Can President Trump settle the Gulf crisis?

By Sigurd Neubauer and Giorgio Cafiero

March 16, 2018

Since the Qatar crisis erupted, media outlets in the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) members—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—have published many articles with harsh rhetoric against Doha. The Saudi/UAE-led bloc has also passed legislation criminalizing sympathy for Qatar.

Both factors coupled with Qatar’s staunch refusal to adjust its foreign policy under pressure from the ATQ have unquestionably contributed to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) diplomatic row prolonging longer than the Gulf spat of 2014. Nonetheless, in anticipation of the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump’s historic speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh on May 21, US efforts to resolve the Qatar crisis are underway.

From a US perspective, the GCC is not only a strategic partner, but also an organization with significant potential to strengthen both economic and security cooperation. Qatar is home to the al-Udeid Air Base, the forward headquarters of United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), which oversees the US-led coalition’s bombing campaign of Da’esh in Iraq and Syria and maintains a direct line to Russia to manage Syria’s crowded skies.

Bahrain and other ATQ members host the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and other crucial bases for Washington’s campaign against ISIS, as well as the conflicts in Afghanistan and Yemen, underscoring why resolving the Qatar crisis is vital for the advancement of US interests in the Middle East. Unquestionably, a continuation of this row could have significant geopolitical consequences for Washington’s agenda in the Gulf and the broader Middle East, including stronger Turkish, Iranian, and Russian involvement in regional affairs.

Due to these considerations, coupled with an emerging consensus in Washington that the crisis has strategically setback the feuding parties, including for the US, the window of opportunity to solve the crisis is narrowing.

How the crisis erupted 

The GCC crisis arguably erupted on May 24, three days after Trump’s Riyadh address, when the official Qatar News Agency (QNA) was hacked and quoted Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in a fake statement saying that Hamas is “the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, Lebanese Hezbollah is a “resistance movement” (despite Doha’s designation of the Iran-backed group as a terrorist organization), Qatari-Israeli relations were “good”, and Doha had “strong relations” with Iran, which the Emir identified as an “Islamic power”.

The false statement also stated that Qatar had withdrawn its ambassadors from Egypt and all other GCC states (save Oman) and that Qatar’s relations with the Trump administration were undergoing problems. Unnamed US officials have since attributed the hack to the UAE, a charge that Abu Dhabi denies.

The crisis can be directly attributed to the ATQ’s long-standing grievances with Qatar’s foreign policy and the role of Al Jazeera, which has, at least from 1996 to 2013, served Doha’s foreign policy agenda. The emirate has used the network as a political tool to prod fellow Arab governments about sensitive issues such as the role of political Islam, corruption, Arab states’ support for the US/UK-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the lack of democracy across the Arab world, including within the GCC. 

Some analysts have erroneously portrayed the Gulf crisis as a choice between secularism, as presented by the UAE model, and political Islam as embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which Doha has traditionally supported.

Yet this analysis is an oversimplification given the fact that, with the notable exception of the MB’s Tunisian branch, most of the Islamists which Qatar backed in the Arab Spring’s aftermath have failed to cement their positions in Arab governments. Indeed, the Syrian regime’s resiliency and the Egyptian military’s ouster of Mohammed Morsi almost five years ago marked major setbacks to Doha’s foreign policy agenda.

These misadventures in Syria and Egypt along with the Gulf spat of 2014 taught Emir Tamim an important lesson: For his country to keep some of its hard-won regional influence, strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia would be paramount. This decision also reflected how Al Jazeera began to provide muted coverage of Saudi Arabia and other GCC members.

In fact, from Tamim’s ascension to power in 2013 until the Qatar crisis broke out in 2017, Doha’s foreign policy was introspective and aligned with Saudi Arabia’s regional agenda as witnessed by its initial decision to participate in the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen’s Houthi rebels which expelled Qatar on June 5. In December 2015, Qatar joined the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), later named the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), which, at least on paper, Qatar still belongs to.

In light of Qatar’s reflective foreign policy following the GCC’s diplomatic spat of 2014, coupled with the embarrassing leaks from UAE ambassador to Washington Yousuf al-Otaiba’s hacked emails, it is clear that the ongoing Gulf dispute is less about the role of political Islam than many pundits have argued.

The ATQ, however, maintains that the crisis is also about Qatar’s failure to live up to the Riyadh Agreements of 2013 and 2014. This narrative alleges that Doha’s foreign policy exacerbated regional instability, especially during the post-Arab Spring environment, by supporting regional Islamist groups.

From the ATQ’s perspective, the crisis is also about the role of political Islam, particularly of the MB. The renowned Middle East scholar Hussein Ibish recently argued that while the GCC unanimously rejects al-Qaeda and Da’esh: “that’s not the case when it comes to a network of less extreme groups affiliated with the MB. These organizations seek to take over, not immediately obliterate, the governing institutions of existing countries.

Their revolutionary strategies are essentially Leninist, operating simultaneously above and below legal ground, and generally preferring mass political mobilization over terrorism that can alienate majorities.” Qatar “supports Brotherhood groups throughout the region with money and advocacy by its vast media arsenal, which includes Al Jazeera television.”

Ibish continued: “Qataris argue that these are not only legitimate political parties but an indispensable alternative to radicalism, since without supposedly ‘moderate’ Islamist groups like the Brotherhood, religious conservatives are more likely to be drawn into the orbit of violent extremists.”

Despite philosophical differences between the ATQ and Qatar over the MB and regional Islamist movements, for some Western observers, the GCC’s diplomatic row is partially interpreted as a long-standing personal feud between Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (MbZ), the UAE’s effective ruler, and Qatar’s Al Thani royals.

From a Qatari perspective, the goal of the UAE and other ATQ countries is to use the crisis to return to the Arabian Peninsula’s pre-1995 geopolitical order, in which Qatar was significantly less independent and wealthy country and far more under Saudi Arabia’s thumb, is a key variable explaining their decision to act against Doha last June.

Strategic failures

The ATQ’s inability to secure strategic gains against Qatar, whether it was to impose regime change, strip it of the US military presence at al-Udeid, close Al Jazeera and/or force Qatar Airways into bankruptcy while at the same time waging a ferocious public relations campaign against Doha in Washington, does not mean that Qatar has not suffered from the blockade. That said, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) latest finding concluded that the direct economic and financial impact of the diplomatic rift between Qatar and the ATQ is fading.

Due to the details pertaining to the ferocity of the ATQ campaign against Qatar in Washington have been widely established, coupled with the fact that the public relations war against Doha has been spearheaded by the UAE ambassador to the US, Abu Dhabi’s standing in Washington has been, at best, compromised. Unquestionably, the UAE’s resistance to America’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis has not gone unnoticed in Washington.

Policymakers are increasingly questioning whether Abu Dhabi is indeed Washington’s principal regional ally/partner, especially since it apparently prefers to sacrifice US national security interests, which center on a unified GCC, at the expense of prolonging its dispute with Doha.

Complicating matters for Abu Dhabi has been a recent string of damaging US media reports linking several American businessmen and political operatives, who have sought to persuade the Trump administration to officially endorse Abu Dhabi’s position on the crisis, have now been linked to the Muller investigation into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 presidential election.

This, along with persistent media coverage of US Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into whether George Nader, a US citizen and advisor to MbZ, had funneled money from the UAE to Trump’s political efforts. Nader is cooperating with the Mueller investigation.

The unpredictable dynamics of US politics could have damaging long-term impacts on the US-UAE relationship as Abu Dhabi could find itself in the crosshairs of America’s partisan political environment. These dynamics have also embarrassed the UAE’s friends in Washington even if they share serious reservations about Doha’s controversial foreign policy during the era of Emir Hamad.

Although the crisis has hurt Saudi Arabia to a lesser extent than the UAE in Washington, policymakers are privately worrying about the direction of the Kingdom under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who is Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler. There is also a widespread perception in the West that Saudi Arabia is leading the anti-Qatar campaign, when in fact the effort is led by both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and arguably the latter more than the former.

While Washington has welcomed his social reforms and quest for an economic transformation away from energy dependence, observers fear that politicizing the fight against corruption coupled with crackdown on dissent and the Kingdom’s role in allowing the Gulf crisis to foment while not taking steps to pursue peace in Yemen, could bring instability to Saudi Arabia and to the region at large.

For now, however, the Washington consensus is to support MbS’ modernization efforts while seeking to find common ground on regional issues, including Iran and Yemen. Within this context, the Gulf crisis will inevitably constitute a major test for the US-Saudi relationship going forward.

Even though Bahrain is part of the ATQ, it is considered in Washington as a junior partner to Saudi Arabia which underscores why US policymakers do not consider Manama to be a core party to the conflict. This was evident in King of Bahrain’s statements this month when he said to Trump’s envoys that the solution for the Gulf crisis is in Riyadh.

The same can be said about Egypt, which in the post-Arab Spring environment has become dependent on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for financing its government and for private sector investments. Egypt and the UAE are united in their opposition to the MB, which at the time of the Muhammad Morsi administration, was backed by Qatar, which in turn informed Cairo’s decision to join the ATQ.

In search of a solution 

Given these dynamics coupled with the perception in the Gulf that the crisis was a zero-sum game, Washington had from the onset limited options when it came to solving the standoff. Had Washington sided with the ATQ, Qatar, which considers the crisis an existential threat to its survival, would likely have invited Russia to establish a military presence in the event the US had evacuated its military presence from the al-Udeid airbase.

Doha would also likely be left with little choice but to move closer to Tehran, which would also have further frustrated not only the Trump administration but also the diplomatic and defense establishment in Washington. But despite al-Otaiba’s call for removing the US military presence from Qatar in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in June, his proposal was never realistic given the fact that it would have disrupted US military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

On the other hand, had Washington sought to resolve the crisis immediately without providing the ATQ, a four-member bloc of countries which all remain critical US partners, with face saving measures, the 80-year old US-Saudi strategic relationship could have been weakened if not outright compromised during MbS’ ascension.

Another undesirable outcome of such an approach would have resulted in Washington distancing Abu Dhabi from the US, unquestionably pushing the Emiratis closer to Russia and other powers. Thus, the Trump administration had no choice but to pursue a diplomatic strategy to resolve the crisis within the GCC based on US support for Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah’s efforts to mediate.

From Kuwait-sponsored talks to US diplomatic pressure 

During then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Doha in July shortly after the crisis erupted, the US and Qatar signed a Memorandum of Understanding on counter terrorism cooperation. The purpose of the MoU was not only to demonstrate that the US-Qatar strategic partnership remained intact but more broadly the MoU sought to reduce the Gulf crisis from one that centered on terrorism to that of a political dispute between Doha and the ATQ.

What is also not widely understood is that that same month, in parallel with signing the MoU, Washington and Doha began preparing for the US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue, which eventually took place in Washington on January 30. During Tillerson’s visit to the Gulf in July, he presented a set of principles that unite the GCC, which include non-interference, protection of sovereignty, and state-funded media not attacking other countries.

By presenting his principles that all parties could agree to, which also built on a separate set of principles that Trump had laid out at the Riyadh summit, Tillerson sought to break up the initial list of the 13 demands which the ATQ had issued to Qatar to end the crisis. Even though Trump tweeted in favor of the ATQ’s position on June 6, a day after the blockade was imposed on Qatar, it could be argued that he has since pursued a diplomatic solution to end the crisis as part of a strategy to preserve US national security interests.

As part of that effort, Trump hosted the Emir of Kuwait at the White House on September 5 where he called for GCC reconciliation. Weeks later, Trump met with Emir Tamim in New York during the sidelines of the UN General Assembly where he once again emphasized the need for a unified GCC.

And finally, he brokered a brief détente between the feuding parties by facilitating a phone call between Tamim and MbS on September 9, yet that phone call served to setback the prospects for resolution of the crisis due to Saudi accusations that QNA reported false information about the phone call.

In parallel with these efforts, Washington opted during the initial phase of the crisis to resolve it indirectly, through Kuwaiti mediation (thus within the GCC) while also applying behind-the-scene pressure on the parties to resolve their standoff. The idea behind the Kuwait’s mediation was to provide everyone with a face-saving opportunity and enabling the GCC members an opportunity to solve the crisis ‘in house’ without Western, Russian, or Turkish mediation.

But because of limited success of Kuwaiti mediation, other than perhaps preventing a military escalation as suggested by the Kuwaiti Emir during a joint press conference with Trump at the White House, Washington has been seeking to engage in shuttle diplomacy to narrow differences ahead of the MbS’ upcoming visit to the White House on March 19. Trump has also invited MbZ to visit the White House around March 27. And some ten days later, Emir Tamim is expected to pay the White House a visit as well.

Following the three consecutive bilateral meetings between the US and Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the White House is planning to host a Camp David Summit for the GCC leadership to formally bring the crisis to an end.

As part of Washington’s strategy to solve the crisis by seeking to narrow the existing gaps within the ATQ over Qatar and ultimately between the Saudi/UAE-led bloc and Doha, the US State Department has dispatched Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs in the Near East Bureau Timothy Lenderking and Gen. (Ret.) Anthony Zinni to the region. These US officials will likely continue returning to the region in preparation for MbZ and Tamim’s respective visits to help prepare the groundwork for Camp David and hammer out the various issues.

Conclusion

The recent shake-up at the State Department with Trump replacing Tillerson with the head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, has led to speculation that Washington’s next chief diplomat will apply less pressure on the ATQ to ease its actions and rhetoric against Doha.

To be sure, it is premature to conclude that Pompeo’s service as America’s 70th Secretary of State will drastically shift the US’ stance on the Qatar crisis as the Washington-Doha alliance is largely institutionalized. Yet odds are good that America’s next top diplomat will, at minimum, change the State Department’s tone vis-à-vis the GCC crisis.

Nonetheless, at this juncture, US foreign policy in the Middle East is geared toward countering Iran, recognized as Washington’s top regional adversary. Along with Israel, the GCC’s members are central to the Trump administration’s anti-Iran agenda.

Unquestionably, a divided GCC will offer Tehran more opportunities to further capitalize on divisions between the Council members, weakening both Washington and Riyadh’s ability to work with strong alliances to push back against the Islamic Republic as Iran consolidates influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other parts of the Islamic world. 

The key question is whether the Trump White House can convince the parties involved in the Qatar crisis to reconcile and refocus efforts on countering Iran with the US administration’s full support. To that end, Washington must develop a roadmap that provides face-saving measures for all states involved in the Gulf dispute.

The US could propose a GCC-wide protocol for dealing with terror financing in cooperation with US and European counterterrorism government agencies. All would agree to monitor, disclose, enforce sanctions against funders. All countries would agree to not harbor persons on the OFAC SDN list.

Washington could also negotiate a bilateral counterterror financing MoU with each GCC member, similar to the one it signed with Doha in July. Washington should also suggest that all GCC states abide by the international cyber/media standards to protect against true cybercrimes and propaganda.

Although the administration has no record of creative diplomacy, the time has come for Trump to invest in strategies that can enable the ATQ countries to back down from their anti-Qatar positions in a manner that is not humiliating. To achieve the purposes of the GCC which drove the six Arabian sheikdoms to form the sub-regional organization in 1981, resolution of the ongoing row in the Gulf is necessary.

A permanent cleavage in the GCC will undoubtedly undermine Washington’s vital interests in the Middle East and leave the Gulf Arab states more vulnerable to regional threats that could be better fended off within the framework of a GCC that is effectual. 

For all the reasons to be cynical about the prospects for resolution of the crisis, it is healthy for Washington to continue diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the GCC’s internal dispute. Achieving this objective would enable the Trump administration to score a major diplomatic victory in the Middle East. Such a watershed breakthrough could help Trump portray himself not only to American voters as well as the parties involved in the Qatar crisis as a problem-solver.

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