The GCC crisis ended on 5 January last year with the signing of the Al-Ula Declaration in Saudi Arabia by the quartet.
Washington’s former Donald Trump administration was “surprised” by the 2017 blockade on Qatar, the US’ former Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin told Doha News in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.
Mnuchin, who served under the Trump presidency, said the US was not in favour of the embargo, despite earlier reports pointing to its support for the blockading nations.
“I don’t think it’s fair to characterise that the US was in favour of the blockade[…]the administration worked very closely behind the scenes,” Mnuchin told Doha News on the sidelines of the 2022 Qatar Economic Forum (QEF) in the Gulf state.
“I came to Doha many times working on the issues around terrorist financing and making sure that everything was in place,” he added.
The four-year GCC crisis was triggered when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed an illegal land, air and sea blockade on Qatar over claims that it supports terrorism.
Qatar has vehemently rejected those claims as baseless.
At the time of the crisis, reports had revealed how the Trump administration had encouraged the blockade, which was announced shortly after his visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017.
Soon after the visit – his first overseas trip as US president – Trump referenced Qatar in a tweet about extremism.
“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!,” tweeted the former US President in 2017.
As the regional dispute unravelled, the former US president went as far as directly accusing Doha of financially supporting terrorism.
“The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” Trump told a White House press conference in 2017.
The statements came as a surprise to Doha, which hosts the Al-Udeid Air Base, the region’s largest American military post. Aside from the bold statements against Qatar, the Trump administration also failed to take direct action in condemning the blockade despite its economic implications on Doha.
At the time, Qatar relied heavily on imports from neighbouring states. However, the Gulf state quickly mobilised to produce its own local goods and soon enough found itself self sufficient.
“Well, there’s no question, it was a very significant issue. I think Qatar did an incredible job with the air bridge and bringing things in. I would not describe it as the Trump administration was in favour of the blockade,” Mnuchin said of Doha’s efforts at the time.
The GCC crisis ended on 5 January 2021 with the signing of the Al-Ula Declaration in Saudi Arabia. The deal came weeks after various regional visits by Trump’s son in-law and former White House Advisor Jared Kushner in late 2020.
At the time, the move was seen as part of the former US administration’s efforts to rack up pre-election wins against rival Joe Biden. The move was seen as a shift in the administration’s 2017 stance.
Speaking to Doha News, Mnuchin said he is proud of the Trump administration’s ability to ensure that the GCC crisis was resolved.
“At the beginning, there were complicated issues on both sides [in the GCC crisis], and we worked very hard to resolve those issues with both sides and are quite pleased to see that the relationships have been rebuilt,” said Mnuchin.
Less than a year into the crisis, Mnuchin visited Qatar and praised its ties with the US. At the time of the visit in October, 2017, the two countries agreed to enhance cooperation on counterterrorism.
Various investigations had highlighted the support of the Trump administration for the blockade against Qatar over the years, with several key Trump allies found to be involved in lobbying on behalf of some members of the quartet.
Trump’s ally, Thomas Barrack, illegally lobbied for the UAE, according to reports that have surfaced since 2017. Barrack, who pleaded not guilty to the charges raised against him, was detained and later released on bail.
Months into the diplomatic rift, Barrack convinced Trump to not hold a summit at Camp David to address the GCC crisis, after stating his intentions to bring the regional rivals to the White House to work on ending the dispute.
Last month, federal prosecutors in the New York City borough of Brooklyn revealed nine criminal charges against Barrack, who was among three others involved in the scandal.
The president’s anti-Qatar, pro-quartet remarks sent shockwaves among political figures in the US and resulted in a scurry of statements by members of the administration in a bid to calm rising tensions.
While Trump encouraged the blockade as it happened, then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the blockading countries to ease the embargo on Doha, highlighting a clear split within the administration.
Tillerson’s stance against the blockade led him to becoming a target for prominent Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy, who was lobbying on behalf of the UAE.
Leaked emails revealed that Broidy had urged Trump to sack Tillerson for not taking a stance against Doha in the blockade. When his emails, in which he said Tillerson “needs to be slammed”, were leaked in 2018, Broidy was quick to blame Qatar.
“We have reason to believe this hack was sponsored and carried out by registered and unregistered agents of Qatar seeking to punish Mr Broidy for his strong opposition to state-sponsored terrorism,” the businessman’s spokesman claimed in 2018.
Tillerson was dismissed that same year and was replaced with Mike Pompeo, a move that raised eyebrows globally.
A 2018 report by the Associated Press (AP) also revealed UAE adviser George Nader and Broidy proposed a budget in 2017 that was worth $12 million aimed at “exposing and penalising” Qatar while lobbying the US to pressure the Gulf country to “aid in coercive action against Iran”.
Fast-forward to 2021, days ahead of the Al-Ula signing, the US Supreme Court ruled that it will not review Broidy and his firm’s – Broidy Capital Management LLC – claims over the alleged hacking of emails by the Qatari government.
In August last year, Qatar-based luxury travel company Mosafer also sued Broidy and George Nader for illegally orchestrating and executing a secret attack against Doha and its businesses on behalf of the UAE.
The lawsuit stated that Broidy and Nader used their political power to influence the US government’s stance with regards to Qatar in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars.
A reliable US ally
Despite the shockwaves that came with the regional crisis – the worst of its kind in decades – Qatar has proven to be a reliable US ally, especially with the emergence of the new Biden administration.
Last year, Doha deployed major diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to assist Washington in the aftermath of its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Gulf state led global action to transfer Afghans and foreigners safely out of Kabul, which had been captured and controlled by the Taliban in August last year.
Qatar was widely praised for carrying out history’s largest airlift of people. It was this leading role that led to the US opting to move its embassy in Kabul to Doha.
More recently, in light of the energy crisis amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration approached Qatar in an effort to secure Europe’s gas supply.
“I think Qatar has been a very important partner, working with the US on a lot of issues including energy. I think the good news is that Qatar has an expansion plan for the gas fields and that there will be more gas that comes online,” said Mnuchin.