After sporadic but unsuccessful attempts by Washington since the summer of 2017 to end the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis, the Trump Administration is now contemplating inviting leaders of the council countries this autumn to Camp David in an effort to broker a solution. The administration’s renewed pressure on Iran seems to be the impetus behind the latest push to end the GCC crisis, as it wants as much Arab support as possible to bolster its attempt to isolate Iran in order to change Iranian behavior in the region.
President Donald Trump’s ability to reconcile the differences between the Saudi-led bloc (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates) and Qatar, however, is still an open question. The negotiating skills that he learned in the business world may be insufficient in dealing with matters involving national pride and complex state interests, which are at the crux of this crisis. If such a reconciliation summit is to succeed, he will need to draw on US officials with extensive knowledge of the region, like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Middle East experts in the State Department and the intelligence community, as well as the Kuwaiti and Omani leaders who refrained from joining the Saudi-led bloc against Qatar, to find a formula to break the impasse.
Trump’s Evolving Position on the Crisis
The GCC crisis began in early June 2017 with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt imposing an economic blockade against Qatar for what they deemed was Doha’s objectionable behavior in the region, ranging from alleged support for Islamist extremists to coziness with Iran. As is now known, the crisis was also fueled by UAE computer hackers who put out false statements attributed to Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. It is significant that the crisis began only a couple of weeks after President Trump’s visit in May to Riyadh, where he seemed to embrace the Saudi and Emirati viewpoint on several regional issues. Indeed, shortly after the crisis started, Trump tweeted that Qatar was a supporter of terrorism and then claimed, at a White House event on June 9, that Qatar had been “a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”
Such statements were undoubtedly pleasing to the ears of the Saudi-led countries and probably emboldened them in their push to punish Qatar. However, top officials in Trump’s own administration were alarmed. Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had extensive dealings with Qatar when he was chairman of ExxonMobil, attempted to steer a middle course in the crisis, as did Defense Secretary James Mattis, who was the former CENTCOM commander with jurisdiction over the Gulf. It appears that both of these cabinet officials informed Trump that the United States has important equities in Qatar such as oil and natural gas purchases, the Al-Udeid Air Base (CENTCOM’s forward base in the region that hosts 11,000 US military personnel), and Qatar’s diplomatic role as an intermediary, such as passing US messages to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hamas in Gaza, both of which have representatives in Doha. The thinking was that siding with the Saudi-led bloc in this crisis would upset these important economic, political, and security links.
Trump seems to have gotten the message; he subsequently refrained from criticizing Qatar and allowed Tillerson to try to mediate the crisis that summer. Although Tillerson made several trips to the region for this purpose, he was unable to reconcile the sides, perhaps because the Saudis knew he did not have close personal relations with Trump and believed they could go around him. For their part, the Saudis probably chafed a bit when, pressured by Washington to come up with what they wanted from Qatar, Tillerson suggested to them that some of their demands “were very difficult [for Qatar] to meet.”
What remains at the heart of the dispute is that the Saudi-led bloc would prefer that Qatar not have an independent foreign policy, and that overriding demand is unacceptable to Qatari officials. Qatar’s defiance in the face of the Saudi-led demands stirred up a kind of new Qatari nationalism at home that bolstered the position of Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and his government. The Qatari population appeared to accept the inconveniences and some of the hardships resulting from the blockade in order not to bend to the Saudi-led bloc.
Dealing with a Fractured GCC
With Tillerson’s mediation mission failing, both Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc attempted to influence Washington with high-level visits and expensive public relations campaigns. For a while, the Trump Administration indulged each side of the dispute by receiving high-ranking officials and deepening ties to each. For example, it initiated a strategic dialogue with Qatar in early 2018 when, in a State Department summary of the meeting, Qatar was thanked for “its actions to counter terrorism and violent extremism in all forms….” The United States also “welcomed Qatar’s offer to expand critical facilities at U.S. bases in the country.” Soon after the crisis began in June 2017, Qatar signeda $12 billion deal for F-15 aircraft so as to be in the good graces of Washington. As for the Saudi-led bloc, Trump praised Saudi purchases of US military hardware, worth billions of dollars, during the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March 2018. Hence, both sides of the GCC crisis came to believe that they were winning the public relations battle in Washington.
Patience Wearing Thin
However, in March 2018 Trump himself seemed to have lost patience with the players in this dispute. He floated the idea of hosting a GCC summit in in the spring of 2018 at Camp David but underscored that if there were no breakthrough in solving the GCC crisis, there would be no such meeting. Some press reports suggested that Trump was pleased that Qatar had taken meaningful steps on the issue of terrorism financing and that the Saudi-led bloc was the side that was being obstinate in the dispute. Trump also dispatched retired US General Anthony Zinni and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tim Lenderking to the region to try to mediate the dispute; however, like Tillerson, they came up short.
In any event, the Trump idea of hosting a GCC summit as a reward for solving the dispute soon transformed into an invitation of GCC leaders to a meeting to try to solve it. Some reports suggested the summit was slated for April in Washington; others indicated a Camp David summit for May. Regardless, it appears that Trump was frustrated that the parties to the rift could not make even preliminary progress for a summit to succeed. Hence, on April 3, the White House announced that the planned GCC summit would be delayed until September. Although an unnamed US official claimed the delay was due to a busy calendar of events and the fact that Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, had not been confirmed yet, other sources attributed the delay to the continued stalemate in the dispute. Another factor may have been Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s statement that if there were to be a summit at Camp David, it would not be on the Qatar dispute, which he underscored was an “inter-GCC” matter. This comment seemed to suggest that the Saudis were concerned that US pressure to end the dispute might not be in their favor, so they were not eager for a summit.
In late April 2018, newly installed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Riyadh. His message to Saudi officials was “enough is enough” with regards to the dispute with Qatar. Earlier that month, Trump hosted Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at the White House and expressed strong support for Qatar. The Saudis received the message that Trump’s patience had worn thin on the GCC dispute, but Pompeo’s visit did not succeed in breaking the logjam.
The Iran Factor behind the Latest Push
In retrospect, it seems that Pompeo’s April trip to Riyadh was geared toward lining up unified Arab support, at least within the GCC, in anticipation of Trump’s increasingly hardline position toward Iran. On May 8, Trump announced that the United States was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, and about two weeks later, Pompeo listed 12 demands that Iran had to fulfill in order to avoid what he said were the “strongest sanctions in history.” Some of these sanctions have now been implemented, while others, including an oil embargo and sanctions on companies doing business with Iran, are slated for November. They are aimed at squeezing the Iranian economy to compel Tehran to change its behavior in the region and prevent it from having even a small, peaceful nuclear program. However, the real objective behind the policy may be regime change, even though Trump Administration officials like Mattis and Pompeo have denied it.
Iran is now a top concern of the Trump administration, which believes it is important to have its traditional Arab allies, such as the GCC states, supporting this hardline policy. A ruptured GCC, by contrast, weakens such Arab support and plays into Iran’s hands. Trump and Pompeo seem to understand that the GCC crisis has driven Qatar closer to Iran because, in response to the Saudi-led blockade, Iran has allowed Qatar to use its air space for flights going in and out of the country and to import basic goods and food via Iranian territory. To underscore the importance of all GCC states getting on the same page, the White House readout of Trump’s phone call with the Qatari emir in early April noted that the two leaders discussed not only the current GCC crisis but “Iran’s increasingly reckless behavior in the region and the threat it poses to regional stability.”
A Test for Trump’s Negotiating Skills
If a Camp David summit of the GCC leaders is indeed going to take place in September or sometime later this autumn, Trump will have to wield his negotiating skills to resolve the GCC crisis so that the Saudi-led embargo on Qatar is lifted. To be sure, this is not a business deal involving a real estate venture, something in which Trump reportedly has excelled; rather, it is a complex foreign policy matter that deals with sensitive topics such as national pride and sovereignty—matters that go beyond a simple “bottom line.”
Hence, Trump cannot broker a deal of this importance alone. Relying on his instincts, as he did at Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is not an optimal way to conduct diplomacy (indeed, most political analysts believed that Putin outplayed him). Instead, Trump and his aides would do well to confer with the Kuwaitis and Omanis who know the players well and try to devise and coordinate a common approach that would be palatable to both sides of the crisis. The president should also confer with US officials who understand the region, such as Secretary of Defense Mattis and experts in the State Department and intelligence agencies that have a keen grasp of the Gulf states’ dynamics. The key challenge is finding an acceptable off-ramp for the Saudis and Emiratis, one that would allow them to save face while they end the embargo on Qatar. Although Qatar is unlikely to close down Al-Jazeera, which is one of the demands of the Saudi-led bloc, perhaps the parties in the dispute could pledge “non-interference” in each other’s internal affairs—a phrase that seems to be popular within the Saudi foreign ministry given Riyadh’s current dispute with Ottawa over Canada’s criticism of the arrest of a Saudi women’s rights activist. If the Saudis and Emiratis agree to a deal, then Egypt and Bahrain will most likely agree to it as well.
This might not be the “deal of the century” that Trump initially envisioned achieving on the Israeli-Palestinian issue—which was stymied in part because of his own misguided policies on Jerusalem—but it would be a victory of sorts in ending a thorny dispute among Washington’s Arab partners. Trump can then tout this achievement as not only a diplomatic victory but as shoring up Arab support for his hardline policies against Iran. This way, Qatar would no longer be so dependent on its northern neighbor for air links and supplies (though Qatar and Iran would still share a large gas field in Gulf).
An irony of the latest US effort is that even before this crisis began, the GCC was not actually unified on Iran; while Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain favor a hardline approach, Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar have preferred a more measured policy. Still, the US mediation effort would be worth pursuing in order to end a dispute that should have never begun in the first place.
Gregory Aftandilian is a non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. Republished, with permission from the Arab Center Washington DC.