin Jassem al-Thani, a member of the royal family who was then prime minister.
Writing in the Huffington Post, Swisher says that the talks failed. Mr Al-Abdullah was allegedly shocked at the way Mr Trump presented his pitch for a distressed real estate fund, although Sheikh Hamid apparently heard him out – but no Qatari money was forthcoming. The QIA is the world’s second largest sovereign wealth fund with assets of $338bn (£265bn).
Swisher adds, however, that Ivanka Trump later returned to Qatar with her husband Jared Kushner seeking a different real estate deal over Mr Kushner’s 666 Fifth Avenue property and that talks went on up to 2016. Swisher also believes – and says he has just found this out – that Mr Kushner’s father Charles was in discussions with Sheikh Hamid, now an independent businessman and no longer prime minister, over funding, and sought $500m but that Qatar said Charles Kushner would have to find $1.2bn from elsewhere. These talks, according to Swisher, were going on until a few months ago.
If Mr Trump has turned against Qatar – and no-one has yet explained why he should have done so – the tiny emirate has discovered regional friends it never knew it had. Oman is sending a fleet of merchant ships to carry food to Doha. So is Morocco. In the latter’s case, King Mohammed VI is seeking to suppress – ever so softly, as is his manner – widespread public demonstrations in and around Hoceima in the Rif district of the country.
The uproar began after a fishmonger was killed (with or without the help of the local police) and a popular politician arrested. The man’s death has eerie parallels with the individual deaths which lit the Tunisian and then the Egyptian revolutions. And as a cynical Qatari suggested a few hours ago, the king’s gesture to Qatar could help his political popularity at home. “It’s Ramadan – and [King] Mohammed’s gesture will be seen sympathetically by the people,” he said. “He knew what he was doing when he decided to send food to us.”
Another less ironic Qatari also pointed out that Turkey’s food imports are helping to ease the shortages in Doha. “We used to import from Saudi Arabia – but Turkish food is much better,” he said. Which might be true. Iran has also tried, rather artfully, to help Qatar by offering to open its airspace to Qatar Airways which can no longer overfly Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Kuwait, which helped to found the Gulf Cooperation Council, doesn’t want the alliance it strived so hard to bring about to collapse. Hence Kuwaiti attempts to mediate.
Most intriguing, however, is Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the Qatar crisis. He quickly expressed his support for Qatar – although avoiding any criticism of Saudi Arabia. And no wonder. For just days before almost all the Gulf Arabs broke relations with Qatar, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman – hero of the disastrous Yemen war – visited the Kremlin for talks with Mr Putin. Ostensibly, these evolved around Syria and oil prices. But now Qataris, and no doubt Saudis, are wondering if bin Salman did not tell Mr Putin of the crisis-to-come – and whether Mr Putin warned the Saudis not to invade Qatar.
After all, it’s one thing for Mr Putin to be accused of the violent suppression of “rebels” in Syria. Quite another if he can show himself to be the peacemaker of the Arab Gulf.