WASHINGTON — Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker ripped Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for spearheading a partial blockade against U.S. military ally Qatar, suggesting their claim Doha is funding terrorism was hypocritical.
"All the [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries are involved in supporting terrorism, okay, and when you live in glass houses, you shouldn't throw stones," Corker said in an interview Thursday. "I'm going to take the opportunity to point out Saudi Arabia has to do a lot more as far as its financing of terrorism. The UAE needs to do a whole lot more — Qatar does too."
Corker was not explicit, but State Department reports say Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar all have issues with bulk cash transfers, money laundering and private terrorism financing to varying degrees. All three also have made widely reported efforts to counter violent extremism and counter terror financing from within their borders — and all three joined a new Terrorist Financing Targeting Center launched while Trump was in Riyadh.
As the crisis between Qatar and its neighbors entered its fifth week, Corker said he was "very frustrated" Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain had cut ties with Doha. The conflict is seen as a bid to bring the tiny Persian Gulf monarchy in line with Saudi-dominated foreign policy.
Earlier in the week, Corker announced he would block foreign military sales to GCC nations until there is a diplomatic path out of the crisis. Corker said he coordinated the move with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help him and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis amid the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Mideast, Al Udeid Air Base.
"I want to strengthen Tillerson and Mattis' hand to deal with this issue. There's no question I want to strengthen their hand," Corker said Thursday.
The comments came a day before President Donald Trump discussed solutions to the dispute in a call with the president of Turkey, which has sided with Qatar. Tillerson met Tuesday with the Qatari foreign minister and the foreign minister of Kuwait, who is mediating.
Corker had praised Trump's landmark summit with Gulf leaders in Riyadh last month, marked by an agreement on $110 billion in U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. However, within days, four Arab nations launched a surprise blockade, claiming Doha supports terrorism.
"To think we'd committed to to help strengthen their ability to combat terrorism and push back against Iran, that all of a sudden with no discussion, a blockade is created and an internal conflict that takes away from all that," Corker said.
As the crisis unfolded, U.S. President Donald Trump on June 6 undercut Tillerson's pleas for calm when he tweeted support for Saudi Arabia's allegations against Qatar. Corker, at the time, did not criticize Trump directly, but said, "I try not to divide a group off."
A week later, the U.S. Senate took an unusual vote to block a U.S. sale of guided bombs to Riyadh, and it failed narrowly, 47-53. The vote was seen as rebuke of Riyadh — which Corker defended at the time, saying, "Saudi Arabia, with their flaws, has been a reliable ally."
On June 22, the four Arab countries gave Qatar until this Sunday to meet a list of demands, which include shuttering the Al-Jazeera news network and curbing diplomatic ties to Iran. Tillerson said publicly the demands would be tough to meet but that there is some common ground — and Doha was reportedly working on a response as of Friday.
Corker last week made public a letter to Tillerson saying until there is a path for resolving the dispute, he will block U.S. foreign military sales to the region. Such sales are subject to preliminary approval by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee before the statutory 30-day congressional review process.
Asked Thursday whether the move to block sales reflected frustration with the administration, Corker insisted it did not. He was frustrated Saudi Arabia and the UAE are unnecessarily "burning up a lot of capitol."
"Secretary Tillerson knew exactly what I was getting ready to do. I don't he would view in any way my actions in any way should be regarded as hostile," Corker said.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, described Corker as "furious" with the blockade's "perpetrators, friends of ours who picked this fight."
"I think he's not happy with the way the Trump administration's handled it," Cardin said of Corker. "I think the president's certainly made it more difficult."
Cardin called on the administration to provide a plan to resolve the crisis. He condemns the actions of the Arab countries involved.
Corker's move places a cloud around a $110 billion megasale eyed as a boon to the defense industry — and eyed warily by Israeli officials concerned about its military edge in the region and critics of Saudi intervention in Yemen.
Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute who has close ties to Boeing, called Corker's move unusual and — given the long time it takes for the U.S. to implement sales — largely symbolic. He warned it could lose the U.S. weapons sales and influence.
"Washington should never assume America is the only source of weapons," Thompson said. "It would not be hard for UAE or other Persian Gulf countries to turn to France, Britain or even Russia if America doesn't want to cooperate."
Bruce Riedel a former CIA, Pentagon, and National Security Council staffer, now with Brookings, called Corker's move a "smart" means to pressure Gulf states to solve the crisis.
"It would be better if he also linked his block to the Yemeni war as well to pressure Riyadh to end the blockade and the war," Riedel said of Corker. "Instead of a blank check, we need friendly advice to curb Saudi excesses. The arms relationship is a tool to do that."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.