The CEO of Qatar’s national airline said Monday that he would have expected President Donald Trump to be “more shrewd” than to back the blockade of the Qatari government announced last week by four Middle Eastern nations.
Trump on Friday announced during a Rose Garden news conference that “Qatar, unfortunately, has been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” offering support for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, all four of which had simultaneously broken off diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar earlier in the week. Those breaks included expelling Qatari nationals and officials as well as cutting off air travel between Qatar and each of the four respective nations.
“I’m extremely disappointed in President Trump, I thought he was more shrewd,” Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. “I was expecting that the U.S. will lead the challenge to this blockade.”
At issue for the four nations is frustration over Qatar’s support for Islamist organizations, including Hamas and an Al Qaeda-linked group in Syria, as well as its relatively warm relationship with Iran compared with other Gulf states.
Trump did not explicitly back the specific maneuvers taken by the four nations but his public statements on the issue aligned with the position of the blockading nations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in his own statement last week, called for an end to the blockade while reiterating demands that Qatar do more to curb support for extremist organizations.
Seemingly complicating the dispute for the U.S. is the fact that Qatar is host to Al Udeid air base, home to some 11,000 American military personnel and the site from which airstrikes against Islamic State targets are launched. But that military relationship did not stop Trump’s strong criticism of the Qatari government that he said was inspired by his conversations about terrorism with other Middle Eastern leaders during his visit to the region last month.
“For Qatar, we want you back among the unity of responsible nations,” Trump said. “We ask Qatar and other nations in the region to do more and do it faster.”
The growth of state-owned airlines in the Persian Gulf region, including Qatar Airways but also Emirates and Etihad Airways, has become a point of contention in the U.S., where some American carriers, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, have lobbied the government to take measures to slow the growth of the Gulf competitors.
Al Baker conceded that the blockade likely means his company will face “a difficult year,” but said that the airline has plans in place to mitigate the damage. His airline is stronger, he said, than Emirati-owned competitors like Etihad Airways and Emirates.
“If they think they are going to go laughing to the bank at Qatar’s cost, I think they are mistaken,” Al Baker said.