Qatar seems to confuse Donald Trump. Last week he called the oil-rich Middle East country “a funder of terrorism at a high level” as he appeared to take credit for a group of Gulf states cutting diplomatic and economic ties with the emirate. But then came news Thursday that the U.S. has signed a $12 billion deal to sell fighter jets to Qatar, just as two U.S. warships arrived to carry out joint military exercises with the country.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis met with his Qatari counterpart Wednesday to finalize details of the sale – which will see up to 36 U.S.-built F-15 fighter aircraft sent to the Gulf state – a deal that “will give Qatar a state-of-the-art capability and increase security cooperation and interoperability between the United States and Qatar,” the Pentagon said. The move comes even as Gulf states continue to isolate Qatar, cutting ties based on accusations that the country supports violent extremism.
The deal reaffirms the traditionally close ties between the two countries, and contradicts the position Trump took in the White House on June 9. Given the recent diplomatic tensions in the region, the move will likely be a cause of concern for the U.S.’ other allies in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia, which led the push to cut Qatar off from other neighboring countries.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Following the radical decision by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to cut ties with Qatar, the U.S. government initially appeared supportive. Trump told reporters in the White House on June 9: “The nation of Qatar has unfortunately been a funder of terrorism, and at a very high level,” he said. “I’ve decided, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals, and military people, the time has come to call on Qatar to end its funding.”
- Trump even appeared to take credit for the decision by the other Gulf states, saying it was something he had discussed with them during his recent trip to the region. “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!”
- However, Trump’s posturing was not backed up by his own staff. A senior administration official told Reuters earlier last week that the U.S. had no prior indication from the Saudis or Emiratis during Trump’s visit that they would sever ties with Qatar.
- Indeed, just moments before Trump made his comments, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said: “We call on the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar.”
- Hours after Trump spoke in support of the diplomatic split, Secretary of Defense James Mattis held a meeting with his Qatari counterpart. While no details of the talk were revealed, the Pentagon had earlier renewed its praise of Qatar for hosting a vital U.S. air base and for its “enduring commitment to regional security.”
- Dana Shell Smith, the U.S. ambassador to Qatar — and a vocal critic of Trump — resigned her post Tuesday, after three years in the emirate. While it’s not unusual for diplomats to resign when the presidency moves from one political party to another, the timing of Smith’s resignation will only add to the confusion about U.S. relations in the region — especially given the already long list of vacancies at the State Department.
- It was Mattis who finalized the details of the sale of U.S.-built fighter aircraft Wednesday. “The $12 billion sale will give Qatar a state-of-the-art capability and increase security cooperation and interoperability between the United States and Qatar,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Roger Cabiness told CNN. Qatar’s defense ministry said the deal would allow for “closer strategic collaboration in our fight to counter violent extremism and promote peace and stability in our region and beyond.”
Also on Wednesday, two U.S. naval warships sailed into Doha to take part in joint military exercises with the Qatari navy. There is no indication whether this was a long-planned operation, or if the warships’ presence is a sign of support from the Pentagon. Qatar is home to the biggest U.S. military base in the region, with the Al Udeid Air Base home to more than 110,000 U.S. and coalition troops — an important base in the fight against the Islamic State group.