The geopolitical peril facing Qatar in 2017 resembles that of Switzerland in 1938: small, wealthy, tenaciously independent … and caught between militarily powerful neighbors, one of which wants to end its neutrality. Eighty-one years ago, little Switzerland occupied some of the most dangerous territory on the planet, bordered by Nazi Germany to the north and east and by Fascist Italy to the south. With the Fall of France in 1940 she would be completely surrounded. Located in center of Europe and with a majority German speaking population, Adolf Hitler wanted to absorb Switzerland into his Greater Germany. Swiss hospitality to diplomats, journalists, intelligence agents and political exiles from around the world outraged Der Fuehrer.
Today, Qatar occupies some the most dangerous territory on the planet. The little sheikdom’s only land border is with a hostile Saudi Arabia, which wants to compel it to join its alliance with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt against Iran. With a Sunni Arab staatsvolk and expatriate underclass, Qatar is a natural fit for the alliance. After severing diplomatic relations and embargoing Qatar Airways, the alliance issued a 13 point ultimatum on June 23rd. Some of the demands, like ceasing its financing for the Muslim Brotherhood, are reasonable. But others, like closing its consulates in Iran, shutting down Al Jazeera and other news outlets, and ceasing to grant Qatari citizenship to nationals from the alliance countries, amount to Qatar giving up its role as the Persian Gulf’s Switzerland.
Of course, no historical analogy is ever perfect. Qatar lacks a very crucial geopolitical advantage of Switzerland. In 1938, the Swiss were prepared to defend their country from a German and Italian invasion. Every mountain pass was heavily fortified, the Swiss Army was ready for a siege inside the Swiss National Redoubt, and the Swiss government was ready to blow up the railroad tunnels through the Alps that kept Italian industry running on imported German coal. Germany and Italy never invaded.
Qatar is wealthy in oil and natural gas but poor in defensible geographic barriers. What it has are the water barriers of the Persian Gulf and Al Udeid Air Base, home to the U.S. Air Forces Central Command. The firepower represented there would deter any potential aggressor in normal times, but these are not normal times. Donald Trump is President of the United States, and he may or may not have signaled permission for the Saudi led alliance to put the squeeze on Qatar. To add to the confusion, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently approved Qatar’s purchase of $12 billion worth of F-15 fighters.
The problem is that neither the American public nor foreign leaders have a clear sense of who is making U.S. foreign policy. In some cases it is Trump and in others it is Mattis. Perhaps it is even Jared Kushner, the squeaky scion of immense wealth deemed qualified to bring peace to the Middle East because he is Trump’s son-in-law. The one thing we know with certainty is that U.S. foreign policy is not being made by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Poor Rex’s apparent remit is to “contain, degrade and defeat” the Department of State, when he is not busy trying to help out his friends in the oil industry.
What is lost if Qatar is forced into submission by Saudi Arabia? First, a crucial peacemaker in the Middle East. Doha is the Geneva of the Middle East. The foreign policy making anarchy of the Trump administration makes an independent Qatar more important than ever in averting a bloody regional interstate war. Second, a news source that has been successful at raising awareness of important issues like official corruption: Al Jazeera. The region and the world need feisty independence. Here is hoping Qatar survives as the Switzerland of the Persian Gulf.