by Giorgio Cafiero
Nearly five months after the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ)—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—severed diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar, Washington is coming to terms with its limited capacity to push the involved parties toward a settlement. Following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s stops in Saudi Arabia and Qatar as the first two legs of his weeklong trip to the Persian Gulf, Asia, and Switzerland, America’s chief diplomat concluded that Riyadh had rebuffed his efforts to bring the ATQ and Doha to roundtable talks. As Tillerson put it, “We cannot force talks upon people who aren’t ready to talk.”
As the Gulf dispute continues, the diplomatic establishment in Washington is visibly irritated with the ATQ’s rigid refusal to ease their action and rhetoric against Qatar. The crisis has undermined Washington’s interests in the region by pitting America’s close Sunni Arab allies against each other and enabling other countries, chiefly Iran and Russia, to assert more influence in the Arab world’s volatile state of affairs. The State Department is becoming increasingly frank about its view that Doha is not responsible for the lingering row in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Citing a “real unwillingness” on the ATQ’s part to engage in negotiations, Tillerson stated days before leaving for the Gulf that the burden is on the Saudi/UAE-led bloc to “engage with Qatar because Qatar has been very clear—they’re ready to engage.”
The ATQ members and Qatar are close US military and economic partners deeply linked through counter-terrorism initiatives, business, academia, and investment. Since the GCC’s establishment in 1981, all US administrations have sought to capitalize on the benefits of relative unity within the Council to pursue interests shared by Washington and the Persian Gulf’s Arab monarchies. Maintaining stability in the GCC has always been an important interest of Washington, which has depended on military bases in the Arab sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf to serve as platforms for military operations across the Middle East, including ongoing ones in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. On past occasions when disputes broke out in the GCC, with the spat of 2014 being a prime example, the US pushed for the parties to manage their disagreements behind closed doors which always occurred.
Back in June the ATQ’s actions against Doha puzzled officials in Washington who were uncertain about exactly what the Saudi/UAE-bloc was actually demanding from Qatar. Although the ATQ later issued a series of 13 demands, and later a list of six principles, the goals of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were still unclear. Whereas the US government had previously taken aim at Qatar, albeit in limited capacities, for its failure to do a better job of cracking down on terrorism financing, the general consensus in Washington’s diplomatic establishment has been that Qatar has made significant progress and that other GCC states are legitimately subject to such criticism too on this front. “The United States felt very strongly that a common standard should apply to each of the countries as they look at Qatar,” according to Timothy Lenderking, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. “In other words, what is being asked of Qatar should also be asked of those countries as well.”
Washington is reluctantly realizing that the longer the dispute persists, the dimmer the prospects for settlement. The increasingly harsh media coverage of countries involved in the crisis has furthered poisoned the GCC’s environment and heightened nationalism at the expense of the Council’s deteriorating political and social fabric. Efforts by the ATQ to encourage leadership change in Qatar will only fuel more nationalism in the Arabian emirate and strengthen Qataris’ support for their emir, ultimately undermining any hope for restoration of trust between Doha and the Saudi/UAE-led bloc.
The Saudi leadership has concluded that the costs of maintaining the ATQ’s blockade on Qatar are worth bearing, at least for the time being. Without face-saving measures to ensure that the Saudi/UAE-led bloc does not appear weak in engaging Qatar, the ATQ seems to have no interest in making concessions at the roundtable to resolve the Gulf dispute. At this juncture, how the Trump administration can use Washington’s levers in the GCC and Egypt to change this calculation without pushing ATQ countries closer to Russia and other powers remains unclear. Any hopes that President Donald Trump’s October 13 speech on Iran and announced decertification of the Iranian nuclear accord would lead to greater Saudi cooperation on the Qatar file were plainly unrealistic.
The prolongation of the diplomatic row heightens the risks of institutional damage to the GCC. Amid reports that the GCC’s summit in Kuwait in December will be postponed by six months due to the Qatar rift, the Council’s de facto breakup would inevitably have a negative impact on Washington interests in the Middle East.
In the aftermath of a failed war in Iraq, there has been little appetite among the US public for a major deployment of US ground troops to Middle Eastern countries to combat the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. Within this context, as violent extremists in the Arab world’s shattered countries threaten the security of the United States and its Middle Eastern allies, the Trump administration has followed the Obama-era strategy of calling on Washington’s partners in the Gulf to play a more proactive role in countering such menaces.
Yet the Qatar crisis has underscored how Saudi Arabia’s vision for countering terrorism is at odds with the United States. For all of the symbolism behind Trump’s address at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh in May, his trip to the kingdom still did not put the US government and the Al Saud rulers on the same page on the question of who in the Middle East constitutes a terrorist. The Saudis are blockading Qatar in large part for Doha’s support for Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which the ATQ’s three main countries but not the United States have designated as a terrorist group.
Viewing Qatar as a state sponsor of terrorism, Saudi Arabia is determined to continue to keep its relations closed with the emirate. Tillerson’s inability to push Riyadh toward engagement with Doha truly underscores Washington’s limited influence in this GCC dispute—and its growing frustration with its erstwhile Saudi partner.
Photo: Rex Tillerson meets Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir (State Department via Flickr).