In the Middle East, the Americans are now forced to act amid fierce rivalry among their allies and partners and to reconcile them for the sake of own hegemony. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, together with Egypt, Jordan and some other Muslim states, severed their diplomatic relations with Qatar. Kuwait and Oman took the latter’s side in this conflict.
The conflict has now withdrawn into the shadows but is still underway and if continued, it will undermine the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The first crisis inside the Council occurred in Mar 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain accused Qatar of “terrorism” and withdrew their ambassadors from Doha. The ambassadors were sent back in Nov 2014 in exchange for Qatar’s promise to comply with the Riyadh agreement on its non-interference in the affairs of the other GCC members and to stop supporting any organizations related to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The conflict resumed two years later - two weeks after the U.S.-GCC summit and after the visit of new U.S. President Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia, where Trump met Qatari Emir Tamim al Thani but also expressed strong support for the Saudis’ regional policy.
The latter accused the Qataris of supporting terrorist groups and Iran’s intrigues against Bahrain. According to some mass media, the cause of the conflict was the Qatar Emir’s misinterpreted statements on the regional policy of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The U.S. intelligence reported that the UAE had hacked some of Qatar’s governmental websites and had spread misinformation.
Some experts believe that the Saudis’ measures were an attempt to pressure the Qatar ruling family to overthrow Thani, whose independent policy is regarded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a wish to gain the upper hand in the region and as a threat to the GCC’s stability. In other words, the Saudis suspect the Qataris of trying to undermine their dominance in the region.
Trump and his administration took the Saudis’ side. Just a week after the conflict started, U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith resigned. The Spokesman of the U.S. Department of State told NBC News that it was time for Smith to retire. But it was obvious that she did that in order to show her disagreement with Trump’s policy. In Mar 2017, she criticized it on Twitter. In Oct 2016, Smith said that the United States and Qatar were excellent partners against those financing terrorism. But Trump’s actions disproved her words. His Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that even though the emir of Qatar had made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorist elements from his country, but he had to do more and he had to do it more quickly but he also admitted that Qatar had a history of supporting groups that have spanned the spectrum of political expression, from activism to violence. His statement proved that Trump was aware of the Saudis’ plans against Qatar and approved it thereby contributing to the split of the GCC.
On June 2017, Saudi Arabia and its anti-Qatari bloc sent Qatar 13 requirements, including to shut down Al Jazeera, to stop any contacts with terrorist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to reduce contacts with Iran, to close the Turkish military base and to pay compensation to Saudi Arabia and its partners. Tillerson said that it was too much but still advised Qatar to fulfill the most sensible requirements.
On July 3, 2017, the Qataris replied. They said that they were ready to negotiate some of the requirements but were not going to give up. On July 5, 2017, after a meeting in Cairo, the anti-Qatari group said that it would continue its economic and political sanctions against Qatar and would add to the requirements six principles on how to fight extremism and terrorism. They urged Qatar to fully comply with the obligations undertaken in 2013 and 2014 and to refrain from interfering in the affairs of other Arab states.
Once the conflict started, Tillerson undertook to settle it. In late June, he met with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Kuwait and said that the conflict undermined the Americans’ anti-terrorist campaign in the region.
On July 13, Tillerson signed a U.S.-Qatari anti-terrorist agreement. De facto, it disproved the Saudis’ charges and made senseless their six principles.
In Aug 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State sent a special envoy to the Middle East – General Anthony Zinni, former commander of CENTCOM. Qatar hosts a U.S. military base with almost 10,000 soldiers and also the headquarters of CENTCOM. At first, Pentagon Spokesman Jeff Davis said that Qatar’s split with Saudi Arabia would not affect the United States’ presence in Qatar and U.S. operations in the Middle East but on June 9, Tillerson said that it had begun to mar the Americans’ plans in the region.
In order to confirm the United States’ commitment to go on as Qatar’s military partner, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis signed an agreement to sell Qatar 36 F-15 planes. On Nov 17, 2016, DSCA informed the U.S. Congress of the deal and said that it was worth $21 billion. But in Sept 2017, Senator Bob Corker said that the Congress would not approve the deal until the GGC crisis was resolved. In fact, he acted in line with Tillerson’s policy to settle the Saudi-Qatari conflict.
The next similar measure was the Pentagon’s statement that the Americans were going to curtail some of their maneuvers with Qatar and some other GCC members. This is an obvious attempt to influence the conflicting parties.
But no direct talks followed. The Qataris are firm. They have reserves worth $340 and can endure any shock. Almost 40% of their food imports came from Saudi Arabia. When the Saudis imposed the blockade, they faced food shortages but instead they started buying food from Turkey, Iran, India and some other countries.
In late Aug, Qatar restored its diplomatic relations with Iran and conducted joint maneuvers with Turkey. The Qatari leaders said that dialogue with Iran was a key to peace in the region. Earlier, Qatar and Iran divided a big gas field in the Gulf. On Mar 8, 2017, on the initiative of Kuwait and Oman, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Doha and met with Emir al Thani. But in June 2017, Iran supported Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia and exported additional food to Doha so as to compensate for reduced exports from Saudi Arabia. Qatar Airways planes began flying through Iran. This all ended in full restoration of Qatari-Iranian diplomatic relations. In Sept 2017, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Kuwait and Oman but was not invited to Qatar.
One of the 13 requirements of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition was to close the Turkish military base in Qatar. Turkey has a contingent in Qatar and in Aug 2017 conducted joint maneuvers in that country. After the crisis, the Turks also expressed their support for the Qataris and also supplied them with food.
Recently, the Saudis allowed pilgrims from Qatar to visit holy sites in Saudi Arabia, while one of their allies, Senegal, restored its diplomatic relations with Qatar.
In late Oct, Trump made active efforts to settle the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf region. On Sept 7, 2017, Trump met with Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. The key topic was the split in the GCC. After the meeting, Trump organized contacts between the Saudi and Qatari leaders. On Sept 9, al Thani had a phone talk with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. But the contacts stopped when the sides began arguing who was the initiator of the talks.
On Sept 20, 2017, Trump met with al Thani in New York, but the Gulf crisis was not on the agenda.
While visiting the Middle East, on Oct 19, Tillerson said that he was not expecting early settlement in the Gulf region. He was going to discuss the problem both in Saudi Arabia and in Qatar. While meeting the Qatari Emir and Foreign Minister in Doha on Oct 23, Tillerson said that the Saudis were reluctant to start direct rapprochement talks but he expressed hope that they would take part in some discussions. "We cannot force talks upon people who are not ready to talk," Tillerson said.
On Oct 22, Tillerson attended the first meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Committee in Riyadh, where he met with the Saudi King. The Committee is supposed to improve Saudi-Iraqi relations.
Generally speaking, the Americans have little time for showing the efficiency of their intermediation. Unless they manage to do it, the GCC summit in Kuwait will not take place and this will be the first time in the council’s 36-year history.
The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf region is underway. Saudi Arabia is not able to settle it by force and to overthrow the Qatari Emir. The key obstacle here is the presence of the Americans in Qatar. Qatar, in its turn, does not have sufficient resources and diplomacy to overcome the Saudis’ “blockade.” But it is confident enough to continue its independent policy. Particularly, the Qataris are improving their relations with Central Asia. Al Thani has already exchanged visits with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. He visited Turkmenistan in Mar 2016, Berdymukhamedov visited Doha in Mar 2017. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon visited Qatar in Feb 2017 with a view to discuss joint projects. Qatar is sponsoring the construction of a mosque in Dushanbe - the biggest mosque in Central Asia. The mutual visit is scheduled for early 2018. The Qataris have also eliminated visas with Armenia. Experts say that Armenia may become a kind of a window for Qatar as it borders on Iran. Or it may be used as a neutral venue for the Qatari leaders’ meetings with their Iranian colleagues.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau