A flurry of diplomatic moves is providing soft background noise for a major shifting of ground in the making. On Feb. 28, US President Donald Trump talked by phone to the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. They agreed that the emir would visit Washington in early April. The White House communique read: “The leaders agreed on the importance of regional cooperation and a united Gulf Cooperation Council to mitigate regional threats and ensure the region’s economic prosperity.”
According to DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources, the innocuous-sounding statement masked a script for a major Middle East overhaul which is rumbling through Washington and the Gulf. President Trump, acting on the advice of his national security council, has resolved to settle the nine-month rift dividing Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain from Qatar. But he will use it as a fulcrum for a major new US shift in the region.
The Saudi-led bloc, accusing the Qataris of succoring “extremist” groups, have imposed on their small Gulf neighbor a naval, air and ground blockade. The Qataris strenuously deny the charges levelled against them, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other members of the US government have voiced sympathy for Doha, not least because its Al-Udeid air base hosts the forward headquarters of the US Central Command for operations in the Middle East.
Then, following the prescribed script, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Sultan (MbS) out of the blue, struck a surprisingly conciliatory note when he said in London, “Gulf states are studying plans to break the deadlock over the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar by binging the two sides to agree to relax restrictions on civilian movements as the first to a wider deal.”
The prince spoke on Wednesday, March 7 on his way to 10 Downing Street for a meeting with British premier Theresa May before traveling to Washington on March 19 for talks with President Trump. Our sources report that his sudden openness to resolving the feud with Qatar was in fact the prequel to a larger scheme developed between President Trump and the Saudi crown prince. The two appeared to have developed a close rapport.
DEBKA Weekly can report exclusively that the next step in the Trump-MsB exercise is to confront the Qatari ruler in April with an ultimatum: Knuckle under to all the Saudi terms and so end the quarrel. Doha would have to cut all ties with terrorist groups, shut down Al Jazeera and close a Turkish military base. If Al Thani refuses, the US will announce the closure of its big base at Al Udeid, end its military presence in the emirate and remove all its facilities to the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.
Those facilities include the forward headquarters of the US Central Command, the Air Forces Central Command, the No. 83 Expeditionary Air Group RAF and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing of the USAF. Al Udeid is reported to host more than 11,000 US and US-led coalition forces and over 100 operational aircraft.
The King Sultan base near the town of Al Kharj lies 77km south of Riyadh. It is familiar terrain for the US armed forces. Up until 2003, the Saudi base hosted the most important American air base in the region, often housing more than 60,000 military personnel. But after the US capture of Baghdad in 2003, the Saudis insisted that all US troops be evacuated from the kingdom.
Washington has taking Emir Al-Thani’s rejection of the terms for ending the rift as a foregone conclusion, because Trump has evidently reached a final decision to end US military dependence on Qatar. According to our sources, the Pentagon is making preparations for the move back to Saudi Arabia, a momentous shift in balance in the region. The US will thus be providing the Saudi royal house with a strong military shield and presenting Iran with solid evidence of the Trump administration’s stalwart backing for its allies in Riyadh and allied Gulf oil emirates at large.