Three months have already passed since the Qatar crisis broke out. The sides to that inter-Arab conflict have been clashing severely since June 5 despite expectations for sooner easing of tensions at the initial phase of diplomatic escalation. Mediatory efforts by Kuwait, the key mediator between Qatar and the Saudi Arabia-led bloc of Arab countries have brought almost no result. The United States’ involvement in the settlement process has not resulted in any breakthroughs either. The process has reached an evident stalemate, and U.S. most than others should be blamed for it.
Before the crisis and at the very beginning of it, President Donald Trump addressed the Gulf countries quite contradictory messages. During his visit to Riyadh and participation in the Arab Islamic American Summit on May 21, Trump openly demonstrated the preferences of the new team in the White House, its “stake on” Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the Arab world. There are many indications that Saudi Arabia was given a free hand to form the common Arab agenda subject to exact anti-Iranian position, of course.
On the next day after the Qatar-Gulf crisis broke out with abrupt breach of diplomatic relations, on June 6, the U.S. president made a statement blaming Qatar as “historical funder of terrorism and extremism” in the Middle East. Riyadh took that statement as approval of Trump’s May 21 “permission” to act. Pentagon and Joint Chiefs of Staff called the unexperienced and expressive U.S. leader down immediately.
The Military Command hinted that there is at least one important reason why America cannot afford spoiled relations with Qatar – Al Udeid Air Base, CENTCOM's forward headquarters in the Middle East and a crucial hub for the U.S. air campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The largest air base of U.S. in the Middle East that houses 11,000 U.S. troops is a good reason to avoid hasty statements.
Another serious reason is the risk of irretrievable split inside the Arab world and Qatar’s “shift” to Iran. The latter would not miss the chance and might even offer security guarantees to the blocked emirate.
However, it proved impossible to play back the situation, since Saudi Arabia attacked its neighbor with sanctions and demanded unrealistic conditions of crisis settlement.
In the two-week period after June 5, Kuwait and U.S. took a coordinated effort to “cut the knots” before the end of Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims (June 25). Those efforts proved inefficient either. The situation resulted in diplomatic escalation.
Although Kuwait and U.S. tried to hold the “Arab Four” (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and UAE) from settling an ultimatum to Qatar, they did it on June 22. The crisis hit the stalemate. During the two ministerial summits that followed it – “Arab Four” met in Cairo on July 5 and Manama, Bahrain on July 30 – the four countries reaffirmed their ultimatum to Doha and refused to start a direct dialogue with it.
The recent events proved the deep roots of the crisis and the small chances to resolve it. Earlier this month, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al Shaykh condemned Qatar’s calls for internationalizing the status of the major Muslim mosques in Mecca and Medina. Talking to Asharq Al-Awsat pan-Arabic newspaper, the mufti called such suggestions by Qatar’s government as “hostile.” The mufti is sure that transfer of the Islamic sanctuaries under international control will increase tension in the Middle East region and undermine unity of the Muslims (1).
With his rash statements Trump angered many. For instance, Kuwait’s leader Sheikh Sabah IV Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, is still overburdened with mediatory efforts almost with no result. Earlier, it became known that on June 5, Khalid bin Faisal, adviser to the Saudi King, travelled to Kuwait with a special mission to ask Shaikh Al-Sabah to undertake mediatory efforts in the Qatar crisis. It was a few hours before the four Arab countries halted their diplomatic relations with Doha. One of the major reasons to involve Kuwait into the process as a mediator was Saudi Arabia’s desire to localize the conflict settlement in the Arab part of the Gulf and to avoid any reconciliatory services by foreign powers, specifically U.S.
Actually, Al-Saud family had an action plan with clearly distributed roles including in the Kuwait-moderated channel of relations with “delinquent” Qatar.
Soon, Saudis made sure that their plan to increase pressure on Doha and isolate it was imperfect. Besides the unexpected decision by Turkey to support Qatar, Washington’s messages have changed. Meantime, Saudis relied on Washington’s uncompromising stance on Qatar that shifted its line to Iran. The U.S. Administration has disowned Trump’s statements and took a neutral stance maximum possible in such situation. However, this has not made Kuwait’s mediatory efforts easier. They are either torpedoed by regular statements of the four countries demanding fulfillment of their 13-point ultimatum to Doha or by diplomatic interference of U.S.
At first, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson personally tried to get the crisis settlement process moving. However, some of his statements angered the Saudi bloc of countries, for instance, Tillerson’s assessment of Qatar’s position as “very reasonable” and his forecast that the crisis settlement may take “weeks and even months.” Facing Saudi’s discontent, Tillerson has limited Washington’s involvement in the process.
Two White House envoys were sent to the region: Anthony Zinni, special envoy to the Middle East, a retired general, and Timothy Lenderking, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf affairs. However, these two did not help Kuwait either. The two mediators – U.S. and Kuwait – fail to coordinate their efforts and duplicate each other, which makes Riyadh and Doha find “loop holes” in the positions of the negotiators from Kuwait and U.S. rather than find a compromise.
In this light, suffice it to say that the two American diplomats and Foreign Minister of Kuwait Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah made parallel visit to the crisis-stricken Arab states. According to the local media, on behalf of the Kuwaiti leader, the Kuwaiti minister suggested Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to start a direct dialogue to resolve the existing discrepancies.
It appears that Kuwait does strive to get rid of its mediatory mission or at least “freeze” the crisis for a while. Meantime, Qatar that feels the open (Turkey and Iran) and hidden (U.S.) support will not go on concessions. Saudi Arabia, in turn, will not make a step back from its ultimatum to “save face.” Such turn of events does not meet Saudi’s interests amid growing uncertainty in Yemen, the seize of initiative in Syria by Russia, Iran and Turkey, and Tehran’s plans to expand the Shia axis in the region (Iran-Iraq- Syria- Lebanon). There is already a bunch of reasons to “freeze” the Qatar crisis. For instance, U.S. needs a pause in the Gulf amid growing tensions on the Korean peninsula.
In the Middle East, they more and more believe that Trump is an involuntary instigator of crisis situations. So far, the calls to “neutralize Trump’s negative influence” on the crisis in the Gulf and wider in the Middle East region are made at the level of experts only (2). These calls are welcomed by some local political elites too.
In the meantime, the sides to the inter-Arab countries are trying to benefit from the objective reality “code-named Trump-Irritator.” This will stalemate the conflict even more and give it a “geopolitical shield.”
(1) Earlier, Iran’s Supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for ending Saudi Arabia’s control over Islamic sanctuaries (Saudi monarch has title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques).
(2) Ali Bakeer, GCC crisis: Why is Kuwaiti mediation not working? // aljazeera.com, August 11, 2017.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau