by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visits the White House on July 9 at a critical moment for security and stability in the Persian Gulf and the broader region. Recent developments in Afghanistan and vis-à-vis Iran have illustrated the opportunities the U.S.-Qatar partnership provide to President Trump as he focuses on his 2020 re-election campaign and searches for foreign policy outcomes he can proclaim as his own successes that surpass those of his predecessor. The emir’s visit also has an inevitable geopolitical dimension since it comes more than two years into the blockade of Qatar instituted by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt in June 2017. U.S. officials, including President Trump, have made no secret of their desire to end a move they see as long having outlived any utility it may initially have had, and is inimical to U.S. interests and web of regional partnerships.
Sheikh Tamim’s visit to Washington comes as the pace of Afghan peace talks hosted by Qatar has quickened significantly and generated real hopes of a breakthrough in attempts to end one of the “forever wars” that President Trump inherited when he took office in January 2017. For nearly a decade, the Qatari government has allowed the Taliban to operate a political office in Doha at the request of U.S. officials who recognized the utility of having an address where peace negotiators could contact Taliban intermediaries. The opening of the office was intended to prevent a repeat of the 2010 fiasco when NATO and Afghan officials transferred several hundred thousand dollars to an Afghan shopkeeper who had claimed, falsely, to be a senior Taliban leader.
After a series of hesitant starts and on-off meetings followed the formal opening of the Taliban office in Doha in 2013, the level of diplomatic activity escalated in July 2018 when the Trump administration told U.S. officials to begin direct talks with Taliban representatives for the first time. Shortly thereafter, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad—a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan (2003-5) to the newly-created position of U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. Khalilzad’s appointment contrasted with the closing down of many of the State Department’s existing special envoy posts and signaled the Trump administration’s intent to ramp up its engagement in the Afghan peace process. Talks between U.S. and Taliban negotiators began in October 2018 and increased incrementally so that, by the sixth round of dialogue in May 2019, the focus was on a lasting ceasefire, troop withdrawal, guarantees against terrorism, and an eventual political settlement with the Afghan government.
It is against this background of incremental progress and cautious optimism that Qatar’s emir arrives in Washington, two days after Khalilzad proclaimed that the seventh round of U.S.-Taliban talks, which took place in Doha over the weekend, were the “most productive” yet. Further dialogue is expected to commence after two days of intra-Afghan talks facilitated by the German and Qatari governments that aim to pave the way for direct peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. If the uptick in diplomatic activity in Doha can be sustained, it may put President Trump within distance of a breakthrough that eluded both Bush and Obama and an agreement the self-proclaimed dealmaker could embrace as the signature foreign policy success of his presidency so far.
If Afghanistan is an opportunity of rare promise, the other pressing regional issue is the spiraling tension with Iran that reportedly brought President Trump to the brink of launching air strikes on June 20. The attacks on tanker traffic off the Emirati port of Fujairah in May and in the Gulf of Oman in June revived memories of the threat to merchant shipping during the Iran-Iraq War. They constitute a dangerous escalation of tension as Iran responds to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. A conflict with Iran would not serve the interests either of U.S. partners in the Gulf, which would find themselves squarely in the firing line, or of President Trump as he gears up for his re-election campaign. Qatari officials have offered to act as mediators between the United States and Iran and, together with counterparts in Oman and Kuwait, can play a role in facilitating the dialogue with Iran that the president has several times called for, again in an apparent bid to upstage and surpass the achievement of his predecessor.
As tensions with Iran have increased, so too has U.S. dissatisfaction that the regional blockade imposed on Qatar in June 2017 has remained in place. Although President Trump initially seemed to back the Emirati- and Saudi-led move, to the consternation of his secretaries of state and defense and U.S. military leaders, he has since September 2017 called for the dispute to be resolved through dialogue. As National Security Advisor John Bolton stated in summer 2018, “Our regional partners are increasingly competing and, in the case of the Qatar rift, entering into outright competition to the detriment of American interests.” The State Department’s then-spokesperson, Heather Nauert, later reiterated, in November 2018, that “Gulf unity is essential to our common interests of confronting Iran’s malign influence [and] countering terrorism.”
Early in the blockade, U.S. officials made it clear that they would not tolerate any spillover of tension into core U.S. security and defense interests in the Gulf, and pragmatic workarounds have evolved in response. Gulf chiefs of staff meet regularly, with U.S. officials in the room alongside them, and the White House has sought to push a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) of the six Gulf States plus Egypt and Jordan. However, those plans hit a snag when Egypt withdrew in April. Even if MESA were to get off the ground, it would at best be a poor substitute for a fully-functioning Gulf Cooperation Council that has been so fractured by the blockade of three of its members against a fourth, with no winners or losers from a U.S. perspective as all are close regional partners.
When, for different reasons, both Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi are unable and/or unwilling to come to Washington, Sheikh Tamim’s visit to the White House and meetings with members of Congress is timely indeed. The opportunity for political progress in Afghanistan and the possibility of diplomatic mediation with Iran may yet provide President Trump with tangible outcomes that contrast favorably with the flimsy nature of his outreach to North Korea and Kim Jong-un that has drawn so much criticism. And, at a moment when U.S. relationships with Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the UAE are coming under greater scrutiny than ever, the Qatari emir’s visit can focus Beltway attention on the many issues of common interest that continue to underpin U.S. interests in the Gulf and across the wider region.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, PhD, Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy