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U.S. sells arms to Qatar, complicating Gulf dispute

June 17, 2017 at 5:04 PM EDT
Days after President Donald Trump said that Qatar funds terrorism, his administration signed a $12 billion deal to sell three dozen F-15 fight jets to the small Gulf Coast country. The deal comes after Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab nations severed diplomatic ties with Qatar. Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon joins Hari Sreenivasan with more.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: This week, the Trump administration signed a $12 billion deal to sell the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar three dozen F-15 fighter jets made by Boeing. The deal comes a week after President Trump labeled Qatar a funder of terrorism in the Middle East. For that reason, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab nations have severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed an economic boycott.

Yet, Qatar has also been a key U.S. ally, with the largest U.S. military base in the region, hosting 10,000 troops.

For more, I’m joined from Washington by “Wall Street Journal” reporter Jay Solomon.

Jay, I’m a little confused by my own comments here. Are they, on the one hand, funder of terrorism at the highest levels, as the president said, or are we selling them fighter jets?

JAY SOLOMON, “WALL STREET JOURNAL” REPORTER: I mean, it’s a very complicated situation for sure. You have the Al Udeid Airbase, which is the main staging ground for U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. You have huge Exxon business interests in Qatar. You’ve had a lot of counterterrorism cooperation.

But at the same time, there has been concern going back years that there is money coming from Qatar that has reached al Qaeda elements, that since the Arab spring, they’ve supported factions that are aligned with al Qaeda elements. And even back to the Bush administration, a lot of concern that al Jazeera, its main source of soft power, stirs up anti-American sentiment at times, or stirs up sentiment against Qatar’s neighbors in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. So, it’s very much a conflicted picture.

SREENIVASAN: So, this week, it seems those conversations have moved to Washington, D.C., the sides are lobbying.

SOLOMON: It’s amazing. Every one of these governments — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar — have flooded the zone, as some say, into Washington to meet Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis, meet press. And these countries have so much influence in Washington through investments and think tanks, through lobbying firms, just through their business and defense contracts that it’s — it’s a very much a conflict that’s playing out here, as much as it is in the Gulf. And each side has real equities that they bring, and I think that’s part of the reason you’ve seen such mixed messages from the Trump administration.

And I also think they’re here because they don’t really know exactly what the Trump position is because he’s said things that on the surface appear at odds with his secretary of state, and his defense secretary.

SREENIVASAN: So, the secretary of state has tried to kind of calm the temperature down. But then the president says what he says.

SOLOMON: Secretary Tillerson has been working the phones aggressively over the past week and meeting with foreign ministers from these countries, basically saying this economic siege that is being pushed on Qatar should be eased. And that there’s a concern that counter-ISIS operations that are run out of Al Udeid can be — could be impacted if this feud doesn’t end.

So, he’s very much pushed that line backed by Secretary Tillerson. The problem is, president Trump, on his tweets and in public comments, has seemed to side with Saudi Arabia and want UAE against Qatar saying, you know, this high-level support of terrorism that has been allegedly seen.

SREENIVASAN: Has this break in the Gulf alliance created an opportunity for Iran? Because we are reporting that they were one of the first people that sent food aide to Qatar. What’s happening with that?

SOLMON: No, I think definitely, because President Trump when he went to Saudi Arabia has basically been trying to create this bloc of Gulf Arab states against ISIS, but also against Iran, and Iran’s loving the fact that there’s this feud. And a lot of these countries, whether it’s Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE — I mean, they’re pretty vulnerable to Iran. And this hope of not just the Trump administration but the Obama administration, as well, that they could create a bloc against these six countries in that region against Iran, these very visible fissures play to Iran’s advantage, that they are playing a very astute diplomatic game, because this plays into their hands.

SREENIVASAN: All right. “Wall Street Journal’s” Jay Solomon — thanks so much.

SOLOMON: Thank you.

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